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North Fulton wants to secede

Support grows for a Milton County bill - too bad it may be illegal

The Milton County secessionist movement has been percolating for more than a decade as anger has grown in the northern end of Fulton County – that is, the more affluent, more Republican and, yes, whiter end of the county – with how county officials have spent their tax money.

One might have predicted that the desire among north Fultonites to sever ties and start their own county would have weakened after their success at establishing the new cities of Sandy Springs, Milton and Johns Creek. One would, of course, have been wrong.

If anything, the drumbeat for splitting off from Fulton County has only gotten louder north of the Chattahoochee River in recent years, says state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs. "It's turned into a very fervent campaign, as strong as the push for cityhood was."

And so we've arrived at a new, more localized version of North vs. South – only in this case, the northerners are the ones wanting to break up the union. Their prime objective is to escape the high taxes and inefficiencies of a swollen county government that has long used their communities as an ATM to continue offering a vast range of social services to those inside and south of Atlanta's urban core.

But creating a new county – in a state that already has 159 of them – is a far more difficult and legally fraught undertaking than starting up a few cities. In addition to the prospect of shifting Fulton's remaining tax burden in a way that could hurt Atlanta's future growth, there's also the necessity of restructuring billions of dollars in bond debt and agreements.

Still, the champions of Milton forge onward.

Wilkinson and his north Fulton colleagues are co-sponsors of House Resolution 21, authored by Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, calling for a public referendum to re-establish Milton County, which was folded into Fulton after going bankrupt at the start of the Great Depression. While Jones was promoted in January to speaker pro tempore, the House's second-ranking post, her legislation was given little hope of passage when initially introduced. But Wilkinson says HR 21 has slowly gained momentum.

Just days ago, the AJC ran an article revealing the $1 million-plus Fulton lavishes on an eight-person county clerk's office that apparently exists to cater to elected commissioners' every whim – including errands and chauffer services. That's more than twice the amount spent by DeKalb, the next-largest county. "The more people are reminded of the waste and dysfunction in Fulton, the more votes we pick up," says Wilkinson, who claims HR 21 now stands only a handful of votes away from the hefty two-thirds majority needed to pass it out of the House. "I think it's going to be much closer than people think."

His fellow House member, the normally easygoing state Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, can get a little worked up describing how Fulton's elected officials simply don't "get it." Despite that more than 90 percent of Fulton's 1.1 million residents now live within one of the county's 14 cities, the county has resisted widespread calls to trim its services or payroll, Lindsey points out. Its 2010 budget of $588 million is higher even than Atlanta's $540 million. And Fulton still has about 5,500 full-time employees, more than either Cobb or Gwinnett, which have more sizable unincorporated areas.

"Fulton government is physically bloated and politically blind," says Lindsey, who recently introduced legislation intended to force the county into abandoning many of the municipal services it currently provides.

It can therefore only be considered a cosmic irony that Lindsey is arguably the best friend Fulton County has in the world. He was the only Republican to join the losing side of a 9-7 vote to pass Jones' resolution out of committee and, that same week, he dropped an alternative. Under Lindsey's HR 1589, if a state referendum is successful, Fulton would be restricted to providing only those core functions specifically listed in the state constitution: maintaining courts and a jail through a sheriff's office, assessing property values, overseeing elections, issuing car tags, and providing health services.

It's a little unclear as to the full scope of operations the county would be forced to discontinue; that would likely be determined by follow-up lawsuits. But at the very least, Fulton would be out of the business of awarding arts grants, running police and fire departments, and other services. If Lindsey's proposal were adopted, Fulton would undoubtedly be forced to shed thousands of employees and slash spending. "I'm trying to help save Fulton County from itself," he says.

Actually, Lindsey concedes that his motives aren't as noble as all that. Nearly all parties agree that losing north Fulton's valuable tax base would mean a higher tax burden for the remaining county residents, especially those in Lindsey's Buckhead district. "I don't believe my constituents should be left holding the bill," he says.

A report issued by the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation suggested that Fulton would lose nearly $200 million in tax revenue if Milton split off, but the exact figure would depend on where the new county line is drawn – the old Milton County was north of the Chattahoochee, but many neo-Miltonites want to claim everything north of the Atlanta city limits.

Lindsey's proposal to diminish Fulton might have soothed alienated north-end taxpayers a few years back, Wilkinson says. But now nothing short of a complete divorce from the current government will satisfy. "It's a fight that won't be abandoned," he says.

While Wilkinson credits commission Chairman John Eaves' attempts to reach out to Milton advocates, Eaves is a relative newcomer whose efforts at conciliation are consistently undermined by his fellow board members. What's more, commissioners from the south end of the county, who hold a majority of votes, have continuously blocked efforts to reform county government.

In 2006, the commission convened a "blue-ribbon" panel to suggest reforms – and then proceeded to ignore the recommendations, which included reducing the number of commission districts. The next year, Lindsey chaired a bipartisan legislative task force to generate other ideas for fixing Fulton. A week after the group completed its work, the commission voted to condemn its efforts. And throughout the 2005-2006 legislative battle to create north Fulton's three new cities, south Fulton Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards threatened lawsuits and accused proponents of cityhood of racism.

Even now, there's little sign that Fulton has learned the key lesson of "The less said, the better." Instead, the county has created a new website, www.onefulton.org, that offers its opponents even more ammunition.

Fulton Commissioners Lynne Riley, a Milton proponent, and Robb Pitts, a Milton opponent, did not return repeated calls for comment, nor did Eaves respond to an interview request. But others have jumped into the fray to keep the controversy roiling. At the recent committee hearing on Jones' HR 21, the county bused in dozens of south Fulton seniors to rail about the Milton proposal. Several black Fulton legislators, most notably Rep. Joe Heckstall, D-East Point, used racially charged arguments that Wilkinson says were inappropriate.

Still, even if suburban Republicans decided to create Milton simply to spite their critics, it's far from certain that downstate legislators would back them up. Jones' resolution calls for a referendum in which only prospective residents of the new county, rather than all Fulton residents, would be allowed to vote – a dangerous precedent that should concern elected officials across the state.

In addition, the provision is possibly illegal in that it "would disenfranchise about 700,000 people" by denying them a voice in the future of their own county, says Lindsey. The chances of such a measure gaining the necessary approval from the U.S. Department of Justice – which monitors Georgia for schemes to dilute minority voting strength – are likely slim to none.

All of this may explain why Mayor Kasim Reed hasn't publicly voiced an opinion on the matter, even though Atlanta stands to lose big if Milton comes to pass. Unlike his hapless fellow pols in Fulton County, the mayor seems to know when it's best to remain silent.