Janice Allen Jackson, City Manager, was recently interviewed by ICMA's Joe Supervielle about the City of Stonecrest. In the podcast 'How to Start a City' Jackson highlights conditions which lead areas to create new cities as they breakway from existing county or city jurisdictions. She also gives insight on benefits and challenges, including how the form of government impacts the function of a city.
Listen to the podcast or read the interview's transcript* to see how Stonecrest is propelling into a properous future!
*NOTE:Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Joe Supervielle: Today's show on how to start a city with Janice Jackson of Stonecrest, Georgia, covers the reasoning and context on why and when a location may want to break off from an existing city or county jurisdiction to create their own.
We'll also talk about how to overcome the many challenges and how the form of government makes a huge difference. We recorded at the very end of 2021, so keep that in mind, as Ms. Jackson explains the timeline, and for anyone listening interested in being part of building something new, Stonecrest is hiring for staff and senior level positions. For the latest check out, stonecrestga.gov/careers
Joe Supervielle: Welcome to Voices in Local Government, an ICMA podcast. My name is Joe Supervielle. And with me to talk about how to start a new city is Janice Jackson. Ms. Jackson is a career local government professional, acting city manager of Stonecrest, Georgia, and principal of Janice Allen Jackson & Associates. She's also the host of Local Matters podcast, which aims to educate people on how to improve their own quality of life through civic engagement, which I think much of the ICMA audience can relate to. So, thanks for joining us today.
Janice Jackson: Thank you so much for having me as a guest.
Joe Supervielle: We are going to get into the journey that Stonecrest, Georgia has gone through. Can you start off with giving the audience a little bit of a background in terms of the population, demographics, geography, location, just so everyone kind of understands like the size and type we're dealing with here?
Janice Jackson: Yes. Stonecrest, Georgia is located in DeKalb County, which is one of the four largest counties in metro Atlanta. For those who are not familiar, Atlanta is located in both Fulton County and about 10% of the city of Atlanta is in DeKalb. And in DeKalb County, Stonecrest is located on the eastern most part of the county. So, if you're coming up Interstate 20 from Augusta, and you drive towards Atlanta, you will get to Stonecrest, Georgia, right before you get to Interstate 285.
So, we have a population of 59,000 in our most recent census, making us the largest city in DeKalb County. Stonecrest is also a little unusual from the standpoint of the various startup cities that were created in Georgia over the last 18, 19 years or so. Most of those cities were predominantly white. This city is predominantly black. It's about 95, 96% African American. It was also incorporated around the same time as another predominantly black startup city and that being South Fulton in Fulton County, Georgia.
Joe Supervielle: Okay. And just for a timeline, you kind of got involved with Stonecrest in what year?
Janice Jackson: I became involved after the city had been around for about four years. I came in, in the fall of last year as a consulting project. I was working for the private vendor that had been providing services to Stonecrest since their inception. And I came in to assist the staff, as you know, there's always is a number of things where you don't know what you don't know. So, I was there as an advisor to the staff, as well as ostensibly in a role to help the mayor and council build their relationships, but it became clear pretty early on that that was going to be an uphill journey.
Joe Supervielle: So, you mentioned there the difference of Stonecrest compared to some of the previous. So, it seems like in Georgia, there had been, I guess, more than what's typical in terms of new city is. I don't want to say controversy, but there was some conversation around the racial aspect of that, particularly kind of the wealthy white areas maybe wanting to create their own city and break away. So, how is that different in Stonecrest's case? And what do you think about the sensitive topic there when race gets involved?
Janice Jackson: Yes, the city-hood movement, as we call it in Georgia has been a little controversial. As I alluded to earlier, many of the early cities were largely wealthy communities. There were more homogeneous in terms of... or specifically having a higher percentage of white residents than some of the others. And there was the feeling that their tax dollars were not being used in the way they wanted them to be used. And when they're in an unincorporated area, you're subject to the control of the county commission in that area. And you saw several of the early cities being wealthier communities, being mostly white communities, feeling like they wanted to be in charge of their public safety.
There's an interesting dynamic going on now in the city of Atlanta, just want to point this out, where we have a wealthy net neighborhood in the city of Atlanta that wants to pull out because of concerns related to crime. That's a little bit different, pulling out of an existing city. Whereas these others were all in unincorporated areas.
Stonecrest's dynamic, and what led to this was the feeling that they were not getting adequate services, and adequate attention from DeKalb County. Some of the areas of concern related to public works. You drive through and you see huge potholes everywhere, unsafe traffic conditions, places where you need stop lights. Just poor road maintenance was one of the big trigger points.
Another significant trigger point was planning, zoning and land use. In our area, there are a number of gravel lots that are used for truckers to park. And, of course, they're paying a fee to park in those areas. But many times, they border on residential areas. Concerns about industrial uses, some light, some heavy, also bordering on residential uses. So, residents of Stonecrest felt like they would be better off controlling their own destiny in terms of how land use was managed because, as we know, land use affects your property values in the long run.
One of the other concerns was economic development. If they did not have specific people focused on economic development and tourism, did that mean that they were being neglected by those who were responsible for those functions? So, it really became a matter of, we believe we can control our own destiny and do a better job by our residents if we are our own city, as opposed to being a part of unincorporated DeKalb.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah, more control and financial implications, which is understandable.
On that economic front, it seemed like some of the big business, or even medium size businesses were going elsewhere. So that was part of it where Stonecrest wanted to, as you said, control your own destiny a little bit more. It seemed like amongst other places, Northern Virginia included, that was one of the people courting Amazon a few years back for the new headquarters. Didn't necessarily work out as it did in other places. But was that an instance where at least making that bid, and setting it up the way the locals wanted to, would you consider that successful?
Janice Jackson: Yes. We look at businesses and there's always the question, what's appropriate for this? You never can guess what DeKalb County might have done. But based upon what we've seen, we are comfortable that we are better off being in control of our own destiny.
Joe Supervielle: Well, back up a little bit to when the decision was first made. And even if that predates your direct involvement, getting back to the big picture of overcoming the challenges in starting a new city, whether it's Stonecrest, or people listening out there that are, are thinking of the same for areas they live in. How did they go about gaining public support? It seemed like actual vote was fairly close with about 60% voting in favor compared to 40 against. So, how did that process go? That may be where it blends a little bit into the political realm, which is not necessarily what local government professionals are here for, but how did that process go?
Janice Jackson: I was not there, as you know, but from what I understand the legislature has some specific requirements in order to start a city. You can't just wake up one morning and say, "Hey, we want to incorporate this area and create a city." They require feasibility studies. The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia did those studies. In fact, there was a first study that showed that it wasn't going to work. It wouldn't be feasible. So, they had to go back to the drawing board and make the area smaller. First, they were conceiving of a city that was a little over 100,000 in population. So, they had to go back and come back with a city that was a little smaller. At the time the city started, it was around 50, 55,000 residents. And, as I indicated, now we're up to 59,000. So, there's been a pretty significant amount of growth in the area.
One of the goals was to achieve some balance between residential, commercial, and industrial development, so that it feels like a city does to have those mixed elements. It's not just a big neighborhood. They also, of course, had to get the approval of the voters. As you indicated, fairly close to about 60% of the population voted for the creation of Stonecrest and of about 40% voted against it. And one of the reasons that I understand that they were against it is because some parts of the area have a very rural character. I mentioned earlier about Interstate 20 running through. North of Interstate 20 it's fairly urban. South of Interstate 20, some of it is almost downright rural. So those people said, "Well, I moved out here to begin with because I didn't want to be in a city," but they had to be convinced. I understand there was a large committee. They went out, met with the public, groups large and small to explain what they thought the benefits would be. And that resulted in that 60% vote.
One of the things that I see now that is funny, but not funny is that, for instance, our code enforcement group will go out and they'll cite people for violations. And the person will get the violation, go, "City of Stonecrest? Well, I'm in the city of Stonecrest? I didn't even know I was inside the boundaries," because the boundaries are a little wacky, for lack of a better term. Everybody talks about gerrymandering of council districts and congressional districts. This looks the same way. So, there's some weird situations where one house in four houses on a particular street are in Stonecrest. And the next four are in unincorporated DeKalb. So, there's almost no kind of clean, easy way to, to do this, and it really has been a challenge for a code enforcement personnel when one side of the street is in Stonecrest, and the other side is not. I think that says that we still have some lack of engagement with folks going, they didn't even know that anything had changed, if they weren't in any of those public meetings, and they didn't go vote themselves.
Joe Supervielle: And you mentioned earlier taxes and property value. Was there some confusion on people thinking, "Well, hey, now I have to pay city and county property tax," which my understanding is that's not really the case. So, how did that work?
Janice Jackson: I'm glad you brought that up because that was definitely a factor. I understand the opponents of the creation of the city were saying, "This is going to cost you more. So, there's no need for you to do it." What they worked out was an agreement where Stonecrest is a limited service city. We only provide parks and recreation, business licenses, building inspection, code enforcement, and planning and zoning. Honing in on those key functions that we're instrumental in the creation of the city. And we receive a small millage rate from the DeKalb. So, DeKalb, basically, transferred those dollars into our budget to take care of those functions.
Our other major revenue sources or things like insurance premium taxes, building permits because we have had that growth, we've had some years with some pretty significant building permit revenue. So, you get insurance premium taxes, you get building permits, you get business licenses. It's really a hodgepodge of what people would consider to be relatively insignificant revenue sources that Stonecrest has put together to manage their budget. Plus, a little sliver from DeKalb to cover the core services that they no longer provide to our geographic area.
Joe Supervielle: That’s still a challenge just helping the public understand who to call for what. Even if I lived there and I recognized, or I now know, "Hey, I am in Stonecrest versus the county," if there's some services, but not others that could get complicated for their average person. It's not necessarily something they want to deal with day-to-day.
Joe Supervielle: How has Stonecrest dealt with that?
Janice Jackson: It gets very complicated, and it's created a challenge for our Communications Office. We'll soon be, haven't yet, but getting ideas together now, we'll soon be putting together educational videos on our website that say, "Hey, if you've got an animal control problem, this is who you call. If you got a code enforcement problem, this is who you call," because there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. And I think it fits into this overall theme of how important it is for us, as local government professionals, to engage with our residents, so they do have a better understanding of just how government works, because you may know, average person, county, city, what's the difference? I'm paying all you all and I just want my problem solved.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. They don't care about who, they just care about what and getting it done.
So, that also means you and your staff have to maintain and build a good relationship with the DeKalb staff even though there was, essentially, kind of a breakaway. But there's still going to be overlap there so how is that relationship now and how do you keep a focus on that to keep it positive?
Janice Jackson: You highlight an interesting point because yeah, I mean all these counties it's happened primarily in Fulton and DeKalb in our area, all of these counties have seen a drop in their revenue because they're now having to transfer for at least some of those dollars to the newly created cities.
Despite that, so far since I've been in Stonecrest and it's only been eight months as the acting city manager, prior to that, of course, I was in a consulting role. I have had to build a working relationship with the chief operating officer of DeKalb County. I know our council members have frequent conversations with the county commissioners who represent our area. We have forged a relationship based upon, "Hey, these people in Stonecrest, I know they're not in the unincorporated area anymore, but they're still your residents. They're still residents of DeKalb County. And we owe it to them to ensure that they get the best services possible."
Joe Supervielle: So, shifting a little bit to once the vote is in and the decision has been made, the new city still has to decide on the structure of government. So, Stonecrest has transitioned from the strong mayor to a kind of more typical in the ICMA world, which is the council manager form. So, what led to that shift? How is it going so far? What's the reception been of the residents?
Janice Jackson: Unfortunately, and this happens in government it is a reality, sometimes there's just a lack of trust between the mayor and the council. And that is, ultimately, what led members of the council to petition the Georgia General Assembly to change the charter for Stonecrest. That charter change was approved by the legislature on a unanimous vote, or close to a unanimous vote in April of this year. And, at that point, I was asked to come in as the acting city manager.
That lack of trust, we know it's not unique to Stonecrest, but our council felt like that was the best way to deal with it in terms of the public. As I mentioned, there's some members of our public that barely know that Stonecrest exists. That other members of the public who tune in to every single planning commission meeting, every single committee meeting, every single council meeting. And they're very in tune. And with those, I think, we've gotten some pretty positive feedback. Some of them were not as familiar with what a true council manager form of government is. But now, that they see that this form of government can indeed be responsive, I think they've been pretty happy with it.
Joe Supervielle: And what's your relationship with the council, the council members themselves, as things have progressed and developed there?
Janice Jackson: I have been really pleased that we have worked together as a team. One of the best aspects of this council is that they really just want to get this right. You start a new city with 40% of the folks opposed to you, so you've got a significant number of questions already about what this really is going to be like? And then, if there is a perceived lack of trust, there's perceived bickering among the group they really want to build that relationship, but nobody wants to be in that situation.
So, one of their priorities for the year is we went through the budget process, we listed various things they talked about during the year. And we asked them to prioritize those things. And one of the things that was very high on the priority list was engaging our public, coming up with ways to better engage them.
As I talked about, our planning and zoning efforts, I mean we commit to rewrite the zoning code about six months ago. Our director of planning and zoning director is going section by section in the zoning ordinances to ask them, "Hey, do you like this? Do you like that?" Because first what they did was just adopt the zoning ordinance that the DeKalb used, which of course they didn't think served them very well. And then, they hired a consultant to come up with a new ordinance. And it was just too much for them to deal with. So, we've just been biting at the apple bit by bit by bit.
Every month we take on a new set of text modifications. And with those, our council is really able to hear from the public. We put in place some zoning summits where we invite any member of the public who wants to, to come in on Zoom with us and they can talk about how they feel about the gravel parking lots that the truckers are renting. And just every single thing, how close industrial uses can be to residential uses. I mean, they talk through each one of those things.
Joe Supervielle: That goes back to what you said earlier about controlling destiny. It's not just about the manager, or the council people. It's the residents themselves feeling like they have a little bit more say when it's not literally just a smaller group by number, but when it's local, and the emphasis is on what they want versus the entire county, that's going back to the why this happened. It seems like that is working.
Janice Jackson: And they get that chance to engage that they might not have in a great big county of 750,000. So, I think our residents, to answer your question about how well they're receiving this, they're receiving it well, I believe, because now we have gone above and beyond, hopefully, what they believe the call of duty is in terms of making sure that they have an opportunity to really participate in the government.
Joe Supervielle: Okay so the original question, how to start a city? The vote passes, the council's set up. They maybe even hire the consultant or the city manager, like yourself. But what about the staff? It seems really difficult to do. You can't, you can't do it overnight. I know Stonecrest had a transition from kind of an outsource model to bringing everything in-house, which is coming up soon. So, walk us through that because even if the services are segmented, and you're not doing everything, DeKalb's still helping, hiring staff from potentially limited talent pool there could be difficult. So, how is Stonecrest approaching that?
Janice Jackson: Obviously, this is so difficult, just the notion of we're going to start a city. And we're going to start providing services on next day. I mean, it's just mind boggling how difficult that would be. So Stonecrest, like many of the cities in metro Atlanta that were created as a result of the cityhood movement, hired a firm to come in and completely staff themselves.
Interestingly, Stonecrest used that model for longer than a lot of them did. I was actually the first person that worked directly for the mayor and council when I came in as the acting city manager back in April of this year. Since that time, we brought in the finance director in-house. And as of January 1st, we're switching almost everybody, not everybody, but almost everybody over to in-house. It is incredibly difficult, and there's almost no way to do it unless you have a firm that can bring in some local government professionals that can at least get you started.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah, and then, that way it's more of a gradual slope rather just we have nothing. And then, all of a sudden, we're expected to do all these different services with different experts running it, and then staff underneath that. So, it sounds like that's a work in progress, but we'll see how it goes.
Next question, just in case there are any ICMA members or just the audience interested, are you hiring? Are you actively for any of these roles? Cause people-
Janice Jackson: I am actively hiring today. Yesterday, I interviewed candidates for city clerk, and for planning... Not planning, I'm sorry, human resources director because the other thing you got to think about is like you look up and go, "Wait a minute, I don't have any HR staff." And the reason you don't have any HR staff is because you don't have any employees. Everybody wants a contractor. And then, you realize, "Oh we don't have any benefits."
So, we have worked with the Georgia Municipal Association to put together a retirement package, and a healthcare plan, as well as our workers' compensation. So, this has been a huge undertaking. We've actually hired a couple of headhunters to work with us because it's so many positions we need to get done right away. So, we have on our website, if anybody wants to go to stonecrestga.gov, we have a careers page there and we're listing all of the positions that are currently being advertised.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah, we'll link it on the ICMA platforms as well.
So, it's an interesting journey. It's going to be case by case. So, our listeners out there, it's not like it would go exactly how it did in Stonecrest. But I think some of the examples, some of the challenges, and how you overcome them are good examples on what people can learn if they're considering, or even in the process of doing the same thing of starting a new city which, as you said earlier, is almost mind boggling to even consider. But, perhaps, if you break it down piece by piece and have some real expertise on the local government professional side, it can and does get done.
So, Janice, thank you for your time today. Thank you for your expertise, and your efforts there in Stonecrest.
Janice Jackson: All right. Great. It's been nice talking with you.