Northside lawmakers ready, able to reshape Fulton government

Northside Republican lawmakers have spent decades criticizing Fulton County government as dysfunctional and wasteful. Now they have the power to do something about it.

Expect action, but how swift remains to be seen.

Shifting some county services to cities — as several GOP leaders have suggested — might be too complex, given time constraints and the lack of discussion between lawmakers and city leaders who would face extra expenses. Passing legislation that would allow north Fulton to break away to form a new Milton County remains impractical, mainly because the idea’s most powerful advocate, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, has never been able to assemble enough votes.

More doable this year: a reconfiguration of the County Commission that would give north Fulton more input into the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax funds and services for nearly 1 million people.

The Legislature could also beef up the powers of the commission chairman and protect the county manager from being fired without cause, changes that could lessen the circus atmosphere of public meetings.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said such structural changes won’t end the push for secession.

“Maybe lessen the steam,” he said. “Trying to get Milton County has several hurdles that nobody’s figured out how to get around. So in the meantime, let’s make what we have work better.”

One of those hurdles is that breaking off Fulton’s affluent white area from its less-affluent, mostly minority urban area might not survive scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department. Several Southside leaders have vowed to fight in federal court if the Republicans make any efforts this year to alter the county.

“I think anything they do would be a Justice Department issue,” south Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards said. “People just need to stop being divisive and allow Fulton County to run its government.”

Through statewide redistricting, Republicans took control of the county’s legislative delegation for the first time this year. The Senate and House panels, made up of lawmakers whose districts fall within Fulton, decide whether any bill dealing specifically with the county gets introduced in the General Assembly.

The House and Senate delegations will have their first meetings of the year Wednesday.

Republicans have long said that the delegation’s Democratic majority has prevented them from altering the county government structure, which they say should be done now that more than 90 percent of Fulton’s residents live in its 14 cities.

The north and south ends of Fulton are vastly different in terms of income and demographics, and they’re frequently at odds politically. At issue in the debate is hundreds of millions of city and county tax dollars, the growing political clout of the affluent suburbs and the future of the state’s largest city.

Caught in the middle are residents who rely on city and county governments for roads, police, fire protection, libraries, parks and criminal justice systems.

Northside residents have long said that Fulton siphons their tax money to the south while ignoring their needs. That notion prompted those same residents over the past seven years to form three new cities or be annexed into existing cities.

Southside leaders say their money helped build up north Fulton, so it ought to reciprocate. The dispute has sparked a movement to split off the six northern cities and re-form the former Milton County, which many leaders say would financially eviscerate the communities left behind.

Last year, in a meeting with constituents in Alpharetta, Jones called for shrinking the county’s significance as part of a plan to bring on a new Milton.

House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey also wants to reduce the county’s footprint but to reach a different end result. Lindsey represents Buckhead, which would bear a higher tax burden if north Fulton split away, and he wants to enact changes to hold the county together.

But both Lindsey and Jones have been vague about how, exactly, the county should be shrunk. Lindsey has said some county functions might be better handled by Atlanta and the 13 other cities, but lawmakers haven’t reached out to city leaders about any such plans.

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said she’s not eager to take over any county services within her city’s borders, such as the Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex, which costs more than $1 million per year to operate, or the Sandy Springs Library, which costs $1.2 million per year just to staff and supply.

“I think there’s an awful lot of waste in Fulton County,” Galambos said, “but shifting functions from the county to the cities without changing finances doesn’t make sense to me.”

What might be the most dramatic change this year could come through the redistricting of County Commission seats, a process done every 10 years to account for the latest census. The changes must be approved by the county’s legislative delegation in time for the 2014 elections.

Last year the commission sent a proposed map to lawmakers, which they refused to approve.

The Fulton commission has seven seats, two of which are countywide. Of the five districts, 1 1/2 take in north Fulton.

Lindsey said the delegation will consider eliminating the countywide seat held by Robb Pitts and giving north Fulton another commissioner.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said Republicans haven’t been able to elect a Fulton commission chairman since John Eaves narrowly defeated Lee Morris in 2006, and now they want to take over by changing the rules.

“It’s going to be a titanic legal battle,” Fort said. “It would be a voting rights challenge, the impact on minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice.”

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