South Fulton residents could get a vote on incorporation

South Fulton residents might get to decide after all whether they want to live in a city of their own making.

A bill that would allow Fulton County’s last unincorporated area to vote on whether it wants to be a city was resurrected Tuesday a week after was defeated in committee.

And in resurrection, it was approved unanimously by members of the Senate’s State and Local Governmental Operations committee. Its next hurdle is the Senate, then it must return to the House for approval. Its outcome is still uncertain.

Even this much progress, though, was exciting for Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, who sponsored HB 514.

“They just did the right thing,” he said. “It restores your faith in the democratic process.”

If approved, the proposal would allow all of South Fulton’s residents to decide whether they wanted to incorporate into a single city. The measure was stopped two years ago, and again earlier this session. Last week, a competing proposal to annex all of the unincorporated area into neighboring cities was shot down by the Fulton County delegation. The bill to allow a single city of South Fulton resurfaced this week.

When the measure was defeated along partisan lines last week, residents said they were disappointed that they would not get a chance to vote on cityhood. Since then, Bruce and others have been talking to committee members in an effort to convince them that a city of South Fulton is viable.

For a decade, Bruce said, the area has essentially had its own police and fire departments, administered through the county. A feasibility study showed it would have a surplus in the millions.

Those arguments and others seem to have swayed the committee members who on Tuesday passed though a version of the bill that was altered only to allow the potential city to regulate environmental matters that were not originally spelled out.

“It’s always good when the will of the people has a chance to move forward,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the committee’s chairman.

Residents defeated a cityhood proposal when they last voted in 2007. Rafer Johnson, of the cityhood advocacy group South Fulton Now, said attitudes had changed since that proposal was defeated.

Johnson said he had not voted in that referendum because he didn’t think enough information was available. Now, he said, South Fulton has a track record and there is more will to create a city.

And there are more proposals to break up South Fulton. Atlanta and other cities have been trying to annex some of the unincorporated areas, and the city put forth a proposal that would have divvied South Fulton up among its neighbors.

Last week, after the cityhood bill seemed doomed, Fulton County delegation leader Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, warned an Atlanta representative away from a proposal to have existing south Fulton cities annex the unincorporated area.

But if residents have the chance to decide on cityhood and vote it down, Bruce said, there’s a good chance the unincorporated area will be picked off by its neighbors.

“If they vote no, they’ve chosen what they want to happen,” he said. “They won’t be surprised when they chop it up into pieces.”

The bill still faces challenges. Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has been vocal in his opposition, saying neighboring cities would suffer a loss of tax revenue if a new city were to be formed. It died last year before it got a vote, largely a result of his efforts.

In last week’s committee meeting, Democrats voted to let the vote happen, while Republicans were opposed to it. But residents like Camilla Moore, a South Fulton Republican, said the area is ready to take on cityhood. After the initial vote, she was disappointed that her party, which she says supports self governance and self determination, had been the one to put up the stumbling block.

Regardless of the outcome, for Johnson, the answer is simple: just let South Fulton residents decide.

“It’s not over by any means,” he said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity. I know it’s an uphill battle.”

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