GOP lands most of Fulton package, but big one gets away

Republicans will finish the legislative session with a series of victories in their effort to remake Fulton County government, including new limits on property tax hikes and proposals that will make it easier to fire county employees.

But their biggest goal — a tax cut for Fulton homeowners — eluded them Tuesday as they wrapped up action on a flurry of bills affecting county operations.

Supporters say that House Bill 541, which would let Fulton voters decide whether to double the county’s homestead exemption to $60,000, will not come up for a vote Thursday, the session’s final day.

Still, Republicans say the bills they did pass will help overhaul a county government that spends too much and is unresponsive to their constituents.

“I think we’ve made progress in reforming Fulton County,” Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said Tuesday. “This has been a long time coming.”

Democrats who fought the proposals say the real goal is to hobble the county so it will be easier in the future to turn north Fulton into Milton County — a longtime goal of some Republicans.

“They don’t care about reform,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They care about control and destroying Fulton County.”

The size and scope of Fulton’s government has been hotly debated this year in the Legislature as Republicans pushed a series of measures affecting its operations.

Among the GOP successes was House Bill 604, which would prohibit the Fulton County Board of Commissioners from raising the property tax rate for the next two years and would require five votes on the seven-member board to raise taxes thereafter.

“It’s always good when we’re making it harder to raise taxes,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell.

HB 604’s passage served as a salve for the miss on the homestead exemption, which would have allowed the owners of homes worth $150,000 or less to pay no county property taxes and provided a tax cut to tens of thousands of other homeowners.

County officials said that would have cost Fulton $48 million annually in property tax revenue and endangered funding for Grady Memorial Hospital, libraries, senior programs and other popular services.

Though the homestead exemption bill passed the House, it didn’t get enough support in the Senate and is dead for this session, Albers said.

Among the other Fulton County measures the Senate approved Tuesday:

  • House Bill 435, which would expand the duties of the chief judge of State Court and gives the judge a $6,000 raise.
  • House Bill 444, which would require Fulton to give Superior Court judges a $7,816 raise. State Court judges’ salaries are a percentage of Superior Court judges’ salaries, so State Court judges also would get a raise. The total cost: about $230,000.
  • House Bill 594, which would make most new county employees “unclassified.” That means they could be fired, demoted or disciplined without notice and without the right to appeal. All public safety employees would continue to be classified employees and could not be dismissed, demoted or suspended without prior notice and could appeal.
  • House Bill 598, which would make all court employees “at-will” employees and, therefore, easier to fire or discipline.

In addition to those bills, the General Assembly already has approved proposals to redraw County Commission districts and to allow the county’s legislative delegation to appoint the chairman of the Fulton election board. All of the bills now await the the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal.

Deal said he wouldn’t comment on the pending legislation but that he will give particularly close scrutiny to the Fulton proposals and other legislation affecting local governments.

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, a Democrat, expressed relief that the homestead bill failed. But he said the property tax cap may be illegal, and he called many of the other bills “mean-spirited, ill-advised, divisive and counterproductive.”

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.