Op-Ed: Decatur Large-Scale Annexation, “Thank God It’s Dead”

Judd Owen lives in Decatur with his wife and two children.  He has served on the Enrollment Committee and Annexation Committee for the City Schools of Decatur.  He teaches political science at Emory.

            Decatur Metro directed readers last week to a brief story in the print edition of the AJC reporting that Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss had said that “potential annexation of two heavily commercial areas outside the city limits has apparently died quietly in the legislature.”  I have been keenly interested in the push for large-scale annexation that has just died, and I’ve followed it closely since I first learned of it in October 2008. So I decided to write an obituary.

I have tried always to be even-handed and objective, but it will come as no surprise to anyone that has talked to me on the subject or seen what I’ve written when I say, “Thank God it’s dead. Rest in peace.”  Before going any further, I eagerly say that I have great respect for the City’s leadership that has built the wonderful city that attracted me several years back. They have clearly done an amazing job with foresight and will and intelligence. Decatur is not the great place it is by accident, and I’m grateful.

In returning to my obituary, however, and because it is an obituary, I will let myself be blunt.  Large-scale annexation was ill conceived from the start, and it deserves the fate it got.  The poor conception of the idea was out of all proportion to the effort and political capital that was spent to make it reality.  On June 26 2008, the AJC’s April Hunt quoted Mayor Bill Floyd as saying that, as home values plummet, more income from taxes on additional commercial and industrial real estate would help stabilize property taxes. Floyd said: “Quite honestly, you’re talking about our survival as a city, when 60 percent of our income comes from property tax.”  A consultant from UGA was hired to conduct a study.  The City Manager’s office spent many hours preparing a large-scale annexation plan.

            And large-scale it was.  It was not, however, focused on increasing commercial and industrial property; it would have brought in a large number of new residents, increasing the population by 45%.   The City Manager’s office, with the help of another consulting (and architecture and engineering) firm, prepared a formal report.  I will not relive the details here, but suffice to say that the report was deeply flawed in its estimation of the impact of annexation on the City Schools of Decatur.  The number of students was grossly underestimated, as were the costs associated with the underestimated student number.  When those numbers were made even remotely realistic the modest tax benefit on the CSD side turned into a massive financial loss.  Add to this the fact that CSD was just starting to realize the large spike in enrollment within the current City limits that continues on today.  The financial hit on CSD by far outweighed the potential gain on the smaller, City side of the tax ledger. The proposal had never been seriously examined on the tax question, which had seemed to be its reason for being.

CSD had not been involved in that report, nor was it the City’s plan to seek a School Board review.  But when the schools caught wind of the errors in the City report, their own analysis led the School Board to reject large-scale annexation, while narrowly approving a more limited annexation targeting commercial property.  The City Commission suspended the process, on Ms. Merriss’s recommendation of January 14, 2009, to allow time for “the City Schools to develop and implement a plan to address current school population issues.”

Most people are aware that CSD’s “population issues” have, if anything, grown more challenging since then.  Yet it was just this time last year, March 27, 2012, that Mayor Floyd, in what we did not then know would be his final State of the City address, put large-scale annexation back on the table.  He did not mention any tax benefit this time, but instead his wish for the City to have a say in the redevelopment, featuring a Walmart, of Suburban Plaza which lies outside the City.  A new plan was drafted.  Again it was large-scale, and again the proposal was by a large majority residential, not commercial.  And once again, after more intensive study, the School Board said that it still did not want residential annexation, which would exacerbate overcrowding and hurt the schools financially.

So the City Commission, under Mayor Floyd’s leadership, voted in December to pursue a more limited, though still significant, annexation targeting the commercial properties around the planned Walmart and the Publix on N. Decatur.  Three days later, Mayor Floyd resigned citing potential conflict of interest with work of a consulting firm that was about to hire him.  The new Mayor, Jim Baskett, frankly admitted that he did not see how the approved annexation plan would make it through the state legislature.  And so the plan that had started out being about commercial tax revenue and ending being about managing the appearance of a Walmart, which had been lobbied for over several years without (and at some point despite) a competent evaluation of its tax implications, which always tried to include heavy residential areas despite a clearly overcrowded school system, this plan was left to die quietly in the legislature, without a sponsor.

Now, the second time around, the process did include a consultation and collaboration with CSD, which marked great improvement in the process.  And the final proposal was indeed much improved thanks to that process, which should be model.  But I will admit that I opposed even this improved proposal.  The City Manager’s report on this targeted commercial annexation showed, to my amazement frankly, very little financial gain for the City once the additional costs were accounted for.  So after all of that, the tax benefit was negligible, even for the City side of the budget.  At that point,  with no real financial gain, what did the annexation amount to except the creation of a City of Decatur Walmart?  The new, official “gateway to the City.”

For me, I’m happy to leave Walmarts to DeKalb County.  This is just my personal view of Decatur, of course, but I don’t want a City of Decatur Walmart.  I like the City’s new slogan for buying local: “Keep it Indie-Catur.”  That’s awesome.  It was also the brainchild of Decatur residents.  Ironically, that slogan was announced the same week that Mayor Floyd announced his wish to annex Walmart.  Somewhere, on this big issue at least, there arose a disconnect between the vision of Decatur that I think is generally held by its residents and the vision held by its political leadership: Indie vs. Walmart.  The City Commission is no longer under Floyd’s leadership, and time will tell how they steer the City under Mayor Baskett. Keep it Indie-Catur!

In the next installment, Owen will consider where the large-scale annexation push has left us with a view to current and future issues confronting the City and CSD.

43 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Decatur Large-Scale Annexation, “Thank God It’s Dead””

    1. It’s not like the headline was misleading so I question your time management and choice of reading material more than anything.

      Personally, I enjoyed the recap of the issue until the last paragraph of “Whaaaa, we don’t want a Walmart because we are Decatur and we are so much better than the poor DeKalb County schlubs who can’t afford to keep it all Indie and shit!”

  1. From the other side of the Decatur moat, we didn’t care to become part of your little town and its high taxes either. When the school system gets straightened out and the DA/BOC kicks out a corrupt CEO, DeKalb will rebound.
    Such blatant snobbery. It’s disgusting. Are you sure Johns Creek isn’t calling?

    1. Indie = upscale, expensive. This is desired.

      Wal-Mart = cheap stuff for poor people. This is despised.

      What’s snobbish about wanting poor people to do their shopping far out of sight?

    2. When the school system gets straightened out..

      That was good for a laugh! Sorry…

      1. Exactly. I graduated from high school in DeKalb County over 20 years ago. It was the same shenanigans, even back then. Corruption and nepotism as far as the eye could see. The players change, but the county leadership keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

        I’d love to see things change for DeKalb County schools. But these problems are deeply entrenched. And saying so doesn’t make one a John’s Creek “snob.”

    3. But you always get bent out of shape when it is pointed out that you actually AREN’T in Decatur. You bit my head off and those of a few others when we point out that Decatur is the four square miles and the rest is unincorporated DeKalb. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. Yes, god forbid we have a WalMart in Decatur, near Decatur or even in the same sentence as Decatur. I’m glad that Judd Owen or who the hell ever is watching out for us. God forbid us plebeians try to formulate our own opinions.

  2. Just a couple of points:

    – The Walmart on the southside has improved that area.

    – And wasn’t annexation part of the city’s strategic plan? So the city was just doing what we told them to do?

    1. yes, the strategic plan charged the City leaders with looking into expanding the commercial tax base. One way is do explore annexation. Exploring doesn’t mean you have to do it, especially if the numbers don’t add up. Another way to expand the commercial tax base is to convert government and church lands to commercial and/or residential- both of which are in the process of happening now. I for one am happy that the city officials listen to and are guided in action by the citizens.

  3. Skipping all the Walmart yada-yada, I couldn’t agree more with the fundamental message here:
    1. the annexation effort’s impacts were poorly thought out
    2. the due diligence arrived at the wrong conclusions and underestimated the risks
    3. the downsides far outweighed the ups

    I’m not pointing fingers (although maybe we should be); this happens every day in corporate america and in any institution, for that matter. It’s part of human nature. We want something to the be the magic solution and try to twist the data to make it so.

    The net is that you very, very rarely get something for nothing. Someone has to pay. I’m glad it won’t be us (and our school system) in this round.

  4. I agree with the author’s main point, which has nothing to do with Walmart. Decatur should not annex residential areas. Our schools cannot handle any more student growth beyond people moving into the district. It makes no sense to undermine one of the most important aspects of the community: our schools!

    All of the outrage about the Walmart comment is a little silly, when I don’t take that to be the main focus of the author’s opinion.

    1. “Karate Lawyer” may be the greatest handle ever (next to Lazar Wolf, who alas, wasn’t a wolf and didn’t have lasers).

    2. It’s not the main point, but a perfectly logical explanation of the cons of annexation were made without the “what Decatur means to me” spiel at the end. And coming from a professor at Emory who obviously doesn’t face the kind of budget constraints that most of America are facing right now, a good many of them who shop at Walmart for that reason, just seems out of touch. Sure he’s well versed on unemployment statistics, but how many people does he know that rely on food stamps in his inner circle? Congrats on your great job, just don’t assume that every person is in your financial position, or assume they have all the shopping options available to you. I’ve also never understood the argument that having a Walmart in city limits suddenly means that shopping independently is no longer a priority or a focus. Why does it have to be either or? Being against walmart because you feel there’s an ethical delimma is one thing, but because you dont want certain people or places typically associated with being poor, tainting your image, is just snobbery. I guess i need to give some sort of disclaimer that I’m not a regular Walmart shopper, and I’m typing this from my phone so feel to not tell me it’s riddled with typos, I already know.

      1. Amen.
        I don’t know anybody who isn’t in favor of a thriving community of independent merchants. But I’d like to know where all the “Keep It Indie Decatur” boosters buy their detergent, cat food, toilet bowl cleaner, napkins, sunscreen, orange juice, baby wipes, catsup, charcoal, shampoo, light bulbs, etc. IMO that is a campaign encouraging people to choose local merchants over Amazon, not Walmart.

        1. There’s a secret commissary in the back room of the Brickstore where you can get all those things but from people with tattoos, which makes it indie.

        2. Taking them one by one:

          Detergent: Amazon or occasionally Whole Foods
          Cat food: Don’t have a cat but we get our dog food at Pet Supermarket, one of the only stores that carries our preferred brand
          Toilet bowl cleaner: Target
          Napkins: Use cloth
          Sunscreen: Whatever’s on the way to the beach
          Orange juice: YDFM
          Baby wipes: Costco
          Catsup: Baby Kroger or YDFM
          Charcoal: No grill, but otherwise probably would get at Intown ACE
          Shampoo: Target
          Light bulbs: Baby Kroger or Intown ACE

          You asked.

            1. A) There’s more than one location of Pet Supermarket (I hit the Toco Hills one most regularly).

              B) I say again, they’re the only store/chain we’ve found in the area that carries the brand that we need for our dog. So even if we were swayed by the Melton’s debacle (we weren’t), we don’t have a lot of options.

              C) The Melton’s thing was ugly, but I don’t blame the employees of that Pet Supermarket location who always struck me as competent and caring. Nor did I ever see a rat there or evidence of them in the many times I shopped there before that all went down.

              D) Not a justification, obviously, but Melton’s benefited enormously from the publicity and public outpouring of support they got from Rodentgate. And I believe at the time that even they conceded that they were partly to blame for having insufficient pest deterrent practices in place. So while they did go through Hell, it’s fair to say they’re better off in the aftermath.

              1. If you really want to keep it indie-catur you should check out Wagalot for pet food. They carry a ton of great brands of dog food and will order food for you if they don’t have it already. They have been our go to since we moved here years ago.

                1. We use Wag-a-Lot religiously for boarding and daycare. Our dog’s there as I type this! Could not love them more. They don’t carry the brand in question, but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask them if they’d order it. I’ll look into that. Thanks!

  5. Wow. Who knew there was so much Decaturite love for cheap goods from China? I am also with AMB. It boggles my mind that people are putting so much effort into incorporating there way out of DeKalb County when the obvious answer is to vote the bums out. Let’s get a common-sensical bartender running the county again…

  6. The school system is a problem as we were talking amongst neighbors. Just on one street (Coventry) in the past month or 2, it seems there’s been 10 houses on sale, under contract, sold. Numbers may be inaccurate but it feels that way. I’d love to have the old residents (vs. new, not young) continue to live, the trend is surely, turn over happening.

    It’s the turn over that’s unstoppable, and very easily projectable – how we handle this, I’m not exactly sure but seems to me we’ll need more schools either inside or outside to handle the amount of kids in the district.

  7. Since no one else has pointed out this minor flaw at the end of Mr. Judd’s article I will. It seems that the teacher of political science doesn’t understand the way the Decatur City Commission works–it was never “under Floyd’s leadership”, he was but one of five city commissioners. It may have been under his influence, but their votes counted equally to his.

    1. Mayor Floyd may have had the same vote but he also set the agenda and has disproportionate influence (more than any other commissioner) over where we headed as a community, which is what leadership is.

      Anyone suggesting that Mayor Floyd didn’t, in practice, lead Decatur never sat in on any commission meetings.

      1. I’m fully prepared to be corrected on this, but I thought the City Manager set the Agenda.

        I have attended City Commission meetings.

        I wonder, do you view our City as now rudderless or under the “leadership” of Mayor Jim Baskett?

        1. You’re correct. The way things work is that the City Manager sets the agenda. I was referring more to how Mayor Floyd, ahem, “set” the agenda. If you know what I’m sayin’. And I think you do.

          My personal take is that Mayor Baskett will be afforded some courtesy and given the opportunity to assume the leadership position. If he rises to the task, I can see things operating in a very similar fashion. It just seemed like a comfortable dynamic.

        2. Mayor Floyd was the face of Decatur to the rest the state. He had influence at the Capitol and held statewide positions in various organizations. I think he was clearly seen as the leader of the city to most people, including city hall staff. (I’m going on observations there). His vote counted the same, sure, but he used his title in very powerful ways. Plus, just about every schoolkid in Decatur seemed to know he was the mayor, and that elevated him to near mythical levels. Jim Baskett is a good man and also a good leader. But, he has huge shoes to fill. An unenviable position, I think.

          The mayor of Decatur has only one commission vote, and the city manager runs the city day-to-day, but really, it was the “ceremonial” aspect of the position that Mayor Floyd excelled at so well. And that made all the difference.

          1. There’s a generation of Decatur students who believe that a good mayor is a mystery reader.

  8. Wow. Judd attempts to have a conversation about an issue core to the health of the COD, and he gets jumped on for snobbishness and being boring.

    Tough crowd around here these days.

    1. Yeah, I miss the rants about pushy stroller Moms and noisy children in restaurants, flood plains, and Dollar General. Why can’t this blog get back to substantive discussions?

  9. I am surprised that no one has yet pointed out how greedy the annexation appeared — we, Decatur, just take what we want? Isn’t that what this was? We want tax money so we try to annex an area that really isn’t up to our Decatur-ite standards?

    We clearly wanted those particular areas for the money — we didn’t even pretend to offer anything in return; why would we? We’re Decatur, ‘those people’ should be honored to be in our City limits.

    I found the entire thing to be embarrassing and am glad it’s over.

  10. I appreciate all, or almost all, the comments. Hard to predict what people will latch onto. Some folks, I think, are reading more into what I say about Walmart that what’s really there, but maybe that’s what I get for inserting it as an afterthought. In any case, I’ll choose to interpret the inattention to my main point as universal agreement!

    I didn’t expect this installment to stir up as much as tomorrow’s…

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