North Fulton leaders advocating for a secession
By DOUG NURSE www.ajc.com
Poor and struggling, tiny Milton County embraced a novel solution to overcome the great Depression of the 1930s: Merge with Fulton County.The marriage, tying together a string of diverse communities stretching 70 miles, worked. Fulton — north and south — thrived.
Milton County Courthouse, seen in 1895, with men gathered on court day. Some in north Fulton want to resurrect Milton County.
But leaders from the old Milton region have a new message for Fulton: We want a divorce.
"Fulton County is too big to be responsive," said Sandy Springs City Councilman Rusty Paul. "You need a county big enough to get significant projects done, but still small enough to deliver personal services."
Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said a reconstituted Milton County is a popular idea with residents in the area.
"I believe if you had a referendum on it, 80 to 90 percent would support it," Wood said.
As envisioned, a newly re-formed Milton County would include Alpharetta, Roswell, Mountain Park and the recently formed cities of Sandy Springs, Milton and Johns Creek. Roswell, which was originally part of Cobb County, joined Fulton in 1932.
But the dream is a long way from reality. Re-creating Milton County would likely require an amendment to the state constitution because of an amendment that caps the number of counties at 159. There are practical obstacles as well as political ones, say officials on both sides of the issue.
Resurrecting Milton County may be on hold for this coming legislative session, said Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton), one of the movement's primary backers. Jones said the General Assembly has plenty to do already, and state-funded studies on the topic probably won't be completed before the session ends in March.
The studies, under way by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia and the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University, are exploring the laws, the finances, and the mechanics of how Milton County would separate from Fulton County.
"It's complicated," Jones said. "Every time you peel back a layer there's another. They've found something like 35 to 40 laws that would be affected."
She said she believes it will be challenging but is feasible.
Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek) has said he will push Milton County if the time seems right.
Other local officials, while acknowledging that residents of north Fulton might have legitimate concerns, don't believe divorce is the best solution.
"Creating a new county will be expensive and more complicated than most people think," said Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves. "I think the perception of Fulton County is different from the reality of Fulton County. We have good things going, and we have a strong economy. I say let's try to fix what we have and make it stronger rather than creating another government entity."
Frustration with Fulton County helped spur the creation of the new cities of Sandy Springs (2005), Milton (2006), and Johns Creek (2006) in the north and Chattahoochee Hill Country (2007) in the south.
But forming separate cities in north Fulton was only the first step envisioned by some residents.
"The saying was Johns Creek in '07 and Milton County in '09," said resident Mark Kopel. "The Fulton County Commission doesn't represent me. Milton County will offer a government that will take care of things and make sure taxes are spent where they need to be spent."
Many northsiders say Fulton County government is sluggish, bloated and doesn't share their priorities.
Paul, the Sandy Springs councilman, believes that sprawling Fulton County, with many factions requiring different kinds of services, is too big to be responsive and efficient. He says that while residents in the northern part of the county seek better roads, more parks, and lower taxes, residents in the southern part want more social services."Fulton County is unbelievably diverse," Paul said. "You can't reach a common vision about what needs to be done."
With the birth of the four new cities in the past few years, the population of unincorporated Fulton County has withered to about 40,000 people. But Milton County backers point out that while services they receive from Fulton have shrunk, their tax bills have not."They should be cutting our taxes quite a bit," said John Payne, a 51-year-old hotel developer from Alpharetta. "I think if you use services, you should pay for them; if you don't then you shouldn't pay for them."
Because the cities have taken over many of the services provided by Fulton County, Milton County would have to offer only a bare minimum of services.
"It's going to be a shell of a county," said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker. "I believe Milton County will be able to operate with less tax money than Fulton County does."
But Fulton County Commissioner Emma Darnell said everyone would suffer in a divorce.
"The best way to approach it is to work together to solve these problems," Darnell said. "When I hear statements from some north Fulton politicians about Fulton County's poor performance — and there's no real evidence to support it — either they have no proof or there's some other reason. North Fulton is one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Fulton County built north Fulton. We've come too far to go back to the time of race and class divisions."