Recent legislative passage only one of many hurdles; Atlanta, Fulton opposed to split
By D.L. BENNETT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Friday, February 20, 2009
Nearly two decades into a rancorous debate over splitting up Fulton County, advocates for re-creating Milton County in the suburbs north of Atlanta are celebrating their first legislative victory.
And, even though they recognize their goal may be years away, that’s not dimming the enthusiasm for folks who believe that Fulton is too big, too inefficient and too costly. They would be better served, they say, by creating a new county from Sandy Springs north.
“You have to start somewhere,” said George Ragsdale, a city of Milton resident who would be in the new county. “This is certainly a sign that at least some folks at the Capitol believe it’s possible. It’s a great first step in a long process.”
House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter started his political career more than 15 years ago complaining about a property tax revaluation in Fulton that sent appraisals skyrocketing. He quickly began advocating a rebirth of Milton, which was consolidated with Fulton during the 1930s.
For him, the House State Planning and Community Affairs Committee’s 7-1 vote Wednesday to pass House Resolution 21 was a sweet victory. For the previous two years, the bill, which would authorize a statewide vote on the issue, remained bottled up in committee without a vote.
“This is an important first step, a required first step,” said Burkhalter. “The net effect [of a new county] for residents of our area will be lower taxes, improved services and higher home values.”
Many steps remain. Georgia’s Constitution allows for only 159 counties, so to create Milton, the constitution would have to be amended through HR21. That would take a two-thirds vote by both the House and Senate. Then, it would be up to voters statewide in November 2010.
If the idea passes those hurdles, the General Assembly would still have to come back and write legislation dividing up Fulton and get voters of the proposed new county to approve it.
State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton), who authored the legislation, said she’s not sure when she’ll push for a House vote on the resolution because getting the two-thirds majority to pass the chamber is by no means certain.
“We are going to be counting noses,” Jones said. “A two-thirds majority is a high number.”
Jones said if the counting doesn’t go well over the next few weeks, the bill remains alive through next year’s session. So, the north Fulton Republicans backing Milton have lots of time to work on the issue.
She said she expects the cause to be buttressed by a study that should be released within 10 days on the challenges of splitting off from Fulton and the viability of the two counties.
Jones would not say what the study would reveal other than the legal task is much more complex than setting up a new city and that both governments would be viable. The counties would have to divvy up court duties, school systems, health and senior services and libraries. Further, there’s the cost of Grady Memorial Hospital and MARTA.
Both Fulton County and Atlanta are already fighting full bore against the split.
“We do not feel this meets the fairness test,” said Mike Vaquer, lobbyist for Fulton.
Atlanta officials fear a new county might try to seize the water lines the city runs into Sandy Springs. Those lines have been a bone of contention for years because Atlanta packs a 21 percent surcharge onto its bills to Sandy Springs.
Still, the news of the win Wednesday was working its way through north Fulton and being hailed by many.
Brandon Beach, head of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, said the split is way overdue. He said schools, tax assessments and general services would all improve if Milton were allowed to be re-created. “Anytime we can be in control of our own government, it’s a good thing,” Beach said.