The Incredible Shrinking County

If Sandy Springs becomes a city, Fulton County may start whittling away

Is there such a thing as a state of conservative Zen? If so, it appears Karen Handel may have reached it while pondering the meaning of a new city of Sandy Springs.

Now that the three-decade battle for the creation of a city between the northern edge of Atlanta and the Chattahoochee River seems likely to be won in the n ext few weeks, the Fulton County Commission Chairman has become downright philosophical when discussing the impact the city of Sandy Springs would have on the government she oversees.

"For me personally, I don't have to be chairman of the largest county in Georgia," Handel says in regards to hacking a big ol' chunk out of unincorporated Fulton. "This could be a situation where, as a commissioner, you could manage yourself out of a job."

Whoa! Weird words from any politician, but Handel insists she's simply being realistic about the kind of downsized future Fulton County could be facing if the creation of the city of Sandy Springs leads to a domino effect - one in which residents of the rest of unincorporated north Fulton decide to form their own cities, too.

"We need to get above territorialism and find a transition plan that's fair and equitable for all our citizens," says the apparently blissed-out Handel.

But back on earth - where millions in tax dollars are at stake - the Sandy Springs issue is kicking up a lot of dust between state lawmakers, city lobbyists and county officials who don't share Handel's enlightened views.

Here's the scorecard so far: Since the late '70s, Sandy Springs residents, complaining of their affluent community's status as Fulton's designated cash cow, have tried to obtain a city charter to keep their tax dollars close to home - only to be thwarted year after year in the Legislature by the powerful Atlanta delegation. But in this year's GOP-controlled General Assembly, the city's Democratic leadership has indicated it will give up the fight.

An incorporation bill by state Reps. Joe Wilkinson and Wendell Willard, both R-Sandy Springs, is expected to gain traction as soon as this week. Under their bill, a local referendum on incorporating Sandy Springs would be scheduled for June, followed by election of city officials in November and a city charter by the end of the year.

Thus, the question has suddenly shifted from "if" Sandy Springs will become a city to "how." What's more, the imminent creation of a new city of 84,000 people stands to throw out of whack the arbitrary formula used to divvy up about $190 million in sales tax revenue between Atlanta, Fulton and the county's 10 other existing cities.

Currently, Fulton collects 35 percent of sales tax revenue, approximately $65.5 million, and the cities split the rest according to population, with Atlanta raking in $80 million.

Since Atlanta stands to lose $10 million in tax revenue if Sandy Springs becomes a municipality, city officials have been eager to change the current tax-division formula. Any re-jiggering, however, would end up coming out of Fulton County's pocket.

So far, it seems as if the political momentum is with Atlanta.

"Keeping the formula the way it is would be inequitable," says Willard, who nonetheless doesn't plan to get in the middle of the fight. Instead, he's written an incentive into his bill: Either Atlanta and Fulton County reach an agreement on their own within 60 days of Sandy Springs' incorporation, or the new city gets its share off the top - about $20 million - and the bickering parties get what's left.

"My greatest hope is that the city of Atlanta and Fulton County work this out," Willard says.

But the loss of sales tax money is hardly the county's biggest concern. An internal county audit indicates that if Sandy Springs becomes its own city, Fulton immediately would lose $30 million annually from the fund that provides services to unincorporated portions of the county. That figure could be offset by selling some of those same services - police, roadwork, etc. - back to Sandy Springs. Still, Handel estimates that the county is looking at a total hit of at least $20 million a year.

So it's safe to assume Handel is prepared to draw on her own GOP political connections to fight for every penny, right? Wrong.

Handel says she agrees that the cities deserve a larger share of the sales tax and that county officials should get used to the idea that Fulton government may need to shrink.

She takes a similarly existential view on the cities of Milton - proposed by Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, for the northern tip of the county - and John's Creek, nestled along the Forsyth County border and so far just a gleam in the eye of Rep. Mark Burkhalter, also R-Alpharetta.

Actually, Handel's biggest concern is that her fellow commissioners, led by Robb Pitts, will worsen the county's bargaining position by ignoring the political winds.

"If this is inevitable, then we have the responsibility to be at the table to get the best deal," she says, adding: "I think I'm a bit of a lone voice on this."

She's right on that last point, says Pitts, who believes he has the votes to support a resolution he's drafting to put the county commission on record as opposing a city of Sandy Springs.

"I don't take a defeatist position," he says. "If anything, we should be talking about consolidating cities to reduce governmental overhead."

Pitts, who spent years as Atlanta City Council president fighting Sandy Springs' incorporation, says he still favors combining Atlanta and Fulton.

"To add more municipalities is moving in the wrong direction," he says.

It's a direction, however, that seems to be gaining support around the state, says John O'Looney, an expert on municipal government with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

Last year, O'Looney helped conduct a study for incorporating St. Simons and Sea Island. In an echo of Sandy Springs, residents of those two well-heeled coastal communities have complained that they're not getting their fair share of the tax revenue they paid to Glynn County.

If Sandy Springs is successful in its efforts, he says, it could help erase some of the legal hurdles and pave the way for new cities to spring up across the state. The last major city created in Georgia was Peachtree City in 1959.

"The big argument against having lots of little cities is that they tend to look after their own interests and make it more difficult to coordinate regional planning efforts, which can promote urban sprawl," O'Looney says.

But that argument isn't much of a deterrent to Joe Wilkinson, co-sponsor of the Sandy Springs bill, who is looking forward to his community finally being able to control its own destiny.

"We believe that the government that's closest to the people works best," he says.