A bill that would kick start the process for the wealthy neighborhood of Buckhead to secede from the city of Atlanta had its first hearing Thursday.
Lawmakers on the Senate’s state and local government operations committee heard arguments for and against the bill — S.B. 114 — but took no action.
A group of lawmakers renewed the push to create the “City of Buckhead City” that, if approved by the legislature, would let Buckhead residents within the proposed boundaries vote on whether to form the new city through a ballot referendum in November 2024.
Republican State Sen. Randy Robertson, Cataula, and all of the other eighth co-sponsors on the legislation live outside the city of Atlanta.
The effort by a handful of residents in the wealthy Atlanta neighborhood stems from frustration over how the city has addressed high rates of violent crime — a problem that’s persistent across the city and state.
But Robertson stuck with the argument that residents of the proposed city should have the power to decide whether or not they want to secede from the city of Atlanta, and that lawmakers should not hinder a vote.
“I am not here today to talk about crime, I’m not here to talk about potholes, I am not here to discuss zoning, nor am I here today to talk about disgruntled citizens as related to the city of Atlanta,” he said.
When pressed on why all the lawmakers pushing the bill represent areas outside of the metro Atlanta area, the Cataula Republican argued that state lawmakers should work for Georgians even if they live outside of their districts.
“Every decision we make in this building each and every day with rare exception impacts everyone in this state,” he said. “So I don’t think we are regulated from just the 200,000 people we are elected to represent primarily or out of the pool we’re elected by. I think our responsibilities expand much farther than that.”
One big question created by the bill filed this year on the issue is the staggering size of the proposed salaries for Buckhead City mayor and council members.
The mayor of the proposed city would make an annual salary of $225,000 — more than Gov. Brian Kemp. Part-time Buckhead City council members would make $72,000.
Robertson argued that the high mayor’s salary was justified, based on the challenges of getting the city up and running. It then drops to $170,000 after the first year. By comparison, the mayor of Atlanta makes $200,000 annually.
The estimated population of the new city is around 100,000, compared to Atlanta’s half million residents.
“I think the mayor of Atlanta making ($200,000), I think Atlanta is getting a deal,” Robertson said.
Every speaker who signed up during public comment — from Buckhead residents to Atlanta Public Schools officials — opposed the bill.
“I do not believe that this legislation helps address Buckhead’s challenges and opportunities,” Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman said. “Leadership and resources are fundamentally what address what residents want addressed. And we are addressing those challenges in Buckhead and across Atlanta.”
Shipman said Atlanta voters recently elected a new mayor, council president and many members of city council to address concerns like crime and unemployment.
“We have tremendous momentum,” he said. “We need to grow the pie with that momentum. We do not need to divide it into smaller pieces.”
Atlanta Public Schools representatives told lawmakers that a secession would spark educational uncertainty for many students and create new questions about who is on the hook financially for things like preexisting district bonds and debt.
Even if students within the proposed city’s boundaries are removed from Atlanta Public Schools, they are still on the hook for district debt, said Erica Long, senior policy advisor for APS.
“We’re talking easily over $100 million when you add the bond indebtedness and then also the additional pension liabilities and costs and that is just to the school system,” she said.
About 60% of students who live in Buckhead attend Atlanta Public Schools and are students who would be left in limbo since the state constitution prohibits cities from creating their own school district.
The Georgia Municipal Association, which represents all 537 cities in the state, staunchly opposes the bill for the precedent it might set for other disgruntled citizens to de-annex from the cities they live in.
“The potential precedent set ... by taking any action on this legislation — even honestly, the mere introduction of this legislation — can cause instability ... in planning and growth across cities across the state of Georgia,” Rusi Patel, with GMA, said.
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