By John Schaffner
More than 200 curious citizens turned out for a Sept. 11 luncheon to hear an impassioned declaration by lawyer Glenn Delk for why Buckhead should secede from Atlanta and become its own city, followed by two state legislators who explained why it would not be an easy feat.
Declaring he believes the city of Atlanta’s future “is threatened by its financial problems, as well as the attitude of Mayor Shirley Franklin, the current City Council and Atlanta Board of Education,” Delk asked the audience, “Is there a better way to run the city, or should we accept reality that Atlanta is never going to change and incorporate Buckhead?”
Those attending the luncheon at 103 West, sponsored by the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation (FCTF), applauded as Delk complained that Atlanta’s government and school system are fiscally irresponsible.
“The city of Atlanta, in my opinion, is broke, and if we don’t do something about it, it is going to get worse,” said the lawyer, who lives in Buckhead.
“You will hear some people say this is all about race and money,” Delk said. “There is only one color that matters in this debate, and that is the color green.”
Delk pointed out that Atlanta taxpayers are expected to pay $150 million annually for 20 years to fund $1.7 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for city and school employees, before paying for police, teachers and firefighter. That works out to $3,275 for every man, woman and child living in the city.
He said the City Council approved $100 million in short-term borrowing in June to pay for long-term projects. “Borrowing short to fund long-term projects was one of the last steps taken by New York City in 1975 before it filed bankruptcy.”
In addition, he said, the council approved more than $100 million in bonds for the BeltLine and Westside TAD (tax allocation district), “essentially freezing the property taxes on these projects for 20 to 30 years while forcing the rest of us to pay ever-increasing taxes.”
Atlanta’s taxpayers pay $13,500 per student for 48,000 students in Atlanta Public Schools “to receive inferior education to that received by 2,000 charter school students for $10,000 apiece,” he said.
“According to Leslie Ward, the city auditor who prepared the April 2008 audit, in six of the last 10 years, Atlanta’s budget was not balanced to the tune of $241 million, in violation of Georgia law,” Delk said.
Taxpayers in Buckhead represent only 15 percent of Atlanta’s population but pay 45 percent of its taxes, or nearly $600 million for the general fund and schools, he said.
Some community leaders say Buckhead’s seceding from Atlanta would be a big blow — maybe bankrupt Atlanta. But Delk and others said Atlanta could survive financially without Buckhead.
Delk said the Georgia General Assembly in recent years has allowed 221,000 residents of Fulton County — Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hill Country — to incorporate as cities. They have combined general fund budgets of $175 million. If Buckhead became a city of 70,000, Atlanta would still have approximately 450,000 residents and still have approximately $450 million available in property and other taxes to pay for general fund expenses.
In June, the FCTF elevated the issue of Buckhead cityhood from party chatter to serious discussion by sending out a glossy newsletter with Delk’s position to 50,000 households.
Also on the FCTF program were state Rep. Wendell Willard, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and a co-chair of that committee, Rep. Edward Lindsey of Buckhead.
Willard, who also is city attorney for Sandy Springs and was instrumental in the formation of that city, pointed out a major difference between gaining approval of cityhood for Sandy Springs and for Buckhead.
Before incorporation, Sandy Springs was an unincorporated area of Fulton County, like Johns Creek and Milton, and now it is a city in Fulton County. Buckhead, however, is a part of the incorporated city of Atlanta and would have to gain approval to secede from Atlanta first, then gain approval to incorporate as a city.
Willard said the legislative process to get de-annexed is a local bill, which requires two-thirds of the Fulton House members to agree. He suggested an alternative might be for Buckhead to seek to become a borough within the city of Atlanta, with certain fiscal and legislative opportunities.
Lindsey agreed it would not be easy to come up with a quick change to create a city of Buckhead. He said the major difficulty is the requirement to obtain a yes vote from two-thirds of the Atlanta legislators. He said there are 14 Democrats not from Buckhead, and he is the lone Buckhead Republican.
Delk urged all of the people at the luncheon to get their council members and candidates for the Atlanta City Council or mayor to sign his Pledge to Voters and Taxpayers of Atlanta, setting forth a list of 10 items aimed at correcting the problems with city government. In the audience was Atlanta Councilwoman Mary Norwood, an announced candidate for mayor in 2009.