Creating a city of Eagle’s Landing could potentially spell doom for the future of Stockbridge and could harm cities and municipalities across Georgia, lawyers for the Henry County community and one of the nation’s largest municipal bond holders argued in federal court Monday.
Stockbridge, a city of nearly 29,000 residents, would lose as much as 48 percent of its property tax base and 54 percent of its commercial businesses if voters approve Eagle’s Landing cityhood in a Nov. 6 referendum. The new city would be formed by de-annexing about half of Stockbridge and combining that territory with parts of unincorporated Henry County to form Eagle’s Landing.
That could force the city of Stockbridge to drastically double millage rates on remaining residents to pay its bills, making mortgages too expensive and the cost of operating a business in the south metro community too high, the lawyers argued. The federal court hearing was the latest confrontation in a battle that has exposed fault lines of race, economic division and changing demographics within the community in north Henry County.
“The harm is the city of Stockbridge on Nov. 6 will very likely start this economic spiral,” said Balch and Bingham attorney Chris Anulewicz.
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Stockbridge and Capital One Public Financing — which holds about $11.75 million of Stockbridge bond debt — are suing the Henry County office of elections and registration to stop the referendum, calling it unconstitutional because it does not proportion the debt Stockbridge owes to the new city of Eagle’s Landing.
The outcome of the case is being widely watched because of the impact it could have on other communities that might want to secede from their home cities, such as Buckhead separating from Atlanta.
It also could have implications for how much cities across the state pay for municipal bonds in the future. The big bonding companies and bond experts have warned that Georgia could pay more for borrowing money because lenders would price the potential for secession into loans.
Coleman Talley attorney Thompson Kurrie, who represents Eagle’s Landing cityhood supporters, said Stockbridge has as much as $34 million in funds at its disposal and another $4.5 million in assets that it could sell to raise more revenue, more than enough to cover its obligations.
He added that Stockbridge leaders also consistently leave out that the referendum would also allow some residents in unincorporated Henry County to become part of Stockbridge, adding hundreds of new residents.
“That’s not been touched (on) here,” he said.
District Court Judge Leigh Martin May declined to rule on the motion Monday, saying she wanted to read over the arguments and see if she had follow up questions. But she promised to expedite her decision, though she did not say when she would rule.
She expressed skepticism about arguments put forward by both sides at the hearing that ran for 3 and 1/2 hours. She pressed Stockbridge and Capital One lawyers to say why they couldn’t just put the burden on the residents who would be left behind and asked Kurrie why the new Eagle’s Landing residents should be free of the obligations they made as Stockbridge residents.
“There are other ways that your client can be made whole other than stopping the election,” May said to Capital One attorney David Balzer of King & Spalding.
Balzer responded that the problem is “this is legislation that move half of our collateral out in a way that we can’t access it.”
Judge May acknowledged the unusual nature of the referendum and the lack of similar cases or precedent. The Eagle’s Landing cityhood effort is the first in the state where a city would be formed by taking territory from an existing town.
“I do want to make sure I get it right,” she said.