Commissioner Lee May said the key to DeKalb County’s economic future is to stop waiting for opportunities to come to the county and go actively in search of opportunities. That was his message to the Greater Lithonia Chamber of Commerce at its Jan. 16 luncheon meeting.
May, who represents the recently reconfigured 5th district and who was recently elected presiding officer of the commission, told the group that some areas of the district have rundown and empty commercial buildings, but “we shouldn’t see those as desolate areas, we should see them as areas of opportunity.”
“If we aren’t attracting some of the businesses we would like to see in our community, it’s possibly because they don’t know us. It’s up to us to tell our story. We have the income levels and the demographics they’re looking for, but how will they know if we don’t tell them? We need advocates such as the Greater Lithonia Chamber of Commerce,” he said.
“We don’t see businesses coming to DeKalb the way they used to. We have work to do,” May continued. “Anytime you see a community that’s thriving, it’s because it’s being proactive. We’ve been reactive. We know that DeKalb County is a cool place to be. It’s up to us to make sure others know it, too. We have to build a narrative for the county.”
May said that many don’t understand how DeKalb collects property taxes. “They look at our millage rate and see that it’s higher than in some other counties, but to compare fairly you have to look at the fact that DeKalb is one of only two counties in Georgia that has a HOST (Homestead Option Sales Tax) system that offsets the taxes paid by homeowners.
“My goal is to make the county more proactive. We don’t have a strategy right now,” May said, adding that that is changing. He said that the November hiring of Luz Borrero as deputy chief operating officer of development is a step in the right direction. Borrero’s responsibilities are to be focused on planning and sustainability, economic development, community development and workforce development, according to an announcement by the county following the appointment.
May said he also expects Borrero to be valuable in addressing another issue that has plagued the county for many years. “We have a reputation for having a permitting process that’s much too complex and cumbersome. It’s one of the worst in the region,” May said. “The city of Atlanta had that same reputation and Luz Borrero helped fix the problem when she was in senior management there. Now she will do the same for us.”
Saying that fixing the permitting process is a No. 1 priority, May added, “Every day a business trying to become established in DeKalb is delayed, they lose business and we lose tax revenue.”
May said that despite recent reports that the Mall at Stonecrest is struggling right now, he sees a bright future for the mall and the area around it. “Remember that five years after Stonecrest opened (in 2003), the bottom fell out of the economy. Still, Stonecrest had continued to thrive.” He said plans are in place for a Stonecrest Community Improvement District (CID).
“People ask us why certain areas have more sidewalks, grass cut along the roadways, more police in the community, the answer is CIDs,” a self-taxing system that allows communities to decide what they want and pay for it through a special tax, May said.
May explained why he was among those who opposed the 1-percent transportation tax that was on the ballot last year and ultimately was defeated. “It’s not because I don’t feel the county has serious transportation issues that need to be dealt with. I felt that the list of projects in that referendum did not deal equitably with all parts of the county. I didn’t feel we should make a 10-year commitment to those projects. We need to go back to the DeKalb voters and create our own list.”
He acknowledged that with MARTA and HOST already in place, the county has reached its tax cap and would have to go to the state legislature for permission to levy another tax.
May spoke of the fact that the DeKalb County School District’s accreditation is under examination. “That does have an effect on business,” he said. “The quality of the school system is one of the things businesses look at when deciding whether to move into a community. I have no opinion as to how the state should proceed in this matter, but at the end of the day, it’s not the governor’s school system, it’s not [the accrediting agency’s] school system. It’s our school system. We have every reason to want it to be a quality system. I have a 5-year-old in the system and a 3-year-old who soon will be. It’s going to take involvement from all of us to ensure the quality of our schools.”