House Bills Would Reshape, Reform Fulton County Commission
(APN) ATLANTA — There are three bills concerning Fulton County currently pending in the Georgia Legislature that would drastically reshape the County’s governance structure, tax base, and employee benefits to meet the wishes of North Fulton Republicans, while a fourth bill threatens to break off North Fulton and re-form Milton County.
House Bills 170, 171, and 172 deal with reforming Fulton County, while five identical house resolutions seek to allow the re-creation of Milton County.
Republicans will likely have an easy time passing the legislation to reshape and reform Fulton County, seeing as how they have a supermajority in the State Senate, a near-supermajority in the State House, and have redistricted the maps to stack the Fulton County delegations with Republicans legislators, even though Fulton County is majority Democratic.
MILTON COUNTY LEGISLATION
House Resolutions 275, 276, 277, 278, and 279 would each amend the Constitution of the State of Georgia to allow for the re-creation of a previously existing county merged into another county through a voter referendum.
Five state legislators, including State House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton), and Reps. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell), Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), Lynne Riley (R-Johns Creek), and Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), have each introduced separate, identical versions of the legislation. Each version has also been co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Rice (R-Norcross).
As a constitutional amendment, the resolution would have to garner a two-thirds majority vote in the Georgia House and Senate before it could be placed on the General ballot for a statewide vote.
In the history of Georgia, only two counties have merged into other counties: Campbell County, which merged with Fulton County in the southern portion; and the original Milton County, which merged with Fulton in the north in 1931 to avoid bankruptcy during the Great Depression.
“We are committed to a more accountable county government that satisfactorily performs only the services that are necessary and no more,” Jones said in a statement.
“I believe significant reform of Fulton County this year and a continued push to re-create Milton County will deliver it.”
HB 170 – TO LIMIT MILLAGE RATE AND INCREASE HOMESTEAD EXEMPTION
House Bill 170, sponsored by Rep. Jones, would impose a cap on certain millage rates imposed by Fulton County; and would increase the homestead exemption from the current amount of 30,000 dollars to 60,000 dollars after a two year phase-in period.
“Bills have been introduced to harm us financially. Other Georgia counties have a homestead exemption of $15,000. State lawmakers want to increase Fulton County’s homestead exemption from the current $30,000 to $60,000, resulting in an annual revenue loss of $48 million. Despite our own budget reductions of $60 million since 2008, the state seeks to decimate funding and services. Why? Politics and power,” Commissioner Edwards wrote in a column appearing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC).
“Fulton is the only metro Atlanta county that has not raised its millage rate in the past five years. Our millage rate has remained the same since 2007, and we have not increased it since the 1990s. Why does the state seek to cap our millage rate? Politics and power,” Edwards wrote.
HB 171 – TO RESHAPE THE FULTON COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS
House Bill 171, sponsored by Rep. Riley, would re-shape the Fulton County Board of Commissioners (BOC), eliminating one at-large seat that is currently held by Commission Robb Pitts (District 2 at large); creating a new sixth District seat to be located in North Fulton; and redrawing the district map to draw Commissioners Emma Darnell (District 5) and Bill Edwards (District 7)–the Board’s two progressive champions–into the same District.
Currently, there are five District seats, two of which are held by White, Republicans, and three of which are held by Black, Democrats.
Commissioner Liz Hausmann (District 3) is the only commissioner whose district sits entirely in what is considered North Fulton. Commissioner Tom Lowe (District 4) represents North Atlanta, Buckhead, as well as Sandy Springs.
Meanwhile, Joan Garner (District 6) represents Atlanta and South Fulton; Edwards represents most of South Fulton; and Darnell represents the west and northwest of Atlanta.
In 2011, the Fulton County BOC approved a new redistricting map, taking into account the 2010 census, as did counties across the State of Georgia; however, the Legislature did not approve on Fulton County’s maps.
“North Fulton Republican legislators have chosen to abandon their party’s stated commitment to local control,” Edwards wrote.
The newly proposed map would have six districts instead of five, three of which would be majority White districts, and three of which would be majority Black districts.
In addition, by taking away one of the at-large seats, which are typically held by Democrats, the redistricting proposal would likely shift the power between Democrats and Republicans on the Commission from five to two, to four to three.
Commissioner Darnell argues that the plan would decrease minority representation in Fulton County.
“Under the current plan, developed by the federal court in 2002, minority voters can elect three members of the board of commissioners. Under the north Fulton ‘redistricting plan,’ minorities can elect only two members,” Darnell wrote in a companion AJC column, which she circulated by email to constituents.
“By pairing two minority incumbents in a new district that stretches from Palmetto to Southwest Atlanta, the proposal reduces the number of minority commissioners representing the area from two to one,” Darnell wrote.
The changes would require preclearance from the US Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act; however, the section of the Act requiring such preclearance in historically-discriminatory states and other areas, is currently facing a challenge before the Supreme Court of the US.
In the newly proposed map, there would be two North Fulton districts: District 1, which would include Johns Creek and parts of Alpharetta and Sandy Springs; and District 2, which would include Milton, Roswell, and parts of Alpharetta and Sandy Springs.
District 3 would also be a majority White District, starting at 10th Street in Midtown Atlanta as its southernmost border. After years of gentrification, Midtown is nearly all-White. District 3 would stretch north through Buckhead and Sandy Springs.
District 4 would be mostly west and northwest Atlanta.
District 5 would be South Atlanta and part of East Point.
District 6 would be South Fulton, including Chattahoochee Hills, College Park, Fairburn, Palmetto, and Union City.
The bill also establishes staggered terms for the Commissioners, and amends the powers and duties of the chairperson.
HB 172 – ALTERING EMPLOYEE CLASSIFICATION AND PROTECTIONS
And House Bill 172, sponsored by Rep. Martin, would make changes to Fulton County’s civil service system for employees. Any employee who is hired after the adoption of this bill would be automatically placed in an unclassified status. Any current employee who is in a classified status but who accepts another position within Fulton County Government will be placed in an unclassified status. It also provides that employees may be dismissed, demoted, or disciplined for any reason or no reason without notice, explanation, or appeal.
There are at least two upcoming opportunities to learn more and speak out about the proposed legislation.
On Sunday, February 17, 2013, Commissioner Darnell is hosting a meeting at 4pm at the Harriett G. Darnell Senior Multi-Purpose Facility at 677 Fairburn Road, NW, Atlanta.
And on Wednesday, February 20, a public hearing on the legislation will be held on the legislation in Room 341 at the State Capitol.