Fulton bills spark fear of ‘meddling’ elsewhere

In the next two days, Gov. Nathan Deal will decide the fate of a flurry of bills that would reshape Fulton County government in what could be a watershed moment in Georgia politics.

Among other things, the bills would reshuffle the County Commission, make it easier to fire county employees and — perhaps most controversially — prohibit a property tax increase for the next two years. The result of the tax measure could be a much-needed government downsizing or the gutting of popular services, depending on whom you ask.

Supporters say lawmakers had the authority and the responsibility to approve what they say are long-overdue reforms for a dysfunctional government. They say other local governments have little to fear as long as they’re serving their constituents well.

“I’m actually saddened by the fact that we have to do this,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, “but we have a duty to the people of Fulton County.”

Critics, including some Republicans from outside Fulton, fear lawmakers’ taste for intervening in local affairs won’t stop in Fulton County.

“Just wait, because if you don’t defend Fulton County’s right to home rule, they’ll come after your home rule eventually,” said Steve Brown, the Republican chairman of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners.

Deal has been mum on whether he’ll sign the Fulton bills by Tuesday’s deadline. Though legislation affecting local governments is usually routine, the governor acknowledges the Fulton bills would be a major development.

“This isn’t unusual territory for the General Assembly to go into,” he said, “but this is significant because it is one of the largest counties in the state.”

North Fulton Republicans have said for years the county spends too much and hasn’t downsized enough following the incorporation of cities where nearly all of its people now live. Democrats say Republicans want to diminish Fulton government enough that creating a breakaway Milton County in the north will be easier.

Fulton’s internal squabbling spilled noisily into state politics during the recent legislative session, when Republican efforts to remake county government sparked a series of bitter debates and party-line votes. But developments since the legislative session ended have cast the debate in less partisan terms.

Last month, Fitch Ratings downgraded Fulton County’s credit rating. It noted the county’s continuing use of dwindling reserves to balance its budget, but it also cited House Bill 604, the Fulton property tax measure now awaiting Deal’s signature.

The bill would cap the county property tax rate until January 2015 and require a supermajority of commissioners to approve a tax hike thereafter. Fitch said the measure would limit the county’s budget flexibility and signaled an uncomfortable lack of cooperation among state and local officials.

Last week, a bipartisan group of county officials from across metro Atlanta asked Deal to veto the measure. They cited Fitch’s credit downgrade and possible budget cuts to Grady Hospital that could result from HB 604. But their chief concern was that it could set a “dangerous precedent for legislative interference in other counties.”

Lawmakers pass dozens of so-called “local legislation” bills each session. They’re proposals that expand city limits, overhaul local governmental boards and, sometimes, raise or lower property tax homestead exemptions.

Most glide through the Legislature. But critics say the Fulton bills — especially the property tax cap — are far from routine. Fulton officials and Democrats in the General Assembly say they weren’t consulted about them, and officials from other counties say the bills go beyond helping a local government function better.

“Let us run our own counties and cities, and let the state legislators stick to creating state law,” said Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan, a Republican.

Fulton Republicans who support HB 604 say other counties have nothing to fear. Though the Fitch report noted that Fulton has cut nearly $100 million in spending and 12 percent of its workforce since 2008, the Republicans say that’s not enough. They say the property tax bill is an extraordinary measure to force the county to downsize, akin to the governor’s recent decision to replace six DeKalb school board members. Deal did that after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to revoke DeKalb’s accreditation over allegations of school board mismanagement.

“Did we meddle (in Fulton County)? I think so,” said Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta. “Did we meddle on a proper basis? Yes, I think so.”

Deal has vowed to keep an open mind on the Fulton legislation, which would become law if he doesn’t sign or veto the bills by Tuesday. He vetoed local legislation in 2011 that would have turned Bacon County’s board of elections into a one-member body.

But the governor made clear he doesn’t see the Fulton legislation as a bid by state officials to interfere with local matters.

“These (state legislators) are individuals who are elected to represent the areas, and obviously they are responding to their constituents,” Deal said. He said his goal in vetting the legislation is “to make sure that we’re having a consistent pattern and not an inconsistent patchwork across the state.”

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