By Ralph Ellis
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In an act of rebellion, north Fulton County residents created cities in Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton, claiming they were overtaxed and undermined by Fulton County government.
But peace has not come to this unhappy corner of metro Atlanta in the aftermath. Relations, in fact, have turned worse.
Five years after the first new city emerged, there are enough accusations, counterclaims, lawsuits, secession threats and racial overtones to create a permanent municipal divide. People aren’t polite when discussing their differences. They’re angry and combative.
“The citizens of Fulton County are in a figurative way getting raped and pillaged financially by these actions,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said. “There’s such distrust.”
Specifically, the Northside cities contend Fulton County has made them pay for roads and police service in unincorporated south Fulton, violating a 2005 agreement, and overcharged them for elections.
The county has its own gripes. It sued the newest cities, claiming it was owed $2 million for public safety provided those cities during their first years of operation.
Bodker’s “raped and pillaged” comments are nothing more than political rantings and not representative of residents’ opinion, Emma Darnell, a Fulton County commissioner, insisted.
“I think Mr. Bodker needs to settle down and see how we can work with him to help the people of north Fulton and the rest of the county,” Darnell said. “It’s very hard to pay the bills with rhetoric.”
Yet the newest northside cities have threatened to secede from Fulton County, taking Roswell, Alpharetta and Mountain Park with them and re-forming Milton County. Jan Jones, Georgia House of Representatives speaker and a north Fulton resident, will ask the Legislature to authorize a referendum on the matter.
It’s an idea that might not be that far-fetched. There are south Fulton residents who sympathize with the northern cities. Laurie Searles of the Chattahoochee Hills Civic Association, a group formed when that city recently was founded, said Milton County is a good idea.
“I think Fulton County is too large to serve its population,” Searles said. “If they rolled back and formed a smaller Fulton County, I think it would be better.”
There remains the overt suggestion that demographics have contributed to this county rift as much as disjointed politics. North Fulton is mostly white, affluent, suburban and staunchly Republican. The rest of Fulton is largely black with pockets of extreme poverty, dense urban areas like Atlanta and stretches of rolling pastureland in the far south. It’s largely Democratic. The county’s only large unincorporated area, covering 66 square miles, lies in south Fulton.
The Milton County movement smacks of racism, as did the creation of the northside cities, said Bill Edwards, a Fulton County commissioner.
“People seem to treat us differently,” said Edwards, who represents Fulton’s southside.
People can’t agree on much in Fulton County. There was no ready consensus that a racial divide has contributed to this tangled municipal mess.
“That is patently false,” said Lynne Riley, a Fulton County commissioner for the northside. “The disagreement is based on representation and responsible government.”
Steve Rapson, Union City city manager in south Fulton and former Fulton County and Sandy Springs administrator, likewise blamed political oversight.
“If the citizens of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton thought they’d been heard, I don’t think those cities would be in existence today,” Rapson said.
Money issues hold the most sway in this long-running Fulton County discord. The unincorporated northside once complained it was a cash cow that supported the poorer southside. The cities now argue they’ve been double taxed, forced to pay for services in their own jurisdictions as well as unincorporated south Fulton County.
In 2005, Roswell Mayor Jere Wood challenged Fulton’s use of county budget general funds to pay for subdivision roads in unincorporated areas, when typically the tax money was used for widespread county services such as the court system, libraries and Health Department. A new agreement was drawn up, specifying that taxes from special service districts and paid by residents of those districts should fund subdivision or local roads.
Last December, the County Commission reverted to the old funding method. General fund money was used for roads in unincorporated Fulton. Edwards felt south Fulton residents were treated unfairly, prompting him to sponsor the resolution. “There may be previous agreements, but that doesn’t make it right,” Edwards said.
North Fulton didn’t mind using general funds for roads when it was unincorporated, Darnell wryly noted.
The six mayors of the North Fulton Municipal Association, Wood in particular, were furious. All of the northside cities passed resolutions criticizing the County Commission’s move.
“They’ve forgotten what they promised,” Wood said.
Transportation projects in unincorporated south Fulton this year will use $6 million in general fund revenue, which doesn’t sit well with Riley, a Fulton County commissioner and Milton County supporter.
“I can’t explain why my colleagues would willingly [flout] a previous agreement, but that’s exactly what they did,” she said.
The commission also moved traffic fines collected in unincorporated south Fulton into the South Fulton Special Services District Fund, angering the North Fulton Municipal Association. By state law, the fines were supposed to stay in the general fund to support court services but not police activity. The amount totaled $1.6 million, Riley said.
Using traffic fines to support south Fulton made more sense, because the fines were collected there, Edwards said. He cited passage of the Shafer Amendment as a means to keep special services district taxes in the areas in which they were collected. The bill supposedly prevents Fulton County from using money from the northside to subsidize the lesser developed southside.
The north Fulton leaders said otherwise this amounts to double taxation. “That’s wrong because the rest of us fund our own roads from our own taxes,” Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said.
Election costs remain an unresolved issue in negotiations, and Bodker, who chairs the Metro Mayors and North Fulton Municipal associations, has been especially animated on the subject.
Last summer, Johns Creek sent two checks for $263,645 to Fulton County to pay for a City Council election in November and a possible December runoff. When no one ran against the incumbents, the city called off the election and asked for its money back. Fulton County kept $3,240.81. The county had spent money for poll worker training, printing and office supplies, said Barry Garner, Fulton Elections director.
“They charged us to cancel the election,” Bodker countered, adding there’s a wide disparity in what Fulton bills for this compared with neighboring counties.
For example, Kennesaw paid the Cobb County Elections Office $16,014 for its election, while Milton paid Fulton $68,997 — four times as much. Both cities have populations of about 30,000.
Fulton County has its own money issues. It sued the newest north Fulton cities for outstanding public safety payments. After Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton became cities in 2005 and 2006, some without fire and police departments in operation, they contracted with Fulton County for interim public safety. Sandy Springs agreed to pay $7.4 million for a year of fire and EMS service.
The county sent invoices with final costs that were significantly higher. Sandy Springs was billed an extra $1.1 million, Johns Creek $581,116 and Milton $324,615.
The cities requested detailed documentation but said Fulton didn’t provide complete information for crosschecking employee work records. Milton alleged Fulton sometimes failed to provide minimum staffing as promised. The cities refused to pay the full invoice amount and Fulton sued them. No court dates are set.
The arguments continue in courtrooms and council chambers. Compromise is not close. Drastic alternatives remain on the table.
Bodker has promised, or threatened, to make sure the northside is properly governed, even if that means creating Georgia’s 160th county.
“You may have to create more governance to get good governance,” he said of the succession implication.
On the southside, Edwards would be content with fairness and unity.
“All I want is for Fulton County to be one,” he said.
It’s a reasonable request without a reasonable solution.