Fulton tax breaks, new city back on agenda for 2015

Big tax breaks for homeowners, a new city in south Fulton County and curbs on the Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand’s ability to profit from tax liens will be back on the General Assembly’s agenda in 2015.

The Fulton County legislative delegation discussed those and other measures Monday – an indication that the upcoming legislative session may be chock full of controversy for Georgia’s largest county.

The session is still months away, and it’s too early to know for sure what bills will be introduced. But it’s clear Republicans in the General Assembly plan to renew their push to remake Fulton County government to their liking.

On Monday the local delegation discussed its 2015 priorities for Fulton County, its schools and cities. Some of the Republicans who control the delegation said their priorities include raising Fulton’s property tax homestead exemption.

A proposal to double the exemption to $60,000 passed the House of Representatives in 2013 but died in the Senate earlier this year. That would have meant the owner of a $150,000 home would pay no county property taxes, while other homeowners would have received big discounts.

Supporters said the move is needed to force Fulton County to cut a budget they believe is bloated.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall showed Fulton spends far more than neighboring counties on some services. But the AJC found Fulton’s spending is often in line with or less than comparable large urban counties across the country.

Critics said doubling the homestead exemption would cut tens of millions of dollars for services like libraries, senior programs and Grady Memorial Hospital. In a recent interview, County Commission Chairman John Eaves said he hopes lawmakers won’t revive the homestead exemption proposal.

“To me, this divisive effort to try to restrict the spending and revenue of county government is just counterproductive,” Eaves said.

Some Republicans also want to prohibit the county tax commissioner from profiting when people are late on their taxes. Last year an AJC investigation found that Ferdinand personally collects 50 cents each time his office sells a tax debt to a private company or a property owner pays off a lien – boosting his salary by up to $31,000 annually. The practice is permitted under an obscure state law. A bill to end the practice died in the Senate this year.

Ferdinand did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats also have some priorities. Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, plans to introduce a bill to allow residents of south Fulton County to vote on forming a city. South Fulton, home to about 90,000 residents, is the only part of Fulton County that remains unincorporated. A similar bill passed the House earlier this year but didn’t get a vote on the Senate floor.

A group of Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library System supporters also asked lawmakers to consider strengthening the authority of the library board of trustees. Some members complain the County Commission is micromanaging the library system. They want the authority to appoint the library director and to determine library hours, among other things.

Taken together, the proposals suggest the upcoming session could be as significant for the future of Fulton County as was the 2013 session, when Republicans passed 10 bills affecting county operations. Among other things, they redrew County Commission districts to give north Fulton more representation, made it easier to fire county employees and prohibited commissioners from raising property tax rates until 2015.

The battle over that last proposal is still being fought in court. In August the County Commission approved a 17 percent property tax increase in defiance of the tax cap. Six Republican lawmakers have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the tax increase.

No matter what happens in court, Republicans may try again to grant homeowners tax relief. Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, Monday said she’s confident the House will pass the homestead bill again and urged her Senate colleagues to approve it.

“Had that passed in the Senate [this year] our taxpayers would not be facing a 17 percent increase,” Jones said.

Democrats and some Republicans have decried efforts to limit the County Commission’s authority over taxes. They say the tax cap and the proposed homestead exemption constitute illegal meddling in local affairs.

“They want to be the Fulton County Commission,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “Why should the 236 members of the General Assembly and the governor in effect become the Fulton County Commission?”

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