Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year; Update from Councilman Wittenstein

Happy New Year!
The comments below are those of Dunwoody City Councilman Robert Wittenstein. Again, I appreciate Robert's regular updates. While I feel Robert, and the council as a whole, have done a terrific job in starting up the city (I agree with 90 percent of what the council has done), I don't agree with all of the council's decisions.
I wasn't crazy about the bonuses for the city manager and city clerk. Yes, they've worked long, hard hours and done tremendous jobs (from what I can tell), but the timing just didn't seem right. Not in this economy.
And neither did the timing seem right for the council to vote itself health insurance. Do I believe the mayor and council members are underpaid? You bet! But everyone on that council knew the deal going in. And besides (and one thing Robert failed to mention), they are part-time employees. I happened to be at the meeting in which the council voted to give itself health insurance, with more than one council person saying a contributing factor in their vote was to make the position more attractive for future candidates. They pointed out that 3 seats where up for election in 2009, yet no one chose to run against any of the incumbents. But if that was truly one of the reasons for voting yes for health insurance (to sweet the pot to entice more qualified candidates in the future), why not have added the stipulation that only "future" elected officials would be eligible for the benefits? If the council would have added that stipulation, the vote would not have appeared so self-serving.
Nonetheless, a big pat on the back to all of our city officials for a job well done in 2009!
Dear Dunwoody Friends and Neighbors,
I hope everyone has had a wonderful Christmas or Hanukah or whatever, and I wish you all a healthy and safe New Year!
I discovered a whole group of e-mail addresses that had been left off my previous distribution list, so if you are receiving this e-mail for the first time, my apologies for not including you earlier. If you received this from a friend and would like to be added to the distribution list, please send an e-mail to If you would like to be taken off my distribution list, please let me know.

We have three final public forums scheduled to get resident feedback on our 20-year comprehensive development plan. Below is the area of focus and schedule for each meeting.
Georgetown/Shallowford Area, January 5, The Atrium, 4355 Georgetown Square
Jett Ferry Area and Tilly Mill Area, January 12, Marcus Jewish Community Center, 5342 Tilly Mill Road
Winters Chapel Area, January 21, Congregation Beth Shalom, 5303 Winters Chapel Road
All three meetings are scheduled for 7:00 pm.
If you are concerned about future zoning decisions in these areas, you should make every effort to attend these meetings. All of these areas have been identified as areas ripe for redevelopment. A comprehensive land-use plan is being developed that will dictate what type of development- residential? commercial? institutional? industrial?--can be built throughout the city. How would you like to see these areas change? Dunwoody residents will be given time at these meetings to voice their opinions and suggestions as to the future of each of these areas.

Switching topics, I’ve taken a couple of controversial positions lately that have generated both praise and criticism. If these e-mail updates are to be as useful as possible then I can’t shy away from discussing these issues here.

Health Insurance Coverage for City Council
I voted in favor of having the city extend health insurance to city council members. (This measure passed 5 to 2.) I get my health insurance through my full-time employer as do a couple of other council members, and several council members are retired and get their health coverage through federal government health programs.
Philosophically, I think employers ought to offer health insurance to all their employees (council members or not). I work in healthcare. My company provides disease management and wellness services. These services are often paid for by insurance companies who are trying to reduce costs by keeping chronically ill people from getting sicker and helping those at risk of developing chronic illnesses from becoming sick by making life style changes.
Some of you on this distribution list are self-employed, unemployed or entrepreneurs and you know how difficult and costly it is to purchase individual family coverage on the retail market. As a matter of principal, I think we should offer our group insurance coverage to all city employees. The fact that I am one of them and I got to vote on the decision is awkward, but in my judgment it was the right thing to do.
The cost to taxpayers is real and should not be taken lightly. But it should also be put in context. The cost is less than one quarter of one percent of our budget. This was a difficult vote, more so than most—and there may be political consequences for voting myself a benefit, but I felt that it was important for the city to set this money aside.

Year-end Bonuses for the City Manager and City Clerk
I voted in favor of providing bonuses to Warren Hutmacher, our City Manager and Sharon Lowery, our City Clerk. This measure passed unanimously. Note that Warren and Sharon are the only two city employees who work directly for the Mayor and Council, all of the other city employees report to a member of the city staff, so these are the only two compensation levels we set. In both cases the bonuses were approximately 3.4% of annual salary; that is the same percent increase we have budgeted for 2010 performance-based raises for city staff.
Bringing the city up from scratch required incredible dedication and many, many more hours than you would expect from an employee. Yes, Warren is well paid and yes, that pay covers the expectation of good performance, but not only did we have to create every department, hire and train every staff member and establish all our policies and procedures, we also completed the build-out and move to the new city hall.
As many of you are aware, we were the only new city that did not award a single, large, contract to CH2M-Hill for services. Many people told us that the only way to get the city up and running was to pay a large premium to CH2M-Hill and have them take care of it all. When we hired Warren he encouraged us to split our service contracts up and the end result was that it saved the city over $1.5 million. Warren also helped us negotiate higher levels of service with the individual vendors. This meant that his workload increased as he had to manage multiple vendors and coordinate between them. In my opinion Warren earned this small ($5,000) bonus several times over.
For much of the year, Sharon Lowery not only filled the role of City Clerk, she also acted as our Court Clerk. She basically had two full-time jobs and she did this without any additional compensation for months. She also brings an attitude of service and sense of competence that helps the City Council function. We (the Mayor and the City Council) are all brand new at our jobs. Sharon’s seasoned and calm guidance has made a huge difference in the City Council’s ability to be effective. The $2,000 bonus we provided is a well-earned token and it comes with a sincere ‘Thank You.’

Please be assured that I will remain very conservative with taxpayer’s money. These bonuses are a small investment in showing our appreciation to city staff who have helped ensure a smooth start to our new city. Will we do this every year? Probably not. Was it appropriate this year? In my opinion, the answer to that question is ‘Yes.’
I welcome your thoughts on both of these issues.
Robert Wittenstein

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Kind of Grade Do You Give DeKalb's CEO?

Below is an article about DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis' first year in office that appeared in Tuesday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Not surprisingly, Ellis gives himself high marks for year one. While I'm not ready to grade the CEO, he's certainly a big upgrade from Vernon Jones. I give Ellis a major thumbs-up for firing ineffective Police Chief Terrell Bolton and for cutting county government. From what I know, I feel he's tried to be fair in dealing with the new city of Dunwoody. However, I think his proposal for an 11 percent property tax increase is above and beyond. What do you think?

By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One year into his first term, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis can point to a lengthy “to do” list with a lot of check marks.Last year, as he prepared to take office, a panel of civic and business leaders on his transition team gave him a 91-page book of goals. Ellis was supposed to coordinate public safety in the hands of one person. Check.
He was to name permanent heads of key agencies that had been run by temporary leaders. Check.
He needed to dig into the problems at the county Recorders Court, which allegedly lost millions of dollars in uncollected fines. Check again.
Ellis served eight years on the county commission before running for the county’s top elected post in 2008. He won, succeeding two-term CEO Vernon Jones.
Ellis took office soon after voters approved a referendum divorcing the CEO from the commission. Jones and prior CEOs set the commission’s agenda and presided over meetings. Ellis is the first to operate purely as an elected executive. He moved out of the county headquarters into a nearby building a couple blocks away, as if to emphasize the separation.
After a headline-grabbing row with then Police Chief Terrell Bolton, whom Ellis fired for insubordination, among other causes, Ellis started working on his transition checklist, reorganizing the government and preparing for an ever-shrinking budget. Unlike Jones, who presided over a budget that grew year after year, Ellis has had to cut tens of millions of dollars. Earlier this month, he also proposed a property tax increase of 11 percent.
People still seem to like him. “I didn’t vote for him, but I will more than make up for it,” said Brenda Pace, president of the East Lake Terrace Neighborhood Association in south DeKalb. She was impressed by a recent neighborhood “summit” where officials explained how to access government services and how to establish nonprofits that can push for change. The event drew upwards of 500 neighborhood leaders, and Pace is now volunteering at the county as a liaison to residents.
“I will volunteer with his government. As long as they’re doing the right thing for this county, I’ll give it my all,” Pace said
On the county’s north side, Beth Nathan, president of the North Briarcliff Civic Association, said county staff under Ellis had become “more communicative.” Projects that had been promised for years, such as development of the Mary Scott Nature Preserve, finally made headway, she said. “So far, CEO Ellis’ administration is earning an above average grade,” she said.
Not all praise
There are critics, though. Ann Brown praised Ellis in October when he announced a down payment assistance program to help county police buy homes in DeKalb. But, said an impatient Brown, no officers have bought any of the numerous vacant houses in her neighborhood south of Decatur.
The county recently announced that serious crime had decreased, but Brown, who is president of the Belvedere Civic Club, said she hasn’t seen it. “I feel less safe,” she said.
Ellis took the reins during what was arguably one of the most difficult moments in county history: the national economy was on the brink of collapse, and county tax revenue was plunging. He cut $29 million from the budget in 2009, and proposed a similar cutback next year with the elimination of 760 jobs. It’s difficult to institute new programs that inspire praise under such circumstances.
Ellis touted his accomplishments in a recent interview. He said he eked efficiencies out of county government, thinning a “top heavy” administration in the police department and consolidating police, fire and other public safety agencies under one director. That realignment paid off in tighter coordination, he said, when an historic storm flooded the county. Rescuers scrambled with boats, and no one died though many homes were underwater, he noted. The county quickly opened a disaster recover center with the federal government.
“We worked around the clock. We broke down the silos in county government.” Ellis said. “I think we did a bang-up job.”
Still, a majority of the seven county commissioners complained in November that the government structure wasn’t working and said they’d like to consider a referendum abolishing the CEO’s office and putting them in charge.
They complained that they weren’t getting the information, or services, they requested from the county administration. But earlier this month, one of the leaders of that effort, Commissioner Connie Stokes, reversed herself on the referendum idea, saying that the timing was poor given the problems with the budget. The resolution for a referendum failed after she voted against it this month.
Stokes said that Ellis had done a “phenomenal” job in his first year. “We started off kind of bumpy,” she said of her relationship with him. “I think we ended up on a great note.”
Ellis dismissed commissioner complaints about not getting information, saying that he talked regularly with each commissioner. One can always find critics, he said.
“I think if you went out and talked to general citizens,” Ellis said, “I think we have a strong record of accomplishment.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution drove around DeKalb and polled a half dozen men and women on the street. Two people, including Shari Bumpers of Stone Mountain, had wild praise for Ellis. “I expected him to get rid of a lot of people, and he did,” said Bumpers, 51, who was walking out of the Northlake Mall. She was particularly pleased that Ellis fired Bolton, who irked her because he maintained a home in Texas while working here. “Right there, he got a gold star from me,” she said of the CEO.
None criticized Ellis directly. Then again, most didn’t know who he was, including Dorshel Pitts and Adam Barnett. Pitts, a 26-year-old from Lithonia, complained about potholes that “destroy your car” and long lines at the Recorders Court. But Barnett, 47, praised county government, saying he moved to north DeKalb from neighboring Fulton County for lower property taxes and for services, such as yard trash collection, that he said are more reliable. Fulton, he said, was “miserable” by comparison.
And then there was Reva Molden of Clarkston. Perhaps more than anyone, Molden, 22, illustrates what local government is all about. She was catching a bus from the Gallery at South DeKalb and relies on MARTA to take her and her 4-year-old son to day care. They walk along a dirt path from a bus stop on busy North Decatur Road near East Ponce de Leon Avenue. The path is so narrow that they must travel single file, with her son in front and the speeding cars coming so close that she can feel their wind. When it rains, a muddy puddle blocks their path.
Molden knew who Ellis was and said she was “probably in between with him.” He could sway her into his favor by fulfilling a simple request, she said: build a sidewalk for her and her son.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Elf Yourself for the Holidays

Have your Elfed yourself - and your family - for the Holidays? The Fiscella Family has (click on the photo to watch). Watch our video and then Elf yourself. Guaranteed to make you laugh.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another Laugh at Tiger's Expense

As many of you know, prior to getting into real estate I was a full time sportscaster for both CNN and Fox Sports Net. During that time, I was fortunate enough to host a weekly golf program and cover, first hand, almost two dozen major championships (The Masters, US Open and PGA Championship). While I never got to know Tiger Woods very well, I did speak with him, either one-on-one or in a press conference-type setting, on 40 or 50 occasions. Needless to stay, I was stunned by the recent revalations and am truly saddened that Tiger has become a punchline for seemingly everyone. However, it's his own fault, and even I can't help but laugh when a video like this (click on the picture below) comes across my desk!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dunwoody Elementary Celebrates the Holidays

Dunwoody Elementary School is celebrating the holidays in style. Monday night, Dunwoody Elementary combined with Kingsley Elementary to host an Orchestra Holiday Concert that featured Beethoven's Ode To Joy, with the Dunwoody singers performing last week. Springfield was well represented.

Update from Councilman Shortal

The update below is from Dunwoody City Councilman Denis Shortal.

Fellow Citizens .. the follow are some items of interest:
1. Dunwoody Village Parkway (DVP) flood .... For those of you who tried to drive on DVP after approx. 10 AM during the heavy rains of 10 NOV found all four lanes closed due to flood waters. Our Public Works folks responded rapidly but to little avail. We tried manually cleaning the storm sewer drains and even brought a vacuum truck to try and suck out the blockage but neither effort helped. The next day when the water level went down making it safe for our crews to climb down into the storm sewer we found the culprit to be a large piece of lumber that was stuck in the storm sewer and was acting as a catch basin for leaves. That has all been removed and we should not have a recurrence of that problem. Please be vigilant not to allow any trash be thrown in the storm sewer system.
2. Ashford Dunwoody and Mt. Vernon intersection .... The intersection enhancement has now been mostly completed. As you know this was a PCID managed and funded project with the contract being let before we became a city. Overall I think the result are very good but we are still working of softening the appearance of the large silver pole in the middle of the intersection. The PCID folks have had their landscaper out to the sight and they will be planting some medium height "skinny" trees/bushes around the base of the pole. We are also working on getting the pole painted but that issue is still being worked.
3. Chamblee Dunwoody and Spaulding intersection .... There have been some accidents at this intersection. The problem arises when drivers coming southbound on Spaulding and while attempting a left turn onto Chamblee Dunwwody fail to yield to oncoming northbound Spaulding traffic. The line of sight for the southbound Spalding traffic is very adequate but I guess folks just get in a hurry and/or use poor judgement. I spent about 45 minutes at this intersection with one of the neighbors and we determine that one of the problems was the stoplight timing .... we are currently running a model to determine how best to retime the lights. The thrust is to lengthen the time for the green light for the north and southbound Spalding traffic. We are also measuring the intersection to determine if there is enough room, with the current road dimensions, to install a left turn lane for the southbound Spalding traffic. 4. Speaking of accidents .... Some you have spoken to me about the number of accidents at various locations. I spoke to Chief Grogan and he gave me some rather eye opening statistics. During the period of 1 APR 2009 thru 31 OCT 2009 our police have responded to 1,167 accidents in Dunwoody which computes to 167 accidents / month or approx. 6 accidents / day. My point is there are a lot more accidents in our city than I would have thought. Lets all drive courteously and safely out there and try to reduce this accident rate.
5. Cutting down trees .... Remember you have to have a permit to cut down trees on your property. This is to protect the tree canopy of the city as a whole. You can get the permit from our Community Developing Dept. and there is no cost involved. There is a minimum number trees - assuming you have trees - that must be kept on your property in relationship to the size of your lot and this number is noted in our city ordinance.
6. Convention Visitors Bureau of Dunwoody (CVBD) .... In a recent "Talk Back to the Crier" section of the Crier a writer, in addition to other items, wanted to know basically why the city was giving over $750,000 to the CVBD. I have explained this once before but to clarify, this amount is 2 of the 5% tax that hoteliers pay the city.
This portion of the hotel tax is requires by law to be reinvested in the city to promote tourism, businesses and our city as a whole. Your City Council does not have an option on this portion of the 5% hotel tax. The other 3 of the 5% hotel tax goes into the general revenue account of the city. FYI, there are nine very talented men and women on the CVBD committee. I encourage each of you to always look to do business in Dunwoody first.
7. Budget .... We will close out our 2009 Fiscal Year budget in the "black." HOORAH! We are projecting a small surplus for 2010. If you have been reading the AJC articles this passed week concerning property tax assessments you would note there is reason to be concerned about 2010 property tax revenues. I am one that is a lot more confident in a budget towards the end of the budget period than I am in the early stages of the budget period. I believe it is very
prudent to build an adequate size reserve / "rainy day" fund for
unforeseen circumstances. We know that there will be those "rainy days" and we must be prepared. To that end, I ask each citizen to be vigilant of your City Council's fiscal stewardship.
8. Meetings .... I ask each of you to keep abreast of the agenda/ issues that are before our various city boards, committees and councils and to attend the meetings. I have seen a very small number of folks influence the decision at some of these meetings when there is no one present with an opposing view. I strongly feel that the decisions made in these meeting should be in the best interest of all our citizens and that their opinions must be taken into account. There is no better way to have your opinion heard than being at the meeting and voicing your opinion .... that is the bases of our democracy. The key to staying abreast of all the issues is our city website ... In addition to a lot of very helpful information, on the left side of the website's "home page" is a column titled "Quicklinks." The first item under "Quicklinks" is "Agenda and Minutes" which list the upcoming meeting's agenda and the minutes for previous meetings. The agendas for most meetings are listed approx.
six days prior to the meetings and the City Council's agenda is listed the Thursday prior to the Monday meeting. The last item under "Quicklinks" is titled "Calendar of Events" and this page list the meeting dates for the various boards, committees and councils for that month. Just click on the event of interest and you will see the start time and location of the meeting. As a general guideline, the City Council meets the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Monday of each month, the Zoning Board of Appeal meets the 1st Thursday of each month, the Planning Commission meets the 2nd Tuesday of each month and the Community Council meets the 2nd Thursday of each month ... all meeting usually start at 7 PM. Please see the "Calendar of Events" for the listing of all other meetings. Now you have the information that will assist you in staying informed. The next city meeting is the City Council meeting tomorrow night - 14 DEC - at 7 PM at the city hall and there are some important issue that will be discussed.
9. That is it for tonight. Please pass this on to your friends and neighbors and if anyone wants to be added to my email list just say the word and I will make it happen. As we approach the end of our first fiscal year as a city, my sincere thanks for your continued involvement, interest and support of our City. You are simply the best citizens around and you are the reason that Dunwoody is a class place to live and do business! Meredy and I send our best wishes to each of you for a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or whatever you may celebrate this special season of the year .... and of course a Happy
and Prosperous New Year to all!
Denny Shortal, Dunwoody City Council,
District One, Post - 1 / Mayor Pro Tem

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Should City Manager, City Clerk Get Bonuses

Among the items on the Dunwoody City Council agenda Monday evening is: bonuses for city manager Warren Hutmacher and city clerk Sharon Lowery totalling $7,000. Both have proven to be more than capable, but the question is: should they be getting bonuses?
Fellow blogger Rick Callihan has written a well-thought editorial about this on his blogsite - I highly recommend reading it. I agree whole-heartedly with Rick.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Vanderlyn 2nd Graders Perform Nutcracker

To a standing room only gathering in the cafeteria Thursday evening, the Vanderlyn Elementary 2nd graders staged their rendition of The Nutcracker. The show was a smashing success, bringing down the house!
Among the Springfield children starring in this off-Broadway production: Meredith Tjepkema, Jack Hogan, Isabelle Wagner, Harrison Fuss and Lilly Caplan.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

City Celebrates 1st Anniversary

The City of Dunwoody celebrated its first anniversary on Tuesday, and for the most part, "so far so good!"
Mayor Ken Wright and the city council should be applauded for all the long hours of work in making the first year a success. The city got off the ground with very few hitches. The mayor hired an extremely capable city manager in Warren Hutmacher, who in turn hired a more than capable, community-minded police chief in Billy Grogan. While Hutmacher has managed to put Dunwoody in the black after one year, thanks to smart use of outsourcing, Grogan has made the police department a visible staple of the community, something it wasn't under DeKalb County's reign.
Not to be overlooked, the city's court system, which has contributed to Dunwoody's projected first-year surplus of $2 million. And our elected officials appear headed in the right direction concerning zoning and code enforcement (please don't bring up the chickens).

But like all cities, even one-year old Dunwoody has issues and in my humble opinion our elected officials haven't made all the right decisions. The council clearly dropped the ball in acquiring control of our parks from DeKalb County. Early on, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis offered us a long-term lease at a minimal rate, with full control, as well as the $6 million in unspent bond money. For whatever reason we turned it down. Now we're negotiating to buy the parks for as much as $4 million. And who knows if the $6 million is even part of the negotiations. Dunwoody has an overall budget of $16 million, so there is no way we can afford to pay DeKalb a quarter of that.
Speaking of budget, our police department eats up close to $6 million, which is almost 40 percent (and more than double what the Citizens for Dunwoody estimated). That's way too much, and this is not a knock on Police Chief Grogan. I'd ask for the moon too if I were police chief. The problem is the council is giving him the moon! Instead of those dollars going to police services, we need to allocate more money to improvements in infrastructure. Here's hoping our roads don't get neglected for too long, and our much overdue road improvements happen sooner than later.
The other issue that I have a bone to pick is with business license fees. Because the city whiffed on hiring the right company to collect these fees, tax dollars are lagging behind and at the last council meeting in November city staff recommended that some Dunwoody companies have their fees raised by over 200 percent. 200 percent! Can you image your property taxes being raised 200 percent! The council did the prudent thing and voted against the recommendation.
It may sound like I'm complaining, but as a citizen I have the right, if not the obligation, to ask questions of our elected officials. It's all about checks and balances.
Again, I applaud the mayor and council, and thank them for a job well done, especially John Heneghan who has made our city government the most transparent in the state. But that doesn't mean our elected officials get a free pass. Or free health insurance - but that's a matter for another day.