New bills reflect Fulton’s power shift

This legislative session has seen GOP lawmakers unleash a series of bills designed to re-engineer Fulton County’s government — or to destroy it, depending on who you ask.

Impatient with a county government they’ve said for years is bloated and unresponsive, and frustrated by their failure to re-create Milton County in north Fulton, Republicans have proposed changes that would dramatically alter the state’s most populous county.

“For the first time in a decade, we’re able to make constructive reforms,” said House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta.

But there are reasons to doubt the bills are about good government alone.

There are no measures so far that deal head-on with some of the county’s most glaring shortcomings, such as its chronic failures running smooth elections and a jail that has been under a federal judge’s oversight for seven years.

What’s more at issue is the growing political power of the suburbs and the shrinking clout of urban areas in a solidly Republican state, a review of the legislation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveals.

While north Fulton’s population makes up a minority of the county, its legislators have risen to powerful positions and are attempting to recast the county in a GOP image. This in a county so Democratic no Republicans bothered running last year for sheriff, district attorney, solicitor general or tax commissioner.

Republicans say they have to take control because their approach is the one most likely to produce responsible government.

“It is partisan, there’s no question,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. “It’s a difference of philosophy about what are good measures to be taken for effective operations of the county.”

Willard and others have touted their bills as long-overdue measures needed to make Fulton more accountable to taxpayers. Among other things, they’ve proposed doubling the homestead property tax exemption at the expense of revenue and taking away new employees’ rights to appeal firings or disciplinary actions.

Democrats say forced tax cuts could threaten senior centers, including a popular complex in Sandy Springs, and cause new libraries to open without books in Alpharetta, Milton and Roswell.

As a warning of where future cuts could come, commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to hold off on spending $11.1 million on new library books and committing any more funds to Grady.

House Republicans displayed their power last week when they held up Democratic bills affecting local governments throughout the state after Democrats helped defeat House Bill 541, the homestead exemption bill, in an initial vote.

The bill narrowly cleared the House two days later and has moved on to the Senate. If enacted, it would force a more conservative approach to financing on Fulton. The $60,000 exemption, which would have to be approved by county voters, would excuse anyone with a house valued at $150,000 or less from paying property taxes, creating a hole estimated at $48 million in the county’s $572 million general fund budget.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, the bill’s sponsor, pointed to a bipartisan bill approved by the House in 2008 that would have raised the exemption to $50,000, allowing further increases for inflation. The Senate later capped the exemption at $30,000.

“Fulton County has a spending problem,” Jones said, “and Democrats agree on that.”

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, a Democrat, said HB 541 is an attempt to “go after the jugular” of the county.

“It’s not to fix Fulton County,” Eaves said. “It’s to hamper Fulton County.”

Seething conflict

It’s also the latest chapter in a decades-long conflict between the Atlanta-based county government and the northern suburbs. The two ends of the county have been drifting apart since the early days of desegregation in terms of racial demographics, income and politics, and they frequently clash along party lines.

North Fulton residents such as Jill McMullan of Alpharetta rarely deal directly with the county.

McMullan called the elections department last year after waiting more than an hour in an early-voting line, then finding only a fraction of the machines in use. The woman she spoke to was testy and unhelpful, she said, so she filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“That is what I expect from them, and that is my general impression of them,” she said, “that they are bloated and useless.”

Southside Democrats question claims that Fulton is wasteful and overtaxes homeowners.

Fulton already has the state’s highest homestead exemption. The property tax rate hasn’t gone up since 1991 and is among the lowest in metro Atlanta.

“Does that sound like somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing?” south Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards asked this month at a community meeting.

Interwoven in several of the GOP bills are strikes at long-standing foes such as Edwards, along with attempts to replace Democratic officeholders with Republicans. They include:

  • A plan to redraw County Commission districts that would put south Fulton Democrats Edwards and Emma Darnell in the same district, forcing them to run against each other.
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    A proposal to make Fulton’s chief magistrate judge an elected position, rather than the appointee of State Court judges. Under Willard’s plan, the governor — right now Republican Nathan Deal — would appoint the next chief magistrate for a four-year term. That would likely give a GOP appointee the advantage of incumbency in the nonpartisan post before elections begin.

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    A bill aimed at the Registration and Elections Board, which came under scrutiny last year when mismanagement caused more Fulton voters to use paper ballots than the rest of the state combined. The fix: allow Fulton’s legislators, rather than the County Commission, to pickthe board’s chairman. That would likely make the board 3-2 Republican rather than 3-2 Democratic.

If some of the GOP measures seem overtly partisan, it’s for a greater good, said Brad Carver, vice president of the Fulton Republican Party and a lobbyist for the Buckhead Coalition.

“If we’re able to pass these Fulton County reform initiatives,” Carver said, “I think the people in north Fulton will feel included in the process, which takes away the need — or the perceived need — for Milton County.”

Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said “they’re trying to do their very best, legislatively, to make (Fulton) more Republican than it actually is.”

The right fixes?

Whether it’s the right medicine is debatable.

An AJC investigation last year, as well as a report by consultant Gary Smith, traced the election problems to incompetence, not party politics.

In fact, it was Republican elections board member William Riley who intervened in the hiring process to put a friend, former Fulton Democratic Party Chairman Sam Westmoreland, in charge of the elections office. Westmoreland was unqualified, had fudged parts of his resume and made decisions that left the county unprepared for the November elections, the investigations found.

Lindsey defended the measure, saying, “We’re trying to get control of a really bad situation.”

Willard said the chief magistrate bill will ensure the pick is nonpartisan and said the governor could even pick the current judge, Stephanie Davis.

Willard also co-sponsored a bill targeting Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, whom Willard has been at odds with for more than a decade over his collection methods and his pocketing of personal fees that have earned him nearly $350,000 per year.

Willard acknowledged the contradiction of the two bills — for one, the solution is elective office; the other, appointment — but he said he won’t give up trying to oust Ferdinand.

“You got a better play?” Willard said. “He’s operating, I think, to the detriment of the people of the county.”

Democrats have erupted in protest.

“Without Arthur Ferdinand, you’re bankrupt,” Edwards said at the community meeting. “You’ve lost control of your courts. You’ve lost control of your commissioner. You’ve lost nearly $50 million to be able to take care of these things.”

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