F’ville’s Dell reflects on his quarter century of governing

Fayetteville Councilman Larry Dell has ended his 25 years on the city council. Dell, joined by his ever-attentive dog Spencer, recently reflected on his time in office. Photo/Ben Nelms.

Fayetteville City Councilman Larry Dell has ended a quarter-century in elected office.

Dell in 2012 declined to qualify for his Post 4 seat on the council. Known as a man with a penchant for speaking his mind, Dell recently had his say on a number of the significant issues facing the city during his time in office.

Dell in noting why he first ran for his council seat said, “The reason I got on the council is because we were fighting some zoning issues in the neighborhood here, and Dr. (Ferrol) Sams who was on the council at the time talked to me and told me how to go about fighting the zoning. Sambo was my mentor. We had a recall in the city and it came to a point where it was either put up or shut up. So I decided to run and took about 70 percent of the vote.”

Dell acknowledged that he knew little about city governance when he took office 25 years ago.

“I had never been involved and never thought about being involved. (Wife) Suzanne and I had been involved with the girls’ softball league and the bank boosters at the high school and middle school,” he said. “So I figured that, working as president of the softball league dealing with parents, I could pretty well deal with anybody. So that’s how I got started.”

Fayetteville was a very different place in the late 1980s, certainly not a one-horse town but also nothing like the suburban city it is today.

“During that period of time when I first started it seems like we were getting sued every week for zoning issues. We didn’t have much as far as zoning was concerned,” Dell explained. “Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have a land use plan or landscape and signage ordinances or architectural guidelines. So we started working on those.”

Shortly after he entered elected office, Dell said the county asked that the bowling alley on the east side of Ga. Highway 85 north of the what is now the Fayette Pavilion be annexed.

“The reason is that they had two septics systems put in and both of them had failed and there was raw sewage on the ground. In order to (annex that property) we had to annex property all up Hwy. 85 to make it contiguous. The Pavilion came after we annexed. We only annexed about 50 acres of the 150 acres along Ga. Highway 85. Another 50 acres, where the theater is located, was annexed later. And the last section on (Ga. Highway) 314 we refused to annex because we promised the people we would keep it Office-Institutional (zoning) to buffer them from the commercial. The county approved the commercial on (Hwy.) 314 then that septic started to fail. We annexed after the septic failed, but by then all the commercial had been approved on Hwy. 314. So we took it in as it was.”

Dell said one of the biggest challenges he faced in his 25 years in office was getting Piedmont Fayette Hospital.

“There were three or four hospitals competing and Piedmont ultimately won out. It had to be in the center of the county. To me, if there’s anything that was the high point, it was seeing the hospital built here in Fayette and the additions that came with it,” Dell said. “The land had already been annexed into the city.”

Other eventful memories of Dell’s time in office included the improvements to the downtown area.

“We started exploring the Main Street program. I was an opponent because I didn’t feel we should have different regulations for the downtown area, plus it was money that would come out of the general fund to support it,” Dell said. “As time went on and Main Street became more self-sufficient through the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) efforts and the construction of the amphitheater, it began to take a form of its own with less money coming from the general fund to support it and I became a very strong proponent of Main Street.”

Dell also spoke of the way council members worked as a group and the approach they took.

“In my 25 years at the city, one of the best parts of it is that we worked together. There was never an ‘I did it.’ It was always a ‘we did it.’ We disagreed, but never publicly,” said Dell. “It was a privilege working with those guys. We all pretty much took different responsibilities. I was responsible for relationships with elected officials throughout the county and I served for about 20 years with AFCG (Association of Fayette County Governments) working on things like transportation, water and sewer and SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). We all agreed on the priority list for the SPLOST and agreed on the projects that were notable, so people could see we were spending the money for what they voted for.”

Dell said there were times of disagreement between council members. But those differences were hammered out before the final vote was taken.

“We didn’t always agree on everything like some people thought. But we worked out our differences out of the public eye. Regardless where you stood on an ordinance or anything else, once the vote was taken and it was over with, it was done. There was never any animosity because someone voted against something you were in favor of,” Dell said. “We did it together. We took credit together. We never really took credit for anything personally. It didn’t matter if someone did all the work, it was still viewed as a group effort that came with a good working relationship.”

Fayetteville from the late 1980s until the time of the Great Recession saw unprecedented commercial and residential growth. Aside from developing ordinances, the council also dealt with developers whose work helped turn a city of approximately 3,000 residents into one of more than 16,000 today. What transpired, said Dell, cuts against the grain of popular belief.

“The city would have probably gone in a different direction – there were no standards. We were able to establish relationships with some of the developers, supposedly giving them what they wanted. But the truth is, they knew what we would accept and what we wouldn’t. They began to realize what we would accept and that’s what they brought us. We wanted something that was quality and within the zoning, quality and standards we wanted,” said Dell. “So we were able to extract from the developers a lot more projects, like Patriot Park with amenities and infrastructure included and like the police station at the Pavilion.”

Dell gave high praise to the city staff who implemented the ordinances and managed the day-to-day aspects of running the city.

“We began watching the sales tax take a hit quite a while before the recession came. We decided to go to a policy where, if somebody left, we didn’t replace them unless it was a critical position. People began to take responsibility and became cross-trained in a number of jobs,” Dell said, then noting his perspective of those in elected office and how their responsibilities interface with those of city staff. “The elected officials, we don’t do anything. We set policy and stay out of the way of the city manager and the other staff. That’s the way it should be. You don’t micromanage. That’s one element we didn’t get involved in.”

Citing an example, Dell said the council would tell City Manager Joe Morton they needed a budget with no tax increase even though the city’s revenue was falling.

“Joe would throw some of the magical dust he has and come up with a budget that has no tax increase. That’s what you’ve got to do, step back and let the people who know what they’re doing do it. Like (finance director) Lynn (Robinson) and (assistant finance director) Ellen (Walls), they both have a magic wand,” Dell said.

Dell cited the degree of professionalism that exists throughout the ranks of city staff, even though things like downsizing and the lack of raises have been in place for several years.

“Whether somebody on the street department or a fireman who goes out of his way, they are devoted to the city and they are the ones who make us look good,”Dell said. “And I know it’s been tough on employees because they haven’t had a raise in a few years. But we haven’t had the money to give raises. And you’ve got people out there losing their home or losing their job. So do you tax them just to give someone in government a raise? No, I don’t think so.”

Dell throughout his time in office has been a strong proponent of veterans and veterans affairs.

“I was allowed to do a wall at the start of the Gulf War. Most of us were Vietnam vets anyway. We had gone through the war and saw the treatment everybody gave them. We put up a wall in front of City Hall that started with a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet then three 4x8 sheets with the name of everybody that was going. It started off as sons and daughters of Fayette County and ended up anybody that had a relative that was going. When they came home we thanked them and took their name off the wall,” Dell said.

“And the privilege of doing the (new) memorial at Patriot Park and completing it is probably one of the highlights. But it wasn’t for me. It was for the ones who gave their life and the families that sacrificed their loved ones to protect freedom for others and to ensure the freedom we have here at home,” Dell said, echoing the words he spoke at the recent dedication of the Fayette County Veterans Memorial.

Days turn into decades for all of us, and with that passing of time Dell brought his time on the council to an end.

“It’s been a quick 25 years. I’m going to miss it. I’ve met some interesting people and developed some good friendships. The people I worked with, the relationship we (the council) had was a professional relationship, one where everyone respected the other and nobody tried to grandstand. And that’s the way it worked out,” said Dell. “You might not like what I say, but what I say to you I’m going to say to everybody else when I’m asked a question. That way, I never got called a liar.”