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North Fulton secession talks flare up following tax increase
by James Swift
August 13, 2014 02:00 PM | 6325 views | 3 3 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
By a 4-3 vote, Fulton County commissioners approved a 17 percent property tax rate increase last week — the first such hike since 1991.

After the vote, District 3 Commissioner Liz Hausmann suggested the 11.781 tax rate could be enough to revive long-discussed plans for north Fulton to splinter off into its own county.

“A lot of folks are frustrated and don’t feel like their voices were heard,” she said. “I am definitely seeing a renewed interest in that effort to recreate Milton County.”

While talk of a split from the rest of the county has been bandied about for years, it was 2009 before a serious legislative proposal was brought to the table.

Sponsored by a half-dozen Republicans, House Resolution 21 sought to amend Georgia’s Constitution to allow for the “recreation of a previously existing county.”

Although the proposal ended up faltering, the issue remains a passionate subject for primary sponsor — and now House Speaker Pro Tempore — District 47 State Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton.

“The Fulton County Commission’s decision to jack the property tax rate by 17 percent certainly fuels the independence fire in north Fulton,” she said. “My constituents are frustrated with a dysfunctional government lacking credibility and failing to offer basic services at a reasonable cost.”

Jones authored last year’s House Bill 604, a piece of legislation prohibiting Fulton from raising property taxes before 2015. Just hours after the millage rate increase, she was joined by six GOP lawmakers in filing suit against the county.

“We are committed to upholding state law and the Georgia Constitution and protecting Fulton County taxpayers,” Jones said in a statement. “I just wish a majority of our Fulton County Commissioners felt the same.”

Legislation similar to HR 21, Jones said, has been submitted to the state House for the last six years. She said she expects another secession proposal to arise during the next legislative session.

“I think its gaining acceptance around the state as they read about Fulton County’s dysfunction,” she said. “It’s just not reasonable to call a county that is comprised of a million citizens ‘a local government.’”

The hypothetical county is named after a defunct county that was folded into Fulton during the Great Depression.

Although projected boundaries vary, the most common proposal consists of everything north from Sandy Springs to the city of Milton.

Hausmann said the pathway to a new county would not be an easy one, as the proposal would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Georgia House and Senate before even facing a statewide vote.

And if approved by the electorate, the proposal would face yet another vote before the Legislature – and a final vote from Fulton County residents – before the new county charter could be adopted.

“There’s been changes in the elected representation of the Senate, more than the House, I believe,” Hausmann said. “But who knows if people in Augusta, Macon and Columbus would be inclined to create a new county?”

With a population north of one million, District 56 State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said Fulton suffers from a “bloated” government. He was also critical of Fulton’s noncontiguous school system, which is intersected by Atlanta Public Schools.

“Milton County has been continuously worked on for the last many years,” Albers said. “I believe it is an absolute priority for many, if not all of us, in north Fulton for a variety of reasons.”

Citing last week’s millage increase, he said governmental leaders are not representing Fulton County as a whole.

“The county has had a myriad of problems and issues,” he said. “A very healthy Fulton County and a revitalized, healthy Milton County is a good thing for all people.”

Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman John Eaves said he has heard “little to nothing” from his constituents about Milton County since the millage increase.

However, he said the secession proposal is something he’s quite familiar with.

“I’ve heard it, in variant forms, eight plus years,” he said. “It’s a lose-lose proposition.”

Eaves said a majority of north Fulton residents are opposed to the split. He estimated the total cost of Milton County forming its own government — with property and facility purchases included — to be about $1 billion.

As an independent county, he said north Fulton’s tax base would be dramatically reduced, with costs-per-person increasing.

With the formation of new cities, Eaves said secession talks have died down over the last few years.

“I don’t think the rhetoric of legislators match up with the desires of citizens of north Fulton,” he said.

Eaves said HB 604 “infringed” upon home rule, stating that several commission chairs from across metro Atlanta shared concerns about “bad precedent” stemming from the legislation.

“I can’t comment specifically on the lawsuit,” Eaves said, “but I do feel confident that we made the right decision.”

District 4 Commissioner Tom Lowe voted in favor of the tax increase.

“They want the libraries, they want the health centers, they want all these benefits,” he said. “You can’t keep cutting but expanding services.”

He’s also an opponent of north Fulton secession, calling the proposals purely “political.”

Even with a halved Fulton, Lowe said several counties — including a hypothetical Milton County —would still be reliant upon south Fulton resources.

“They depend on the city of Atlanta and Fulton County for water,” Lowe said, “and they depend on them for emergency care.”

Lowe said he wasn’t fearful of lawsuits. “I fear people filing them just because by filing them, they think they’re going to get bought off,” he said.

Former state representative Joe Heckstall represented East Point from 1995 to 2013.

“The north Fulton base is a lot stronger economically than the south side,” he said. “They believe that because they’re paying more money, that they have a right to split.”

Rather than see the county halved, he said he would like north and south Fulton to work together to forge a stronger community.

“One solid Fulton County would be a lot better than two separate entities,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re at a point in this country that we’re going to allow an entire society of people to be left behind … if we do, we’re going to have a drag on the entire economy.”

Beyond economics, he suggested there is a racial undercurrent to the secession discussion.

“Let me just say there’s a gorilla in the room that no one wants to talk about,” Heckstall said, “or even address.”

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