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Cities of LaVista Hills and Tucker to be decided during election

It’s now up to voters to decide whether Tucker and LaVista Hills become cities.

A referendum in November will settle the cityhood debate after the Georgia General Assembly approved of both potential municipalities in the closing hours of this year’s legislative session Thursday.

That means city supporters will start planting yard signs, persuading their neighbors and discussing the merits of incorporation. During the seven-month campaign leading up to the election, opponents of the proposed cities will also bring their case to the people.

If the cities pass, about 40 square miles of territory extending from near Emory University past Stone Mountain will take on greater local control and distance themselves from a DeKalb County government whose reputation has been damaged by corruption scandals.

LaVista Hills and Tucker could become the latest cities to form in metro Atlanta since the cityhood trend began with Sandy Springs in 2005. Seven cities have been created in the last 10 years, and there are already 70 cities in the Atlanta-area’s 10 core counties.

While both of the cities would be roughly the same size, they would differ significantly in services and character.

LaVista Hills, with 67,446 residents mostly inside the Perimeter, would start its own police force and take on other services. The county would still handle many other functions like water and sewer management, courts, libraries and the sheriff’s department.

“I do believe there’s room for improvement in some of the services we receive from DeKalb County, and we could be one level removed from the negative press and corruption that’s been involved in the county for a long time,” said LaVista Hills supporter Matt Slappey, a mergers and acquisitions specialist. “The residents should have the choice and be able to decide what’s best for our area.”

Tucker would include 33,301 people between Spaghetti Junction and U.S. 78 and have a smaller government, covering only planning and zoning, code enforcement, and parks and recreation.

“Being able to have a thin layer of government focused on specific areas will improve the community,” said Suzanne Borchert, a Tucker resident who helps oversee a communication company’s website. “Some of our facilities are very run down, but it’s a beautiful area. Having a parks and recreation department could create community gathering places.”

There’s no guarantee that either proposed city will be approved in a referendum.

Since 94 percent of voters approved the incorporation of Sandy Springs, support for new cities has been declining. When Brookhaven came to a vote, 55 percent of residents were in favor of the city.

Gale Walldorff, a board member of the cityhood moratorium group DeKalb Strong, said she’s heard from residents at community meetings who overwhelmingly want to remain part of unincorporated DeKalb.

“Quite frankly, you can’t create another layer of government without costs attached to it,” she said. “I hope reason will prevail.”

Backers of Tucker and LaVista Hills say taxes won’t increase when government services are shifted from the county to the cities, but Walldorff, a former DeKalb commissioner, warned that cities eventually tend to raise money for construction projects.

Michelle Penkava of Tucker 2015 said she plans to talk with her friends and neighbors about cityhood and organize community events.

“It’s about harnessing the power of our volunteers and bringing some local decision-making to our community,” Penkava said. “We look froward to working with the county as we always have. No one’s divorcing the county.”

In LaVista Hills, supporters of that city will discuss the benefits they could see from improved public safety, roads, planning, permitting and parks services, said Mary Kay Woodworth of LaVista Hills Yes. The work of educating residents is just beginning after years spent persuading elected officials to sign off on the city.

“We just have to go into a completely different mode and organize hundreds of volunteers,” she said.

Several other proposed incorporation and annexation efforts didn’t pass the Georgia General Assembly this year, but those efforts may be revived next legislative session.

Lawmakers didn’t approve bills for the cities of South Fulton, Stonecrest and Greenhaven. Annexations that would have expanded the cities of Atlanta, Decatur and Avondale Estates also stalled.

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