State lawmaker Jan Jones made one kind of history just a month or so back when she was elected the first woman House speaker pro tem in the history of the Georgia Legislature.
Now, she wants to use her newfound power to write another chapter.
A Republican lawmaker from north Fulton County, Jones wants to create Georgia’s first new county in 86 years, a move already drawing howls of protests from Capitol Democrats who have vowed to defeat the proposal.
“I will be asking for a vote this year,” Jones said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when asked about House Resolution 21. The proposal, if passed by a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate, would clear the way for a November referendum vote to create Milton County out of what is now the prosperous suburbs of north Fulton.
Jones met for 30 minutes Monday with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed at City Hall to discuss the Milton County plan. A Reed spokesman said the mayor is reviewing a series of documents Jones presented on the proposed county.
Republicans contend the new county is needed because the explosive growth of north Fulton has left its citizenry under-represented and overtaxed. Republicans are, in fact, trying to “re-create” Milton County, which was dissolved in the 1930s.
Democrats contend the move would be politically and racially divisive — Atlanta is majority black while north Fulton is predominantly white — and could sap vital financial resources from Atlanta and Fulton County. That, they say, could hurt the entire state.
“It’s a bad idea,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta). “If Democrats can’t stop this, there’s no reason to have a Democratic Party in Georgia.”
Democratic lawmakers are vital to getting the measure through the Legislature. Republicans control both chambers, but would need 15 Democrats in the House and four in the Senate to get the two-thirds vote needed to put the Milton County measure on the ballot.
“It will be close, but I think we have a chance to get it through this year,” said state Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek). “The city votes passed, and this can, too.”
Over strident Democratic objections, Republicans in recent years have carved the cities of Sandy Springs, Milton and Johns Creek out of northern Fulton County.
Jones and other GOP leaders say creating Milton County is the next logical step.
“I’m a slow and steady, incremental kind of person,” said Jones, who was a key player in the creation of Sandy Springs. “I like the phrase ‘aggressive incrementalism.’ ”
The new county would include the three new cities as well as Alpharetta, Roswell and Mountain Park, said Fulton County District 3 Commissioner Lynne Riley, who backs the proposal.
It would have a population of more than 310,000 residents.
“There has been a track record of dysfunction and mismanagement in Fulton County,” Riley said. “That has cost the taxpayers a lot of money. Fulton County government is too big, unresponsive and poorly managed.”
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said Milton County proponents have misled north Fulton residents into thinking the new county will lower their property taxes and lead to providing better county services.
“I’m adamantly opposed to splitting up the county,” Eaves said. “There’s already tremendous Balkanization of the metro area.”
Eaves estimated Fulton County could lose 35 percent to 40 percent of its tax base if Milton County is created. Milton County supporters, however, contend the new county would still pay its portion of key Atlanta expenses, like MARTA and Grady Memorial Hospital. And they contend opponents of the new county have failed to calculate the savings Fulton would realize from not providing services to the north end of the county, though no estimate is readily available on just how much money Fulton County could save.
Estimates based on a 2006 scenario indicate the new county would produce about $209 million in annual revenues and spend up to $150 million. That figure, however, does not include some debt obligations and capital costs.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) opposes the plan but expects the Milton County bill to hit the House floor in the next month. “It’s coming,” he said. “They want to bring it out for a vote, and it will be brought out for a vote.”
Brooks said he thinks Democrats can defeat the measure, but added: “Anything is possible in this political process. There’s an awful lot of horse-trading and swapping going on.”
Newly elected House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has — so far — been measured in his comments on the proposal. Ralston has been preoccupied with budget, transportation and education issues.
Ralston said he recently has begun to review a study on the proposed county by the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. The study (which is online at www.cviog.uga.edu/miltoncounty/milton_summary.pdf) found Milton County would be viable but also found some of the costs are unpredictable.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Speaker Pro Tem Jones,” Ralston said in a recent interview, “and I know this is an issue she feels strongly about. I try to support her every way I can.”
Georgia has 159 counties, second only to Texas, which has 254. There were only 24 counties in Georgia in 1800. The state topped out at 161 counties with the 1924 creation of Peach County in Middle Georgia. The state lost two counties in 1932 when Milton and Campbell counties were consolidated into Fulton as a cost-saving measure.
“I think we need to consolidate some of our counties, not create more,” Brooks said. “This is totally contrary to what Republicans say they stand for.”
Milton County opponents contend those advocating for the county have not considered the costs that would be required to buy Fulton County assets and provide other county services.
But supporters contend many of the usual county departments would not be needed because all of what would become Milton County is incorporated into cities. That, they say, would cut out the need for a planning and zoning department, a public works department and county police.
UGA political scientist Charles Bullock said counties often were created as a way to gain political and economic clout. One county, Treutlen (southeast of Macon), was created because a single family wanted it as a power base, Bullock said.
Bullock said that when Milton and Campbell counties became part of Fulton, the two were small rural outposts framing Atlanta. But a growth spurt in the last few decades of the 20th century transformed what had once been Milton farmland into affluent, sprawling suburbs and office parks.
Fulton County now has more than 1 million residents, and it’s more than 80 miles long. Those facts, Milton County supporters contend, make the county ungovernable.
“The biggest advantage for the people of our city,” Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said, “is that you would have someone who lives in the area making the decisions that affect you. Fulton County is such a huge county. It loses a lot of efficiency at its current size.”
Jones said she is confident Milton County can have a second life, and she has outlined a timetable for its reinvention.
“As long as we are prudent and get everyone at the table, it will get done,” she said. “We’ve studied it every way but Sunday. It’s a very simple measure.”
If the measure passes the Legislature and is approved by voters in November, there would be two more steps to create the county. There would have to be additional legislation in 2011 outlining the details of the new county, and voters in the affected area would have to approve its final creation.
Jones said it could take until 2014 to iron out the details.
“It would also give the city of Atlanta time to consider if they would like to consolidate Fulton and Atlanta at that time,” Jones said. “I think folks need time to figure out how to do this right.
“Good things generally take a while.”
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