Another New City? A Closer Look Into the Challenges Facing Greenhaven, Georgia

DeKalb County, Georgia is home to 753,253 residents (2017), most who identify as African American/Black according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In November 2016, Stonecrest was approved as an official city in the General Election cycle. It is located in the southeastern portion of the county bordering Lithonia, Georgia. Since its implementation, there have been many tactics to attract more residents including considering renaming a portion of the city to Amazon, Georgia in an effort to attract Amazon executives searching for a new headquarter location.

(Image via Cross Roads News)

When my sister explained to me this summer about another new city, Greenhaven, GA, I was taken aback, especially being a DeKalb County native. It turns out, I was not from the city of Stone Mountain, as I had thought for so many years. The schools I went to were not in the city of Lithonia, as I had identified and memorized all my life. We belonged to a part of DeKalb that really didn’t belong to a city.

There are portions of DeKalb County that are unincorporated. This means there are parts of DeKalb County that do not fall within municipal city lines. When residents of the unincorporated area pay taxes, they are paying taxes to the county and not the city. Paying taxes to the county is spread throughout the county as opposed to being paid to the city and the distribution of the money is more concentrated in that area. In Georgia, there is an optional 1% sales tax known as SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax). It can be used by any county to build parks, schools, roads, and other public facilities. Voters in DeKalb adopted SPLOST in November 2017 and it is running from now until 2024. SPLOST is expected to generate $636 million over the next six years for capital improvements for the county and city governments in DeKalb County. “In DeKalb, if you live in a city, whatever percent of the population you have, that’s the percent of [SPLOST] you get,” explains Kathryn Rice Ph.D., chair of Imagine Greenhaven. Dr. Rice has been a key organizer active in the implementation of Greenhaven, Georgia. By law, counties cannot discriminate between those who live in a city and those who do not live in a city. “Since we are a part of unincorporated DeKalb, the money has to be distributed across the whole county. If our share of the money were to just come to us, then we could invest it into the infrastructure only within Greenhaven.”

For years, Dr. Rice had been writing on municipal corporations. It started with the cityhood implementation of Sandy Springs. She went on to publish a few articles about it and then she was informed about the formation of Dunwoody. Dunwoody took one of the most lucrative centers in all of DeKalb County--Perimeter Mall. “The county had invested money in the mall with taxpayer’s money and yet we didn’t get a say in what happened to it,” Dr. Rice tells me. “And even though I disagreed with what happened, I still didn’t take a stance on it.” Though, with the annexation of Avondale Estates, it became very clear to Rice that a city needed to be organized. It would protect property and boundary lines, but it was also important for an underdeveloped area like South DeKalb to take measures to develop. “If we want economic development, we have to position ourselves to where we get people to start listening to us.” Of all the options they found when conducting their research for opportunities of economic development, which included staying unincorporated as they were under the county, forming a large city, forming a smaller city, or to annex into the city of Atlanta, they found that forming a larger city was what was better for economic development.

Many people may be misled about the possibility of raising taxes if the proposed city was implemented. “It is a misconception that if this city is implemented that taxes are going to go up. That’s not the case,” says Rice. Due to economies of scale, taxes are likely to remain lower with a big city (the costs will spread over a large population).

(Image via Imagine Greenhaven)

One of the major concerns for the creation of Greenhaven is the fact that many residents, particularly in the South DeKalb region, feel like this part of the county has not received the same benefits as the people in the northern part of the county. As it reads in the FAQ’s of Imagine Greenhaven, 11a., “DeKalb County has not produced any economic development exclusively for or consistent with the opportunities available to south DeKalb,” and furthermore in 11c, “Although the county is supposed to treat all areas equally resulting in equal development, there exists economic inequity between north and south. Greenhaven will have the capacity to address the economic inequity.” Even with this concern, there is not much support from community leaders.

The proposition of Greenhaven is going into its fifth year due to legislators not approving the formation of the city. Dr. Rice explained that they have met all the requirements to be put on a ballot for a referendum. These requirements include the creation of a group and a feasibility study. A feasibility study takes an estimate of what your expenses are and what your revenue is anticipated to be and determines whether your revenue is either going to meet or exceed (or not) your expenses. The results of the feasibility study for Greenhaven had excess revenue of $27 million. “Our part of unincorporated DeKalb has not had a chance to vote on the implementation of Greenhaven. Everyone else who has met that criteria have been able to get a vote within three years. And to me, that’s problematic.” says Dr. Rice.

About two weeks after my interview with Dr. Rice, I attended the Communications Committee meeting on Saturday, December 1, 2018. Community leaders, activists, retired, working, etc., were all present. When asked what they would like to see in the South DeKalb, answers ranged from restaurants, parks, taller buildings, coffee shops, young entrepreneurs, and even representation. “This is why we need cityhood,” Dr. Rice inclined.

(Photo courtesy of Kathryn Rice)

She then continued on to go into brief detail about some of the same things that were discussed in my one-on-one interview with her; SPLOST, the passing the feasibility study, and the need for the referendum. Almost everyone expressed how they want DeKalb County to be a place that their children want to come back to when they finish school to start families and build a life. But, as they discussed, people are not involved nor educated. As organizers of the movement, it is important to spread the word.

They are looking for help within the community including the help of young people and college students. If you would like to find out more information or would like to find out how to be involved in the movement, visit the Imagine Greenhaven website or email [email protected].