Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fulton, Northside cities feud could land in court.

By April Hunt and Patrick Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

An ongoing tax argument between Fulton County and its Northside cities may be headed to court for a final answer.

When the county commission approved a road project on Fulton Industrial Boulevard in the southside Wednesday, it enraged mayors of Northside cities and recast a question that was once thought settled: Who pays to fix roads in the county's unincorporated areas?

At issue is whether the county can use general funds -- taxes that property owners in both cities and unincorporated areas pay -- on roads in the unincorporated areas, all of which are in south Fulton.

In 2005, Roswell challenged using the money for unincorporated roads instead of on benefits for all residents -- such as libraries and the court system. That led to a formal agreement calling for taxes from special districts to pay for local roads.

But the county began again using general fund money for roads last year and it's been in mediation since.

The new development came Wednesday when the county approved $26 million in projects using federal stimulus bonds, including $1.38 million for intersection improvements and other fixes to Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

Northside mayors, meeting Thursday morning, were furious.

"The Fulton County Commission could give a crud about any of us, or anyone in North Fulton, or even anyone in South Fulton, except those in unincorporated areas," Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said, also making his point with stronger language.

The county is not violating the earlier agreement either with last year's projects or its latest vote, county spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt-Dominguez said. The county considers Fulton Industrial a main drag, not a local road such as those in subdivisions that prompted Roswell's earlier challenge.

“The policy is that roads the county maintains are maintained with general fund dollars,” she said.

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves declined to comment on the turmoil, saying only that the county is working to provide all services to all communities.

Still, mayors in the North Fulton Municipal Association say they will retain a lawyer and they expect the matter to end up in court.

The Northside mayors said they expect to have an attorney on retainer by October, a month after the next scheduled mediation session. They said they would then invite all of the other cities – Atlanta and those in south Fulton – to join their fight.

“The only place the county is spending money is in unincorporated Fulton,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood. “That’s as unfair to the citizens of Atlanta or East Point as it is to Roswell.”

The complicating factor is Fulton Industrial is not a local road but a main county thoroughfare that lies in the county’s only unincorporated area, a 66-square-mile swath in south Fulton.

The road project is focused on redevelopment, to help lure businesses to the warehouse district along the boulevard, Corbitt-Dominguez said. There are several vacancies in the area, despite it being the prime commercial tax base for the south Fulton area.

The county is likely to use general fund money to pay back the debt, which the county believes is allowed under the 2005 deal, she said.

Because the debt is through a federal stimulus program, half would be repaid with federal dollars and half by the county.

And that was enough to send the mayors in search of legal help.

“We have to have an enforceable agreement so we in the cities aren’t paying for our roads and those in the unincorporated areas,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos. “If that means going to court or to the Legislature, so be it.”

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