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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Battle brewing over plans to shrink Fulton government.

By Johnny Edwards The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With north Fulton lawmakers expecting to gain a firm upper hand next year through redistricting, some are speaking of a plan to gut the county government.

Resurrecting Milton County remains their mission, the legislators have told constituents at recent public meetings, and as early as next year they'll start reducing the powers of the Fulton County Commission.

Their actions could have major implications for taxes and government services for nearly 1 million people, including nearly half a million in Atlanta and about 350,000 in the six north Fulton cities.

Southside leaders say they'll fight back in federal court on the grounds of civil and voter rights. If the Northside Republican leaders succeed in reviving Milton County, it would cost Fulton more than 40 percent of its tax base.

"People are not going to stand by and allow themselves to be manipulated like this," said state Rep. Roger Bruce, a Democrat from unincorporated south Fulton. "They're rigging it. There are people who like the county the way it is."

Republican leaders are already making proposals. Rep. Lynne Riley of Johns Creek is seeking a tax rate cap that could force a countywide tax reduction. Another option would limit the county's functions to operating the jail, the courts, the Sheriff’s Office, tax collections, elections and some aspects of the Health Department.

In past legislative sessions, notions of reining in the commission have amounted to rhetoric and bills that never went to a vote. But 2013 could be different.

When new district maps take effect, Republicans will control the county's legislative delegation, made up of lawmakers whose districts fall within Fulton. The Senate and House panels decide whether any bill dealing specifically with the county or one of its cities gets introduced in the General Assembly.

Republicans have long complained that the delegation's Democratic majority has prevented them from altering the county government structure, which they say should be done now that more than 90 percent of the population lives within one of 14 cities.

Based on recent statements by lawmakers, one of their aims will be subduing the county government.

During a meeting with constituents earlier this month in Alpharetta, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, was quoted by a local weekly paper saying her "goal is to end Fulton County."

“We can cut Fulton County down to size until we get Milton County,” Jones said, according to Neighbor Newspapers. "My goal is that we reduce the thumbprint ... of Fulton County on your lives and your pocketbooks such that in a very few years, Atlanta and south Fulton will not fight us on re-creating Milton County because Fulton County will be insignificant."

Jones did not return messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Much of what is now considered north Fulton was once part of Milton County, which merged into Fulton when it was facing bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

Today, the two ends of Fulton are vastly different in terms of income and demographics, and they’re frequently at odds politically. At issue is hundreds of millions of city and county tax dollars, the growing political clout of the suburbs and the future of the state’s largest city.

Northside residents have long complained that the county government siphons their tax money to the south while ignoring their needs. Such complaints prompted residents over the past seven years to form the cities of Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs or be annexed into existing cities.

Atlanta and south Fulton leaders fear that if Milton County returns, the cradle of the state capital will be financially vanquished. That's why House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, who represents Buckhead, is only on board with Jones up to a point.

South Fulton Commissioner Bill Edwards vows to fight any efforts to alter the county or its government structure.

"We'll file [lawsuits] on anything we have to," he said, "even if we have to stay in court 300 years."

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