Chairman defends Fulton as reforms loom
Fulton County’s legislative delegation will soon use its new Republican majority to push bills targeting county government, saying it needs sweeping reforms.
County Commission Chairman John Eaves said a better solution would be more cooperation between the county and north Fulton governments.
Currently Republicans hold a 13-12 majority in Fulton County’s state House Delegation and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. Cooperation won’t be required to achieve their goals.
North Fulton lawmakers laid out their plans for the current session during a Jan. 24 luncheon for the delegation held in Sandy Springs. Their strategy involves both changing the structure and funding of government and introducing legislation to recreate Milton County.
Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, speaker pro tem of the House, said the delegation agrees that change is needed, even if some members differ on how to make those changes. Calls to recreate Milton County divide delegation members, with some saying the delegation should wait to see if it can change the county government to their liking.
“I want no footprint from Fulton County in my area, but in the end we want a lesser footprint for Fulton County,” Jones said. “We want residents to have accountable government that’s responsible to them.”
Milton County will be a long-shot because it would face constitutional and electoral challenges. The Georgia Constitution sets a limit of 159 counties, meaning it would require an amendment approved by voters in a statewide election. Another option legislators discussed would be allowing a county-wide vote by petition, but it would have to be approved by a majority of county voters.
The delegation will redraw the county’s district maps, which it is required to do by law, and there are proposals to increase the authority of the chairman and impose term limits.
Eaves said the measure that concerns him most is a bill Jones introduced to increase the homestead tax exemption from $30,000 to $60,000. Eaves called the bill “mean spirited” and said it would reduce county revenue by $48 million.
He said the exemption would mean the county would cut funding for libraries, the arts, senior centers, public safety and Grady Memorial Hospital.
“There’s been no conversation between the sponsors of the legislation and the county,” Eaves said. “It’s an attempt to minimize the spending authority of the Fulton County Commission.”
Fulton County’s tension with its northern residents boiled over in 2005 when Republicans took control of the Legislature and allowed a referendum to incorporate the city of Sandy Springs. Soon, Johns Creek and Milton formed.
Residents of the northern part of the county complained they weren’t getting enough for the tax money they paid.
A subtext of the argument has always been racial. Most of north Fulton and its affluent new cities have a majority white population, and the southern end of the county is majority minority.
The commission chairman said the county has provided “tremendous support” to north Fulton residents, building libraries, senior centers and donating to nonprofits. But he said the county has “tremendous social needs” that come with its 25 percent poverty rate.
Eaves said Fulton County has made do with less, trimming its budget by $100 million. He said the county hasn’t raised the millage or had massive layoffs.
“We’ve done a lot to tighten our belt,” Eaves said. “Have we tightened it as much as it can possibly be tightened? Probably not, but we can more efficient.”
The belt-tightening talk isn’t likely to sway lawmakers who attended the Jan. 24 luncheon. Their denouncements of county government drew rounds of applause and the incorporation of Georgia’s new cities whetted their appetite for more change.
Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said the new cities of Sandy Springs and Johns Creek are proof that local government can better serve residents.
“I am committed to the recreation of Milton County because I truly believe, as our new cities have proven, smaller is better,” Riley said.
“You’re very responsive. You’re agile, you’re versatile and you can immediately meet the demands of government services that a city is required to provide.”
Jones said Eaves’ is trying to scare residents.
She said Fulton spends 121 percent more per capita than Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.
“It’s the oldest bureaucratic trick in the book to list popular services and claim that Armageddon is coming, but nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.