Why creating ‘incredibly insulting’ new Buckhead city would be so complex

Details remain in short supply about how the breakaway city would work
January 26, 2021 Buckhead - Aerial photography shows Buckhead Skyline on Tuesday, January 26, 2021. The quest for cityhood in Buckhead has several hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, but leaders behind a new group exploring the issue say they are confident they have a chance.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



January 26, 2021 Buckhead - Aerial photography shows Buckhead Skyline on Tuesday, January 26, 2021. The quest for cityhood in Buckhead has several hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, but leaders behind a new group exploring the issue say they are confident they have a chance.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The supporters of Buckhead’s proposed secession often mention that lawmakers have approved a flood of new cityhood measures since Republicans took control of the Legislature nearly two decades ago.

But dismantling an existing city is far more complex than creating a new one, and cleaving Atlanta into separate municipalities has presented structural, political and financial challenges that supporters of Buckhead cityhood have so far failed to address.

They include resolving whether more than $3 billion of Atlanta’s outstanding bonds would be at risk after the split, whether children in Buckhead could legally attend local public schools, the fate of the Beltline and other cultural gems, or the future of the proposed public safety center.

These weighty questions are only the start of fresh scrutiny of Senate Bills 113 and 114, the tandem of Buckhead City measures that cleared a Senate committee on Monday and could reach a full vote in the chamber as soon as Wednesday.

There are also overarching concerns about whether it could damage the bond ratings of other Georgia cities and the glaring political reality that a band of mostly rural Republicans is promoting the divorce over the objections of nearly every elected official in Atlanta.

“These bills will choke off economic development because there are significant, practical questions about de-annexation for which we have no answers,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a well-connected Republican operative who chairs the pro-unity Buckhead Coalition.

“What happens to the existing water and sewer infrastructure, whose systems won’t change with political whims? And what about the state’s bond markets?” Tanenblatt added. “These are questions that businesses will consider in their due diligence in considering relocation.”

The cityhood sponsors vow they have compiled answers for the most pressing questions. But they have repeatedly refused to offer many specifics, leaving frustrated opponents to predict it will cost millions of dollars in litigation to iron out the logistics.

City Hall has yet to hit the panic button. The Buckhead cityhood effort isn’t expected to pass the Legislature, let alone reach the November 2024 referendum that the well-funded cityhood boosters promise.

Even some supporters, who say they’re frustrated by Atlanta’s failure to curb violent crime, privately concede the push is likely to get bottled up in the Georgia House if it survives a Senate vote.

Gov. Brian Kemp looks on as Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at a Jan. 31, 2023 event targeting human trafficking. AJC/Hyosub Shin.

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And it’s hard to imagine Gov. Brian Kemp signing off on the measure after forging a tight relationship with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who campaigned on a promise to stave off a split.

Far messier, to some Republicans, is the likelihood that Buckhead’s breakup would effectively guarantee a Democratic mayor of a powerful new city. Like other formerly Republican parts of the region, Buckhead has flipped blue in recent elections.

Still, even if Buckhead cityhood appears doomed, the rapid-fire committee votes on Monday marked a milestone. Last year, legislative leaders squelched the idea long before it reached even a symbolic procedural vote. Now, breakaway boosters can claim an incremental win.

And the newfound traction means that the pro-unity coalition of Atlanta officials, community leaders and business executives — who once threatened a secession movement of their own if Buckhead incorporated — could have to grapple with this divorce threat for years to come.

No ‘chainsaw’ yet

So what has fueled the bounce-back of the breakup movement?

One reason is that Bill White, who alienated key leaders last year with his Donald Trump-like rhetoric, has kept a subdued public persona. Though he still leads the secession group, he’s avoided the type of negative attention he drew in 2022 when he spread toxic conspiracy theories.

More importantly, the pro-Buckhead forces boast a powerful new ally with Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, an early backer of Atlanta’s split.

With the election behind him, Jones hasn’t made cityhood a vocal priority. But he also hasn’t taken a “chainsaw” to its chances as his predecessor Geoff Duncan did a year ago. And lawmakers whispered that it was Jones who quietly paved the way for Monday’s vote.

Buckhead City supporters, including State Senator Burt Jones at podium, as well as other area senators, local residents and some opposed to the creation of a new city gather for a press conference at Loudermilk Park on Wednesday, Sept 29, 2021.  The group announced that during the upcoming special legislative session the bill will be discussed.  Several state senators signed the bill onsite, illustrating support in the state Senate.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

“I’ve been down here 10 years and we’ve voted on referendums to create new cities around the state,” Jones said in a statement. “I’m not going to shut down the conversation. We’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t allow the process to try to play out.”

‘Incredibly insulting’

State Sen. Jason Esteves, a longtime member of the Atlanta school board, has been pushing for answers from pro-Buckhead forces long before he was elected to the state Senate in November.

“We are continuing to find new issues every day,” said Esteves, a Democrat who represents parts of Atlanta. “And we are continuing to poke holes in their arguments.”

He still has a torrent of questions about how Buckhead City would meet its budget and debt obligations, whether it could disrupt financing for MARTA and other taxpayer-funded projects and what happens to students in the Atlanta Public Schools system under the new framework.

State Sen. Gloria Butler, the chamber’s top Democrat, joined him in demanding details rather than vague promises that the founders of the new city will “work out” the specifics.

“Do a little compromise until we can bring people at least halfway to a resolution,” she pleaded.

The GOP sponsors — who each hail from outside Atlanta — have largely framed the issue as part of an ongoing quest to heed locals who feel they’ve been ignored. They say the residents of the wealthy, mostly white community have been marginalized.

Sen. Randy Robertson (R-29) talks about the bill that would increase penalties for pimping and pandering on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

State Sen. Randy Robertson, whose Cataula-based district is more than an hour’s drive southwest of Atlanta, said it should serve as a reminder to elected officials who “forget who they work for.”

“So when movements happen that remind the elected officials who the real bosses are,” he said, “then I have to support that.”

At Monday’s committee meeting, Esteves tried unsuccessfully to propose an amendment that would have required the entire city — not just the Buckhead neighborhood — to vote on the breakaway. Both bills were narrowly adopted by 4-3 votes along party lines.

“It’s incredibly insulting,” Esteves said after the meeting ended, “that out-of-town legislators are using my constituents as pawns to appease a small handful of high-dollar campaign donors.”

Staff Writer Riley Bunch contributed to this report.

What’s in the bill?

The cityhood measures include provisions that critics say are designed to exact a punishing toll on Atlanta. Supporters say they give residents of a proposed Buckhead City access to infrastructure their taxpayer dollars funded.

Under the terms, the city of Atlanta would be forced to sell parkland to Buckhead at rock-bottom prices of $100 per acre rather than the $1 million-plus or so that sought-after plots in Chastain Park and Memorial Park could otherwise command.

The new city would also be empowered to purchase Atlanta’s multimillion-dollar water system for $100,000 and school facilities for $1,000 apiece. Fire stations would go at the fire-sale price of $5,000 a pop.

The leaders of this proposed city would be richly compensated. The mayor would make an annual salary of $225,000 — more than Kemp and surpassing every other city leader in the state, according to a Georgia Municipal Association survey. Part-time council members would collect $72,000 for their part-time services.