Cityhood first step toward fleeing Fulton
Backers say 'political tide' favors county breakupBy ANNA VARELAThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/23/06
For the leaders who helped forge two new cities in north Fulton County, success at the polls Tuesday was just one step toward a much bigger goal — breaking off a large swath of north Fulton to form an independent county.
They are targeting 2008 for a serious push to create the county of Milton, taking in all of the land from Sandy Springs to the north, and complete with its own school system.
Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta) said he thinks most voters who went to the polls in unincorporated north Fulton on Tuesday knew they were doing more than voting on cityhood.
"I think people generally understand that this is a first step toward true and complete independence," said Burkhalter, who has introduced bills several times in the past to try to carve out a new county.
Milton County boosters have several big legal and political hurdles to clear:
• The Georgia Constitution caps the number of counties at the current 159.
• The state constitution also states, "No independent school system shall hereafter be established."
• Supporters of MARTA and Grady Memorial Hospital — both funded largely by tax dollars from Fulton and DeKalb counties — would probably fight any move that could take a large, wealthy area out of their tax base.
• The Fulton County school board also wouldn't be likely to sit back and watch some of its richest communities and highest-achieving schools defect from the system.
Milton County supporters say they are studying ways to get around these issues.
"The hurdles are only as high as the politics," said Burkhalter, speaker pro tem of the House. "The reality is it's not an easy process but it's certainly one that can be achieved given the political tide that's changed."
That "political tide" is a reference to Republican control of the Legislature.
The Republican majority made it possible for supporters of the city of Sandy Springs to get a vote on incorporation last year, after decades of being foiled by Democrats representing Fulton County's interests. The creation of Sandy Springs, which started operations
Jan. 1, has given hope to others in north Fulton.
The area will gain two more cities — Johns Creek in the northeast and Milton in the northwest.
Johns Creek will have a population of a little more than 62,000 and Milton will have about 20,000 residents. Add Alpharetta (about 35,000) and Sandy Springs (roughly 86,000) and some say that's plenty of people to support a new county.
In fact, more than 70 years ago, Milton was an independent county with Alpharetta as its seat. But it struggled financially during the Great Depression. In 1932, it merged with Campbell County and they were absorbed into Fulton, creating the current, oddly-shaped boundaries.
Many in north Fulton argue that it's past time to break off from a county government with a reputation for scandal in the Sheriff's Department, at the jail and in the tax assessor's office.
As for the schools, Rep. Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) issued an open letter a few months ago voicing her support for incorporating the Milton area and working toward a new county. "A separate county would mean a highly focused, scaled-down local school system, one that could more efficiently and effectively serve north Fulton students' needs and desires," Jones wrote.
Reagan Ferguson, who runs a plant nursery and lives in the area that will become the city of Milton, said that forming a new county is a logical next step.
"I think it makes perfect sense," Ferguson said. "One reason it should work up here is there's a rather wealthy tax base."
And residents of north Fulton don't feel like they have much in common with residents of the south end of the county, he said. "You don't talk about Fulton County. You talk about north or south Fulton."
Northside resident Thomas Mulroy agreed.
"The thing everyone wants is a county of our own," said Mulroy, 40, who case his ballot Tuesday in favor of cityhood. "We want to control our schools, our parks, zoning. This is a first step."
Staff writer Doug Nurse contributed to this article.