Control of Fulton commission at stake in chairman’s race

Hotly contested races for governor and U.S. Senate have captured most of the attention this election season. But the race for Fulton County Commission chairman could have a bigger impact on nearly one million residents of Georgia’s largest county.

The race will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the commission, which oversees hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on criminal justice, libraries, social services and other programs. But, while the parties have contrasting visions of what county government should look like, both candidates have sought to downplay the traditional partisan and geographic dynamics that have dominated Fulton politics.

Incumbent John Eaves, a south Fulton Democrat, led the push for this year’s 17 percent property tax increase, which he says will ensure adequate funding for vital services. He also talks of making sure north Fulton residents – many of whom feel they get little for their tax dollars – get their fair share of services. And he supports an audit to make county government more efficient and effective.

“There’s going to be growing support throughout the county for a heightened level of efficiency and customer service,” Eaves said. “Constituents call because they’re frustrated. (Commissioners) get frustrated cutting through the internal maze.”

Earl Cooper of Atlanta, the Republican nominee, has hammered Eaves over the tax increase and says he can cut spending without reducing services. But he also decries the push by some north Fulton Republicans to form their own county.

Cooper said north Fulton residents can have lower taxes, a bigger share of services and better fiscal management if “we recognize there are needs in the south that have to be dealt with.”

Fulton County politics has long been marked by a tug of war between Democrats in the south and Republicans in the north. The Democrats generally have supported an expansive role for county government, including robust social services. Republicans have long complained Fulton spends too much and should focus on state-mandated services like criminal justice.

Democrats have controlled the commission for decades, and their views have generally prevailed. But that could change with this election.

Because of redistricting and a lack of Democratic opponents, Republicans are guaranteed at least three seats on the seven-member commission, up from two currently. The election of either Cooper or 6th District Republican Abraham Watson – who’s trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Emma Darnell in south Fulton – would give Republicans a majority.

It will be difficult for Cooper and Watson to win in a county where President Barack Obama won 64 percent of the vote in 2012.

Eaves, 52, is seeking his third term as chairman. He’s a consultant for management consulting firm TalentQuest and former Southeastern regional director for the Peace Corps.

He counts among his accomplishments the transformation of Grady Memorial Hospital from a public hospital to a private, nonprofit corporation. He’s spent much of his second term trying to get Fulton’s overcrowded, understaffed jail out of supervision by a federal judge. Though the supervision remains, Fulton has completed nearly all of the requirements to end it.

Last year, Eaves appointed a task force that recently recommended ways for Fulton to cut jail costs and reduce recidivism. If re-elected, he said, implementing those recommendations will be a top priority. He also wants to improve government efficiency through an audit Fulton recently commissioned and continue to shore up Grady’s finances – the county spent $61 million on Grady operations and debt payments this year.

If any single issue costs Eaves the election, it could be this year’s property tax increase, the first countywide increase in 23 years. The 17 percent tax hike cost the owner of a $275,000 house an extra $140 a year. But some homeowners saw much steeper tax increases, thanks to rising property values.

Eaves said the “modest” increase – which raised an extra $60 million in revenue this year – puts the county on sound financial footing.

“We had no other recourse,” he said. “We have cut in some areas. We needed to bring in some additional revenue to make sure we had an adequate level of services.”

Cooper has blasted Eaves for cutting services – including library hours and social services – while raising taxes. “Things that affect people the most, he cut,” Cooper said.

He says Fulton can balance its budget without raising taxes, in part by turning some services over to other governments and agencies. Cooper says Fulton should consider giving its libraries to local cities and turning health clinics over to Grady Hospital – moves he says will save tens of millions of dollars.

Cooper, 50, has worked at nonprofit agencies and churches in several states. Currently, he runs Everyone Can Achieve, which, among other things, helps young people in Atlanta connect with employers.

If elected, Cooper said his top priority would be expanding senior services, including providing more meals to seniors in their homes. He also wants to expand library hours that were cut for budget reasons earlier this year and boost workforce development programs.

Both candidates talk of working across party lines. That may prove necessary on a commission that will have a more equal distribution of power among the parties, no matter who wins the chairman’s race.

“With the commission changing, there will be more of an opportunity for better collaboration on a municipal as well as a county and state level,” Eaves said.

Cooper said commissioners can find common ground on key issues. “Buckhead wants crime to go down just like East Point wants crime to go down,” he said.

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