YES: Fulton is too big and too mismanaged to serve its citizens.
By Jan Jones
In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes to relive one of the worst days of his life over and over again.
A million Fulton County residents wake each morning to their equivalent of Groundhog Day. They face a cycle of government squander that repeats itself, no matter how citizens try to change it.
Despite its infamy as the highest tax-and-spend county government in Georgia, Fulton County’s record of local service provision falls short — very short.
Elections management? Thirty violations in the 2008 general election are currently under investigation by the Georgia secretary of state. This follows on the heels of fines assessed for improper handling of voter information in 2007
Library services? An earlier settlement of a discrimination lawsuit cost taxpayers $20 million. Today, the library system costs double the state’s per capita average with no corresponding increase in service or usage.
Tax assessors office? A 2005 audit of the county’s Board of Assessors found multiple deficiencies, most of which remain uncorrected. Among other things, the county delayed updating valuation of nonresidential real property for 15 years.
Asset management? In 2008, audits showed the county had no asset inventory, no oversight of purchasing and tracking and an inability to locate roughly $160 million in asset purchases.
Perhaps most damning, the county taxes and spends double per capita that of neighboring Cobb and Gwinnett counties. A 2009 University of Georgia report showed Fulton spends more per capita in every comparable department than other metro counties. Regardless, service delivery remains inept.
Why can’t it just clean itself up? Because “local control,” relying on seven commissioners, is meaningless in sprawling Fulton. The county’s population exceeds that of six individual states and runs 80 miles from one end to the other. No wonder it was once three separate counties, not one.
Just as with the federal government, when the elected become far removed from the electorate, politicians and bureaucrats resort to one-size-fits-all solutions. Costs increase, efficiency declines and customers aren’t served.
Over the years, many have tried to intervene. Multiple blue ribbon committees, joint legislative study committees and targeted task forces have piled up reports. Candidates over the years have called for consolidation, municipalization, lower taxes, government reform and every iteration in between. So what to do?
Split off the northern third back into Milton County. Give Atlanta the option to eliminate Fulton County altogether through consolidation, like Athens-Clarke, Augusta-Richmond and Columbus-Muscogee. Allow south Fulton to re-create Campbell County should its citizens choose or retain its cities as part of a consolidated Atlanta-Fulton.
For the fourth year running, I will offer an alternative for the Legislature to consider through a constitutional amendment. It would allow historically merged counties to be recreated. Only two fit this definition, both within Fulton, since all other merged counties were subsequently decoupled.
Voters would make the final decision, both statewide and within each area of Fulton seeking a recreated county or consolidation.
Prior obligations, including MARTA and Grady Memorial Hospital, must be honored and managed together. The process would take several years and considerable work.
But without bold and real change, we’ll wake up to repeat Fulton County’s history — our own Groundhog Day. And we’ll keep talking about the same, tired problems with little prospect of improvement.
State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) is House speaker pro tem.
NO: Fulton has held costs down; creating more government is costly.
By John Eaves
Everyone is aware that this legislative session is one in which Georgia legislators will have to make some very tough decisions because of these challenging economic times.
The citizens of our state have expressed the need for various important services that state and local government provide, including quality education, affordable health and trauma care, improved transportation, and water, to name just a few.
In the midst of their deliberations on these important quality of life issues, there is also HR 21, proposing a constitutional amendment that could pave the way for splitting Fulton County.
Certainly, HR 21 is legislation that is fueled by very strong emotions on both sides of the issue. There have been many things said and written to influence lawmakers’ and the public’s thoughts and opinions.
In particular, Fulton County government and the effectiveness of its operations have been frequently discussed.
One of the arguments is that Fulton is too big. I contend that the “too big” argument is not the real issue.
Experts have long said that the real issue statewide is related to “too many.” Georgia has too many counties already, 159 to be exact, nearly three times more than California.
There has been talk about the library system, that Fulton County is unwilling to create libraries in north Fulton. This is simply not true.
In July 2008, the Board of Commissioners approved a Library Facility Master Plan that included three new libraries in north Fulton as well as renovations for four — which was approved by voters countywide.
There have even been complaints related to the parks in north Fulton when the reality is that Fulton County only operates parks in unincorporated areas of Fulton — and not in any of the newly formed cities.
One of the most disturbing arguments used for the creation of a new Milton County is that Fulton County operates in an inefficient and ineffective manner.
This fiscal year, Fulton County managed to stave off a $77.1 million shortfall with no tax increase, keeping a reserve balance at nearly 7 percent, with no furloughs for staff and a reduction in force of less than 40 full-time, permanent employees.
We also increased grant funding for services to our most vulnerable citizens, our seniors and youth. That’s a far cry from inefficiency and ineffectiveness, especially in these times.
All these arguments are used to take away from the real problem, HR 21. There are several key issues with this legislation, including compliance with the Voting Rights Act requirements, vagueness of the constitutional amendment language, and consideration of capital costs, vesting of school board property, sales tax disbursements, long-term pension obligations, intergovernmental agreements and bond obligations — to name just a few.
While this legislation only takes into consideration the wants of a few, it does not take into consideration the needs of many. Homeowners will face major increases in residential property taxes. Impact on Fulton County businesses, including those in the city of Atlanta, could include a significant increases in commercial property taxes.
Given that 1 in 5 jobs in the state of Georgia is in Atlanta, any negative impact on Atlanta businesses could be disastrous for the entire region.
In a time where there is a great need to be fiscally conservative and we are furloughing and laying off educators, state and local employees, and needing to invest in our transportation infrastructure and in health and trauma care, can you really say that it is more important to spend the $6.3 million and probably more that it will cost taxpayers to create a new county so that Georgia can say it now has 160 counties?
I don’t believe the citizens of this state would think so.
John Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Commission.