Bill would let South Fulton vote on cityhood

The last remnants of unincorporated Fulton County could become a city under a bill the General Assembly will consider this session.

House Bill 704 would allow residents in unincorporated south Fulton County to vote in this year’s primary election on whether to form a city. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a previous incorporation effort in 2007.

Supporters say incorporating would allow South Fulton’s estimated 90,274 residents to better control their future. Currently decisions about local services are made by seven county commissioners elected from across the county.

“It’s about local control,” said Benny Crane, an incorporation supporter. “You’d have people who live in the footprint of a new city making local decisions.”

Others are skeptical the new city would be financially viable and doubt South Fulton residents have changed their mind since 2007.

“We voted it down seven years ago,” said Dan Young of the Sandtown Community Association, which represents a neighborhood in unincorporated Fulton near Atlanta. “Nothing has changed.”

The push to incorporate South Fulton is the latest in a series of proposals to carve new cities out of the suburbs of metro Atlanta.

This year lawmakers also are considering competing plans to create three overlapping cities in DeKalb County. Brookhaven in DeKalb and Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett have incorporated in recent years. Fulton County saw its own incorporation boom beginning with Sandy Springs in 2005.

Today Fulton has 14 cities that are home to most of its residents. But it still provides police, fire and other municipal services to unincorporated areas of South Fulton, which covers about 105 square miles and stretches from Atlanta to Chattahoochee Hills and from College Park to the Douglas County line.

If South Fulton became a city, Fulton County would be completely incorporated. But it would still provide a variety of services, including the criminal justice system, libraries, senior services and health programs.

In 2007 85 percent of South Fulton voters rejected a proposal to incorporate. But state Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, believes it’s time for residents to reconsider.

Bruce sponsored the bill to allow the incorporation vote. If voters approve the measure during the primary, they would elect a new mayor and city council in November to govern the fledgling city.

The bill faces several hurdles. For a vote to occur this year, Bruce must convince his colleagues to waive a state law that requires a two-year review before voters decide whether to incorporate.

Supporters also must show the city would be financially viable. A Georgia State University study will be completed soon, and Bruce believes it will show city is viable, in part because it’s already self-supporting.

Fulton County’s proposed 2014 budget includes $50 million to provide services in South Fulton, nearly all of it paid for through property taxes and other revenue paid by local residents.

“Basically, it’s already been functioning as a city,” Bruce said.

To cover the cost of services the county raised property taxes on South Fulton residents several times in recent years. Although no tax hike is planned this year, the county will use almost all of the South Fulton fund balance to cover expenses.

Crane, the incorporation supporter, said a City of South Fulton would be in better shape financially because it would have access to sales taxes and other revenue the county currently spends elsewhere. He believes the unincorporated area is “leaving millions of dollars on the table” that would be available to spend on city services.

County Commissioner Bill Edwards, who represents the area, said it’s not that simple. Though the city would see more revenue, he said it would also be exposed to liabilities like lawsuits or natural disasters.

“One catastrophe in the city could wipe out your whole bank account,” Edwards said.

Skepticism among South Fulton residents may prove to be the biggest hurdle to incorporation. Young, the Sandtown resident, said he’d rather be annexed by Atlanta than join a new city.

“It’s not viable,” he said of the proposed city.

Crane said residents will be better off if they incorporate. But he knows he’s got some convincing to do.

“If we have to go door to door, house to house to make this case, we’re going to make this case,” he said.

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