DUNWOODY, Ga. — A proposal to remove the cap on Dunwoody’s property tax rate appears dead for now.
The measure was set for a vote Aug. 31 before the Dunwoody Charter Commission, but it died when no one backed a motion to have it considered.
The Charter Commission convenes periodically to recommend changes to the City Charter. Those recommendations are then considered in the Georgia General Assembly for final approval or denial.
Sentiment on a tax cap runs deep in Dunwoody. Even raising the issue appears to have put the commission at odds with the Dunwoody Homeowners Association, which alerted members to the proposed change.
Leaders of the city’s move to incorporate back in 2008 highlighted the issue after weathering tax hikes from DeKalb County they said gave residents little say. When incorporation papers were ratified, the City Charter included a provision requiring a special referendum among local voters before the City Council could raise the tax levy on property above 3.04 mills.
Since incorporation, the city has maintained a levy of 2.74 mills. One mill brings in $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.
Speaking to members before the start of the Aug. 31 meeting, Charter Commission Chairman Robert Wittenstein addressed an email circulated by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association that accuses the panel of undermining the original intention of the city’s founders.
“Absolutely nothing in that email is true or accurate,” Wittenstein said. “I didn’t know whether to be amused or horrified (by its contents).”
Wittenstein likened the email to the children’s game in which a phrase is whispered from one person to another, often ending up with a totally different message at the end.
Wittenstein, who served as president of the DHA from 2015 to 2018, did not elaborate on the specific points raised in the email, but he emphasized that the commission does not have the power to change the charter, only to make recommendations.
“We don’t have the power to do anything,” Wittenstein said. “We are only an advisory group. The only group that can change the charter is the Georgia State Legislature.”
DHA President Adrienne Duncan said the main topic of concern was the removal of the millage rate cap.
“The draft of the charter up for discussion showed the clause establishing the millage rate cap redlined and the question was on the most recent agenda,” she wrote in an email to The Crier. “The other topic in the email was the idea to allow the mayor emergency powers on a temporary basis. The fact that this was going to be discussed at some point by Charter Commission was conveyed verbally to me by a commission member and confirmed by Robert personally in an email on August 31. I also included questions and concerns that are being widely asked about the proposed change.”
Duncan said the newsletter gets pushed quickly because “there are deadlines for citizen input on any topic or action.”
She said citizens need time to learn the issues and form an opinion. Public input is even more critical for an unelected commission whose recommendations will bypass the City Council and go straight to the Legislature, she said.
The idea to remove the millage cap arose at the Charter Commission’s Aug. 17 meeting when members noted the city is expecting decreased revenue from sales taxes because of the economic downturn.
As cuts to services loom, the City Council is hamstrung by a requirement that it cannot raise property taxes beyond a certain point, even to provide essential services in an emergency, Wittenstein said at the meeting.
“It may be or may not be reasonable to ask the City Council to go to taxpayers during the middle of a pandemic and ask them if it’s OK to raise taxes, or is it all right to cut services,” Wittenstein said. “That is the quandary that the city is going to face.”
Charter Commissioner Anne Hicks said that while no one wants to pay more taxes, she also knows citizens are looking for more from the city than it currently provides. She said that while working during the last city election, she heard from residents who expressed a desire for more services and amenities.
“That’s different from when we first incorporated,” she said during the Aug. 17 session. “A pandemic is not a great time to ask, but at some point, it might be reasonable to ask for more.”
The Charter Commission meets next on Sept. 21 to discuss other recommendations discussed at the Aug. 31 meeting, including proposed changes to the mayor’s term limit and election cycle.