Greenhaven can be seen as an issue of both “what”—an instant large city with limited services and unclear financing—and “how”—the process of its formation. Greenhaven is simply not not economically viable. Addressing the “how”—legislatively reforming the poorly designed process the state has in place—could go a long way in addressing the “what.”
Simply put, I propose that the state legislature take steps to ensure that the new city formation process mirrors the annexation process followed by existing cities. This is the fairest approach for counties, cities, and citizens, and it provides a way forward for more orderly and equitable city formation and expansion. The legislature should establish a two vote process for the formation of new cities.
To explain: when existing cities annex new areas residents of those areas_and only of those areas_ get to vote in the referendum held on it. Residents of the already-existing city do not get to vote on whether others, and their tax or fee dollars, will be absorbed into their city. The same process should be followed for new cities, and this can be accomplished by holding two successive votes, on the same simple question: “Do you wish to be part of new city X?” The first vote could be tallied by zip code, or some other logical contiguous area. Any zip code voting more than 50% “No” would not be included in the second vote. The second vote would confirm that zip codes voting “Yes” want to be included.
Yes, having some areas opt out might impact fiscal feasibility by shrinking the new city’s footprint but it does respect the less populated and geographically outlying parts of that footprint by giving their residents a chance for their votes to count—it gives those people a chance to be heard on something that can affect them a great deal, a chance a one-vote referendum of the entire region, in which they could easily be outvoted by more populous parts of the proposed city, does not afford them. To argue to the contrary is the same as saying an existing city has the right to annex an unincorporated area even if the residents of such an area vote against annexation.
The Greenhaven viability study found that the core South DeKalb neighborhoods would not make an economically sustainable city without inclusion of outlying areas outside South DeKalb. In other words, the expectation is that the outlying areas will contribute more than they receive: if the contribution of the outliers equaled what they could expect to receive they wouldn’t make the project viable. This is not in itself wrong, or even unusual—most annexations of unincorporated areas are about increasing the tax base of the existing city–but again,_only the people being annexed get to vote in the referendum_. They have control of their own destiny in a way Georgia’s current new cityhood process does not allow, but that holding two successive votes would allow.
A two vote process would be elegant, fair to all, and would allow everyone the right to a meaningful vote and to have their voices heard.