Escape from Fulton

Before her run for secretary of state, Karen Handel hopes to fix Georgia's largest county

Here's a heads-up for any Fulton County residents planning to slip into a coma for the next couple of years: Georgia's largest county is likely to be a radically different place when you wake up.

OK, we're not suggesting you'll see 10-foot mushrooms sprouting along the Chattahoochee River or a smoothly flowing Ga. 400 or anything crazy like that. Rather, the county government will have undergone a fundamental change. Perhaps it will be smaller. Could be it will perform different functions than it does now. Almost certainly it will be poorer.

That's assuming that it continues to exist at all.

"The plan for the future of the county will be laid out in the next year," predicts Karen Handel, chairwoman of the Fulton Commission, who has two pressing deadlines to meet.

The first is the 2006 General Assembly, when impatient legislators could force an unprepared county to accept a new - and potentially not-so-desirable - reality. That already happened this spring, when lawmakers cleared the way for the creation of a city of Sandy Springs, a move expected to drain $25 million from county coffers.

Handel's second deadline is a personal one. For weeks, it's been an open secret that the north Fulton Republican was planning to jump into the race for Georgia secretary of state. Handel wouldn't discuss her upcoming campaign for that office, but she did confirm to CL that she expects to formally declare her candidacy in about a week for the post now occupied by the outgoing Cathy Cox.

Her expected announcement comes as the county appears more dysfunctional than ever - what with rich northern residents complaining their property taxes subsidize poorer (and less lily-white) areas to the south and with racially divided commissioners trying to score points with their constituents over the Sandy Springs incorporation fight.

While she says she'll serve out the remaining 18 months of her term as Fulton chairwoman, Handel's decision gives her only until the end of 2006 to secure her legacy. Will she leave the county in better shape than she found it, or will she simply be escaping from a sinking ship?

Handel's inner wonk can't wait to get started on answering that question by launching a full-scale reconsideration of the types of services the county should be providing its residents.

"How often does a government have the opportunity to rethink its mission from a clean beginning?" she wonders.

State Sen. Sam Zamarripa couldn't agree more. The Atlanta Democrat will co-chair a legislative study committee this fall to reimagine Fulton after the loss of Sandy Springs tax revenues. "The county needs to be reframed and, in my view, this is the time to look at consolidation," he says.

The ambitious proposal Zamarripa has laid on the table would split Fulton in two at the Atlanta-Sandy Springs boundary. Everything to the south would be incorporated into a new entity, "Atlanta County." Everything to the north would split off to become a revived Milton County. In 1932, the dirt-poor county of Milton was subsumed by fast-growing, wealthier Fulton, an irony not lost on many folks now living to the south.)

Under Zamarripa's scheme, Fulton itself would cease to exist, and cities would at least partially merge their governments with those of the resulting two counties. But he's quick to add that his proposal was merely intended to get the ball rolling.

"I'm not pushing a specific plan going in," he says. "I want to stand back and give people room to look at all the options." That said, he does have one agenda in mind: "I'm interested in the city of Atlanta having a bigger footprint, in order to expand its tax base."

His major selling point is that the economies of scale offered by consolidation would provide for greater efficiency in service delivery - a single police force instead of a half-dozen, for example, and county-wide garbage collection rather than several small sanitation departments.

"The fun for me is that Republicans are turning into supporters of more layers of government," Zamarripa says, referring to state Reps. Mark Burkhalter and Jan Jones, Alpharetta Republicans who have proposed creating two more cities out of the rest of unincorporated north Fulton. "It provides an opening for a Democrat to embrace consolidation."

But if consolidation - long beloved by business-minded politicians - is the wave of the future, it's a slow-moving one. Nationally, there are only 35 consolidated city-county governments among 16 states, says Harry Hayes, an expert on local government at UGA's Carl Vinson Institute. Georgia is home to four of those.

"Consolidation is difficult to achieve," says Hayes, who points out that it must overcome various legal hurdles, U.S. Department of Justice scrutiny and voters' whims. "Eighty percent of all referendums fail. Athens-Clarke [County] took four votes before consolidation was approved."

Even then, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. An alternative to full-on consolidation could be service-delivery contracts between governments. Hayes points to a recent agreement between Savannah and Chatham County to merge their respective police forces.

That's more in line with what Handel envisions for Fulton. While she's willing to consider local consolidation, she sees it as unworkable from a practical and political standpoint.

For starters, she says, south Fulton residents already have a strong distrust of Atlanta and certainly wouldn't want to share the city's $3 billion sewer debt. For Atlanta's part, taking over Fulton's responsibility for Grady Memorial Hospital would be like an investor buying up bankrupt asbestos plants - in other words, a bad risk.

"I don't see a scenario in which Atlanta and Fulton could merge," Handel says.

She'd go in the opposite direction: Shrink the size of Fulton government by encouraging its soon-to-be 11 cities to take over some municipal services.

"This county is involved too much in the kind of services that are usually provided by cities," Handel says. "For instance, I don't know why the county makes decisions for arts spending inside the cities."

Over the past two decades, she says, county decisions affecting service delivery were "dictated not by the needs of the public, but by politics," which often pitted north and south Fulton interests against each other.

Unfortunately, those familiar dynamics still dominate the commission, which, by a series of 4-3 votes, has tried to obstruct any changes to Fulton's status quo, rather than examine the kinds of issues Handel wants to address. So how can she begin a discussion of Fulton's future with people who are fighting to keep things just as they are?

For starters, Handel is soliciting private donations to fund a blue-ribbon study panel, rather than rely on her divided board to approve the money. And, of course, she's hoping that the pending incorporation of Sandy Springs - a voter referendum is June 21 - will instill a sense of urgency in her fellow commissioners to face new realities.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.comTo keep up on Zamarripa's task force, visit www.zamarripa.com.