The last time residents in unincorporated South Fulton voted on whether they wanted to become a city, the answer was a clear, overwhelming no.
Nine years later, some residents hope the tide has turned.
If passed, the City of South Fulton would include nearly 100,000 people in a jagged area that borders Cobb, Douglas, Fayette and Clayton counties. Proponents of the new city say that because it is the only remaining unincorporated area in the county, it has essentially been operating like a city for a decade. Residents pay into a special service district that covers the cost of parks, police and fire and other services.
Opponents think the system works well the way it is so why change it?
In many ways, the vote Nov. 8 will come down to whether residents believe they can remain unincorporated, or whether they think it’s better to form their own city rather than join an existing one later on.
In the months leading up to the election, Atlanta, Chattahoochee Hills, Union City and College Park all annexed parts of the unincorporated area. Proponents of cityhood claim that the annexations will continue if the vote fails, and the creation of a new city is a way to control their own destiny. They say it’s likely that the entire area will be divided into its neighboring cities.
To South Fulton resident Michael Coleman, that’s just fear-mongering.
“It’s absolutely misleading to suggest to people,” he said. “It’s scaring voters.”
Coleman’s main concern when it comes to cityhood, he said, is the tax base. The Fulton Industrial District — an area of about 4,800 acres in the county’s southwest edge, with potential contributions of $18 million to $19 million in taxes — cannot be part of the City of South Fulton, or any city, unless a law preventing its incorporation is changed. Without that, Coleman said, he worries that the new city would be too dependent on residential taxes.
“I have very serious concerns about the fact that there’s no real commercial tax base in the proposed area,” he said. “It means the tax burden is going to fall on homeowners.”
But a feasibility study for the new city — completed in January 2014 — shows that the City of South Fulton is “more viable” than it would have been in 2007, when the first vote failed, accountant Kevin Bryan Grimes said at a pro-new city community meeting Tuesday.
Camilla Moore, who has been championing the City of South Fulton, told the gathered residents that they have the chance to create a majority-black city that would be one of the largest cities in Georgia. She urged residents to vote for it “to control the future of our growth.” Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, who sponsored the bill to form the new city, said a shift in Atlanta’s population means South Fulton could be a new base for black prosperity.
The arguments convinced some residents. Amy McCoy, who said coming to the meeting helped her decide to vote for the City of South Fulton. She said she’d like to have “tighter control on a new start-up” government. Now, the area is governed by the seven Fulton County commissioners who are elected by districts throughout the county.
Pamela Freeman, who attended the forum, said she’s probably going to vote for the new city. She lives right on the edge of Atlanta, she said, and would rather be in the City of South Fulton than be annexed in.
“I think cityhood would be good,” she said. “We’re viable. We can take care of ourselves.”
The pitch didn’t work for everyone, though. Steve Littles plans to vote against the city. New city leaders couldn’t do anything to improve the area’s schools, he said. And issues he cares about, like economic development, were never broached. So he thinks another layer of government won’t provide solutions.
“I’m OK the way I am,” he said. “I just want to stay the way I am and be left alone.”
In a perfect world, Sen. Donzella James said, she would also love to stay in unincorporated Fulton County. But over the years, she said, annexation has shrunk the area. It’s time for change, she said.
The exact borders of a new city, though, are unclear — and the whole vote may be up in the air. Lawsuits from residents whose neighborhoods were annexed into Atlanta are pending, and they may vote on the new city without knowing whether they would live in it.
And on Thursday, a federal judge will hear a case that says until those borders have been determined, the referendum shouldn’t be on the ballot at all.
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