Battle for Fulton just beginning

North Fulton County’s GOP lawmakers emerged from the legislative session with a slew of victories in their battle to overhaul a county government they say is bloated and inefficient.

Hostilities between the county’s urban Democrats and suburban Republicans have been brewing for decades, but measures passed by the House and Senate have ignited an all-out political war.

“It’s a power grab by Republicans,” said Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, a Democrat.

Republicans and others say the county has persistent problems, such as botched elections and a jail that’s been under federal oversight for seven years. But the sweeping changes they want to make, if signed into law by the governor, will take years to have any effect.

Meanwhile, tensions likely will grow worse between opposing political philosophies wrangling for control of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year that pay for criminal and civil courts, libraries, indigent health care and other services.

Fulton County is predominantly Democratic. But Republicans re-drew legislative boundaries in 2011, giving north Fulton Republicans control over the process of introducing bills.

The Legislature as a whole generally does not consider bills concerning specific counties or cities unless that jurisdiction’s legislative delegation proposed them. Republicans control Fulton’s delegation.

They have pushed through measures giving north Fulton another vote on the County Commission, making it easier to discipline or fire county employees, making it harder to raise property taxes, and giving judges raises.

A bill seeking to double a homeowners’ property tax exemption stalled in the Senate but will come back up next year.

The coming year could bring a bitter, costly legal battle over charges that changes to commission district maps violated federal civil rights laws by diluting minority voting strength.

County officials have started talking to an outside attorney about filing a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, which must approve election changes in Georgia. South Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards said a handful of Republican legislators “will not bring this county to its knees.

“They won some skirmishes,” Edwards said, “but the war hasn’t been won, and God almighty will give the righteous the victory, not them.”

Eaves said the Republicans’ prescriptions don’t match the problems they say they’re trying to solve.

Republicans say the county spends too much money, but Eaves said they haven’t identified anything they’d cut. And while Republicans say the county has a bloated bureaucracy, Eaves said making it easier to fire employees won’t necessarily reduce the workload.

House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said county commissioners have ignored or rejected two reports on how to reshape county government as city after city formed and the county’s service area shrank. He said making new employees unclassified will make it easier to reduce the county’s bloated employment rolls.

“Fulton County has fundamentally changed in the last decade,” Lindsey said. “More than 90 percent of it is now municipalized. That requires county government to become smaller and more efficient.”

More nastiness could arise as county commissioners — wary of the still-alive homestead exemption bill, which they oppose because it reduces county revenue — debate whether to cut spending as a precaution.

Republican Commissioner Liz Hausmann said the county should consider privatizing some services and streamlining others.

“The message has been delivered,” she said. “We need to rein in spending.”

Proposals have been made to slash funding for Grady Memorial Hospital, the state’s largest safety net hospital, which is receiving $50 million from Fulton this year.

At the same time, the county must find an estimated $8 million per year to staff and operate 10 new and expanded libraries that will this start opening next year. 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.

The county could nevertheless be spending thousands of dollars in legal fees in an attempt to reverse one of north Fulton lawmakers’ biggest victories of the session. Their bill redrawing commission districts will likely increase Republican representation on a board where Democrats currently enjoy a 5-2 majority.

The new plan would force Edwards and Commissioner Emma Darnell to run against each other — knocking out at least one Southside Democrat considered a foe of north Fulton — and would eliminate the at-large seat of a third Democrat and replace it with a new district in largely Republican north Fulton.

Eaves said the county might also challenge a measure that prohibits commissioners from raising the property tax rate for the next two years and requires a supermajority of five commissioners to raise taxes thereafter.

The county hasn’t raised its tax rate since 1991, which Eaves said also shows Republicans trying to solve problems that don’t exist.

The homestead exemption bill, HB 541, stalled in part because of the concerns of people like Nancy Elsea of Sandy Springs. A retired Grady physical therapist, she worried that the hospital would suffer if the homestead measure passed. She visited the capitol last week to lobby against the proposal, which passed narrowly in the House but didn’t come to a vote in the Senate.

“Grady is really going to suffer if they don’t get that money from Fulton County,” Elsea said. “I think people will suffer tremendously.”

Other issues Republicans plan to press in 2014: new powers for the commission chairman, a library reorganization they say will improve services and reducing the pay of Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand.

Ferdinand earns nearly $350,000 a year, partly by charging local cities $1 per parcel to handle tax bills. Reps. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, and Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, sought to make him appointed by the commission rather than elected, allowing commissioners to stop him from collecting those fees.

But Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Roswell, opposed the measure, saying the tax commissioner should be elected by taxpayers.

Another bill passed that will give Superior Court and State Court judges $7,800 and $7,000 raises at a time when many county employees haven’t had raises in six years.

The bill that will make it easier to discipline county and court employees only applies to new employees or those who take promotions, meaning it will take years of turnover before the policy affects a majority of the workforce.

North Fulton’s new commissioner won’t take office until 2015. If HB 541 goes through, the homestead exemption would be at $60,000 in 2018, making the county an estimated $48 million poorer.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Sandy Springs City Councilman Gabriel Sterling, who has a Facebook page called Reform Fulton NOW. “There’s nothing we can do at the state level that’s going to change Fulton County with the wave of a magic wand.”

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