Bills to shake up Fulton get hearing

State lawmakers got an earful Thursday from opponents of several proposals designed to shake up Fulton County government.

Dozens of Fulton residents, employees and elected officials packed a hearing room at the state Capitol, where the county’s legislative delegation took testimony on bills that would curtail property taxes, reshuffle County Commission districts and make it easier to fire county employees.

The hearing highlighted long-standing tensions between the county’s largely white north and its mostly minority south. Republican lawmakers have long sought to remake a county government they see as bloated.

“I think reforms to the Fulton County government are overdue,” Sen. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, said after the hearing. “With most of the county incorporated into various cities, there is no need for the Fulton County government to be as large as it is today.”

But most of those who spoke during the hearing opposed the bills.

“You c0uld not get Milton County,” county employees union President Greg Fann said, referring to a plan to form a separate county favored by some in the north. “Now you’re trying to destroy Fulton County.”

One bill under consideration would allow Fulton voters to decide in 2014 whether to double the homestead exemption on county property taxes to $60,000 over two years. It also would prohibit the county from raising the tax rate for two years and would require five votes on the seven-member County Commission to raise taxes thereafter.

The move would cut taxes for tens of thousands of homeowners. But it would cost the county $48 million in revenue.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves, a Democrat, told legislators that could force the county to cut funding for senior centers, Grady Memorial Hospital, arts programs, the criminal justice system and other services.

Another bill would redraw County Commission districts, eliminating one of two at-large seats to create a new north Fulton district. The proposal also would place incumbent Democrats Bill Edwards and Emma Darnell in the same district.

Several speakers saw the plan as an effort to dilute the power of minority voters.

“It’s about black and white is what this is about,” said Atlanta resident Joe Beasley, the southeastern regional director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

The third bill would make new county employees “unclassified,” meaning they could not appeal to a personnel board if they are fired, demoted or suspended. Supporters say the move would make it easier to fire bad employees or transfer good ones. Opponents — including employee unions — say that could lead to unfair hiring and firing.

Not everyone was against the proposals. County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a Johns Creek Republican, said the commission recently voted to make court employees unclassified. She said the legislative proposal would merely treat all county employees equally.

Hausmann said the redistricting plan would give north Fulton residents more representation that is long overdue. And she said the county needs to examine its spending priorities.

“We have some services that are mandated,” she said. “We have services that are optional.”

It’s unclear when state lawmakers will act on the bills. The bills must clear the local delegations in both houses, as well as the full House and Senate.