By DOUG NURSE The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 12/03/07 / www.ajc.com
Fulton County is sitting on $5.4 million of the city of Milton's money and another $2.7 million belonging to Johns Creek, and nobody is quite sure what to do about it.
The money is left over from special property taxes from area residents in 2006 before the two cities incorporated. A law called the Shafer Amendment says that money can't be transferred to any other county budgetary account.
So, the money sits in the bank, running up interest and gathering dust.
For Milton, the $5.4 million equals about a third of its $16 million budget. For Johns Creek, the $2.7 would help launch its fire department or police department.
"It would be like winning the lottery," said Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood. "There's a lot we could do with that."
But knotty legal issues must be settled before anything can happen.
"The Shafer Amendment is silent on what to do with leftover money," said Fulton County Commissioner Lynne Riley. "The intention was to spend it all [in the Johns Creek and Milton areas]. That didn't happen. The intention now is to return it in some way to the people who paid it."
Currently there are three options under review:
• Rebate the cash directly to the taxpayers
• Give it to the cities
• Use it as matching funds on behalf of the cities for road improvements
But the lawyers can't agree.
State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton) said legislative counsel advised her that the county can just write the cities a check. She said if the county doesn't do that by the beginning of the legislative session in January, she'll introduce legislation making Fulton County release the money.
But Riley said the county attorney's office told her the county can't just give it to the cities because there's a legal prohibition against counties just giving things to cities. When cities acquire land or equipment from counties, they pay at least a token amount. Riley said she was told the law also says the county can only spend its money in unincorporated areas, which means they can't pay directly for projects inside cities.
Rebating the money to property owners could be problematic, as officials struggle to sort out who is entitled to how much. That process could be even more complicated by property changing hands, and the need to track down previous owners to make sure the right people get the rebate. And the rebate could be easily challenged in court.
Another option, one favored by Riley, would be to commit the money — with the cities' blessing, of course — to the state Department of Transportation as matching funds for various road projects.
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said he's fine with whatever mechanism is chosen, just so long as Johns Creek residents and businesses benefit.
"It's their money," Bodker said. "The vehicle doesn't matter. But the city could put it to good use if it's in our hands."
Steve Kelly, a Milton resident, said he would like to see the money returned directly to the taxpayers. If it does go to the city, he said he does not want it to go toward discretionary spending by the City Council.
"Put the money toward a land purchase for a true city hall, housing offices, court, jail etc.," he said in an e-mail. "All actually owned by the city."
Rod Pincumbe, owner of a UPS Store in Johns Creek, said the money should be rebated back to the people who paid it.
"It's the people's money," he said. "It's their property, it's their taxes. With computers, they should be able to figure out how much people should be rebated and applied to next year's taxes. I don't trust the government to spend the money. Realistically, we're not going to get that money. The government isn't going to give it back. Probably, it will be one government giving it to another government."
Lynna Walsh, 48, of Johns Creek said the money should go to the city.
"Right now, we have a lot of faith in the city," she said. "We see them at homeowners meetings, we see them at church. We know them on a personal basis. We vote for the council. I think they'll spend the money for the benefit of the city."