By A. W. Dashing
House Bill 514 was passed on the final day of the 2016 Georgia legislative session, affording residents of unincorporated Fulton County a vote on becoming a city this November.
The proposed city of South Fulton would give approximately 100,000 residents its own city hall, locally elected representatives and public safety arms. It could also make this area the second-largest city in Fulton County behind Atlanta.
For those who follow these issues, this is not news. Everyone else may wonder, "What exactly is the big deal?' If a community wishes to establish a government, and doing so is permissible by state law, then why the fanfare?
Many issues are at play, including home rule, or the authority passed from a state to a locality to govern itself. That authority typically includes the powers to develop branches of government and to collect taxes and fees for the provision of municipal services. Historically, such authority has been passed from states to counties. Counties exist at the will of states to establish and manage road maintenance, libraries, health and human services, courts and justice, elections and other public services.
However, what Fulton County does for the unincorporated area is unique. Currently the county taxes the area to provide services a city normally would, like police, fire and parks. Beginning with the establishment of Sandy Springs in 2005, the model for service delivery in newly incorporated cities included agreements with professional services firms, structured like the agreement Fulton County offers its unincorporated residents. Public works, for example, was provided at cost until knowledge and resources were procured. This startup model for municipalities saw early success but soon faded as Fulton County reduced its role and cities bore the full cost of managing themselves.
Aside from the central issue of local control, here are some other reasons why the issue matters:
Political representation – supporters of cityhood believe municipal services provided by Fulton County are substandard and their calls for improvement go unmet by the Fulton County Commission. A city with its own branches of government can meet taxpayer expectations better than the county. Also, with a population of over 100,000 residents, South Fulton would instantly own a seat at the table for county and state resources that others would envy.
Economic development – defenders of the current structure assert the new city is a patchwork of land with no real sense of community, contrary to other recent cityhood movements. Supporters counter that the new territory is fertile ground to make partnerships and invite business interests, as well as attract individuals and families to call the area home.
Annexation – Seven cities exist in Fulton County south of Atlanta – Chattahoochee Hills, College Park, East Point, Fairburn, Hapeville, Palmetto and Union City. Communities adjacent to those cities can annex into an existing city by July 1. Existing cities are vying for communities ahead of this deadline, including the highly coveted Fulton Industrial District along Fulton Industrial Boulevard.
Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Taxes – a 2014 study performed by Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University concluded that a city of South Fulton would sustain fiscally on annual revenues of roughly $65 million. The study operates on the assumption that South Fulton would provide the same level of services as Fulton County – services that supporters of cityhood have labeled inadequate. As the report states, the new city could tax at levels beyond what the county collects.
Apathy – The recent history of incorporations in metro Atlanta also brings about the issue of fatigue for residents, who may experience the fifth new city in 10 years. It also begs the question of if the incorporation attempt is a legitimate residential interest or the pipe dream of a few aspiring politicians looking for a place to govern.
The role (and future) of Fulton County government – Recent census figures show the Fulton County population topped 1 million. With no more areas to offer municipal services, how many people stand to lose their jobs? And would South Fulton hire them?
Now that the bill has passed, groups on both sides will develop platforms for a months-long campaign. In 2007, 85 percent of voters said no to incorporation, but it is unclear where the current populace stands on the issue. There has been no recent polling from anyone on either side of the issue, and at this point both sides can do no more than hope the issue resonates with voters.
Because the stakes are greater than a city’s city boundaries, expect to see much more about South Fulton incorporation in the near future.
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