OPINION: The inconvenient truth, and unanswered questions, of ‘Buckhead City’

One dead following shooting at busy Buckhead shopping center
Caption
One dead following shooting at busy Buckhead shopping center

It’s easy to understand why residents of Buckhead are looking for a way out.

Crime has infused the area so thoroughly that no daily activity — not going to the gas station, not walking the dog, not even grocery shopping — seems free from the threat of deadly violence.

While the neighborhood struggles with its terrified new normal, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms rarely goes to crime scenes there or shows up at all.

More often she’s cutting ribbons on parks across town. If she’s worried about what’s next for Buckhead or the crime going on there, the message is not getting across.

Into the void have galloped Bill White and the Buckhead City Committee, riding to the rescue for residents who feel ignored by their leaders and desperate for change.

“The good people of Buckhead have been taken for granted and abused long enough!” White says frequently on Fox News.

“Yeah!” you can almost hear the golf shirts and loafers yelling from their Chevy Tahoes on Peachtree. “Tell ‘em, Bill!”

White’s pitch to Buckhead voters and the General Assembly, which needs to open the door to cityhood, is tantalizingly simple: Let Buckhead become its own city, and Buckhead will do the rest. They’ll hire the cops. They’ll solve the crime. Boom- you’re done.

White, personally, is a package that’s easy to buy into. He’s gregarious in person. He’s selling at all times. He is so unfamiliar with the details of government and “how things are done here,” it almost seems more like an asset than a weakness. He now uses “Buckhead City” stationery so handsome, the new city seems as good as done.

But kick the tires and you’ll quickly see that cleaving Buckhead from Atlanta would be wildly complicated. Unlike creating a new city in the unincorporated area of a county (think Sandy Springs), carving Buckhead off of Atlanta could disrupt schools, cost hundreds of millions, and have no guarantee of reducing the crime that families all over Atlanta deserve to live without.

Here are just a few of the inconvenient truths and unanswered questions of creating a new Buckhead City, as it stands today:

The Courts won’t change. Crime is undoubtedly driving the push to create a new city and White has promised to put 250 well-paid police officers on the streets to patrol Buckhead. That number would be a huge increase and could have an impact on arrests.

But arresting suspects is just the beginning of solving for crime. No matter where a felony is committed in Fulton County, the case goes immediately to the overwhelmed, under-resourced Fulton County District Attorney’s office for prosecution.

I asked Fulton DA Fani Willis what would change if Buckhead becomes its own city. “It wouldn’t make any difference, none,” she said. “They’ll all end up here. We work cases everywhere from Milton to Palmetto. It’s 15 cities now. It’ll just be 16.”

Willis said she, “doesn’t have a dog in that fight, whether it becomes a city or doesn’t become a city. But we also have to deal with realities.”

The schools could change: I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: If Buckhead becomes its own city, the eight Atlanta Public Schools in Buckhead will still be owned and operated by the city of Atlanta.

On the Buckhead Committee website and in multiple public statements, including this week, White has said, “Buckhead City would continue to utilize, and fund through taxes and fees, the Atlanta Public Schools.”

But the Buckhead City Committee has never met with APS, and APS is under no obligation to commit to educate another city’s children.

On Thursday, Atlanta Public Schools released a statement to the AJC that the current policy for students who live outside the city of Atlanta would apply for potential “Buckhead City” students, too.

Specifically, they ”may be eligible to attend Atlanta Public Schools by paying non-resident tuition, subject to space availability at the desired school. There would be no guarantee of available seats at APS schools for residents of a proposed Buckhead city.”

It may be possible in the future for a “Buckhead City” and APS to negotiate a different agreement, but that has not been broached. And before you think about creating “Buckhead City Schools,” the Georgia constitution would prohibit that.

The Buckhead group said it plans to meet with APS after the November elections and they believe Buckhead kids would have the legal standing to remain at APS schools.

The Parks may not convey: If Buckhead splits off from Atlanta, it’s not clear, even to lawmakers involved in the process, if the vast network of Atlanta City parks would transfer to Buckhead or remain under Atlanta’s ownership.

Because no city in Georgia has ever successfully “divorced” another city, the existing law does not address who would get the parks post-Bucks-xit. If the General Assembly does not specify that in enabling legislation, it’s possible a new Buckhead would need to buy Chastain Park, Memorial Park, and all the rest, at market rates, from Atlanta, if the city would go along with the deal.

Bonds don’t pay for themselves: An easy answer is rarely as simple as it seems, and the question of bonds in Atlanta and the state itself is a perfect example.

When Eagle’s Landing tried to de-annex itself from the City of Stockbridge in 2018, the legislation making the split possible would have let the new Eagles Landing leave without taking its portion of Stockbridge’s bond debt with it.

Capital One bank filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the move would “cause irreparable harm” to the contract it had in place with Stockbridge.

Moody’s Investor Service issued an analysis that all local governments in Georgia would be “credit negative” because lawmakers had established a precedent that “the state can divide local tax bases, potentially lowering the credit quality of one city for the benefit of another.”

The Buckhead group says it is “committed to honoring obligations related to Atlanta’s publicly issued bonds via a pro-rata portion of the city’s debt.” But Edward Lindsey, the former House minority whip who is now a lawyer for the anti-cityhood effort, called the bond issue for a potential Buckhead “unchartered territory” that could drive up the costs of borrowing for every city and every taxpayer in Georgia.

The people leading the Buckhead cityhood effort have pushed this boulder up the hill further than anyone in Georgia politics thought possible. But before they push it over the top, there are unanswered questions voters deserve to have asked and answered. And these are just a few.

ExploreAJC coverage of the Buckhead cityhood proposal

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