Lawmakers may renew push to reshape Fulton

State lawmakers are preparing for a new round of legislation to reshape Fulton County government even as a court decides whether the centerpiece of their previous effort – a cap on property tax rates – is legal.

The Fulton delegation to the General Assembly will meet Monday to discuss possible legislation for the upcoming session affecting the county, its cities and schools. The Republicans who control the delegation are mum about their plans, though in the past they’ve discussed ideas like granting Fulton property owners bigger tax breaks and making it harder for elected officials to fire the county manager.

Meanwhile, Fulton County won a preliminary victory Thursday in a lawsuit that will determine whether the tax cap legislators approved in 2013 is legal. A final decision in that case may shape the legislative package Fulton’s critics bring to the General Assembly next year and will affect the tax bills of tens of thousands of county residents this year.

Thursday’s court hearing and the preparations for next year’s legislative session underscore the extent to which Fulton County remains stuck in a legal and political tug of war between north Fulton Republicans who want to cut county spending and the Democrats who control the county budget.

Republicans on the County Commission and in the General Assembly have long complained Fulton spends too much for a county where most residents get police, fire and other basic services from cities. They think the county should downsize, and they’re willing to use state laws that target a specific jurisdiction – known as “local legislation” – to make it happen.

“We took action,” said Rep. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta. “People thought that Fulton had not really adjusted its costs based on all the new cities.”

The Democrats who control the County Commission say they’ve cut staffing and spending and held off on countywide tax increases for 23 years. But they raised the countywide tax rate 17 percent last month, citing the need to protect funding for Grady Memorial Hospital and for services like libraries and senior programs.

“All this rhetoric about bloated government, it’s not accurate,” said commission Chairman John Eaves.

The county remains a Democratic stronghold, and the Democrats have long had the upper hand in the debate. But that changed after the redistricting of political boundaries that followed the 2010 census.

The Republicans who control the General Assembly used the redistricting process to gain a majority of the Fulton legislative delegation. Last year that allowed them to pass a series of laws that have reshaped Fulton County government to their liking.

They redrew County Commission districts to give north Fulton residents and Republicans a third seat on the seven-member commission, with an outside shot at a fourth, depending on the outcome of the chairman’s election in November. Among other things, they also made it easier to fire county employees and prohibited commissioners from raising the property tax rate until 2015.

Fulton officials defied the tax cap last month when they approved the tax increase. Critics – including several legislative sponsors of the tax cap – quickly filed two lawsuits asking Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge G. Grant Brantley to overturn the tax hike and order Fulton to refund taxpayers’ money.

Fulton officials say lawmakers are illegally meddling in local affairs, and they’re not the only ones complaining. Metro Atlanta officials from both parties say the General Assembly is overstepping its authority.

“Capping the taxes, that’s just not what the legislature’s supposed to do,” said Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, a Republican. “If the citizens don’t like the tax rate, they vote out the commissioners. That’s the check on that power.”

Supporters of the tax cap say Fulton is a special case requiring legislative intervention because it hasn’t reduced spending enough to reflect the flurry of new cities that have sprung up in the last decade.

“I’m almost certain that the conservative Republican county commissioners from Republican counties would feel the same way (about the need for intervention) if it were their tax dollars that were the subject of the overspending,” said Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven.

Republican lawmakers say they’re confident the tax cap is legal. But their attempt to enforce it via lawsuit suffered a setback Thursday. Brantley rejected their request to stop Fulton from collecting a combined $1,300 in new taxes six lawmakers owe because of the tax increase.

Though Brantley has not yet ruled on whether the tax hike is legal, the preliminary ruling could indicate he thinks Fulton County is likely to prevail in the litigation.

Meanwhile, the Fulton delegation will discuss ideas for more legislation affecting the county at Monday’s meeting. Several Republican members would not discuss specific ideas or did not respond to requests for comment.

“I haven’t really focused on that,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who co-sponsored the tax cap and is one of the lawmakers suing to enforce it. “I guess we can hear what everyone’s thoughts are (at the meeting).”

Whatever comes could fuel more acrimony in Fulton County politics. Democrats have bitterly decried the flurry of Republican legislation, claiming it’s a step toward breaking the county apart.

“The Republican assault on Fulton County government was designed to eviscerate its authority and power so they could better achieve a separate, segregated Milton County,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.

“I think there will be more assaults on Fulton,” Fort said. “You can expect that. What form it will take, I don’t know.”

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