By Johnny Edwards
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Election wins and Democratic Party defections may have tightened the Republican grip on the Legislature, but the chief advocate for a re-created Milton County says she still lacks the votes to allow Fulton County’s suburban north to break from its urban south.
House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that she plans to re-introduce the enabling resolution she floated in past sessions, but 2011 might not be the year to get it passed. She was more emphatic when she spoke at a meeting of the North Fulton Mayors’ Association in Johns Creek on Friday, saying she doesn’t have enough support and even some Republicans won’t go along.
By law a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment has to take place in an even-year general election, so there could be no referendum next year anyway, she said.
“I think it’s probably more likely in 2012,” Jones said.
The resolution fizzled in the last session because Jones kept it off the House floor. She told the AJC at the time that she was three or four votes short of the 120-vote supermajority needed to approve a constitutional amendment, but she said last week that she probably lacked five to 10 votes.
If Georgia voters approved busting the state constitution’s 159-county cap and allowing previously merged counties to re-form, voters in the former Milton County — which merged into Fulton during the Great Depression when it was facing bankruptcy — could decide in a local election whether to make the split. Jones said Milton County could come into being in 2014 at the earliest.
Republicans have since made six gains in the House, giving them 111 of the chamber’s 180 seats. But even if more Democratic defections gave them 120, the issue of breaking up Georgia’s largest county is more complicated than counting Republican and Democratic heads.
“Some of those that switched [parties] were on my yes list anyway,” Jones said. “I don’t know if we’ve gotten closer or not.”
Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, the chairman of Fulton’s legislative delegation, said he fears Jones could have all the numbers she needs come January. In the Senate, Republicans hold 35 of 56 seats, just three short of a two-thirds supermajority. All it would take is a few more party defections, a few more deals, he said.
One Republican working against secession will be House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey. He represents Buckhead, which fears that with north Fulton out of the picture, the upscale Atlanta district would be left hanging as a tax cash cow.
Lindsey said he also will reintroduce a resolution from the 2010 session dealing with Fulton reform. The measure would drastically limit the County Commission’s reach through a constitutional amendment declaring that any government of a county more than 80 percent incorporated — Fulton being the only qualifier — would only perform functions required by law or agreed to in intergovernmental contracts.
Lindsey cited the commission’s outright rejection of cost-cutting suggestions by two blue ribbon committees and a legislative subcommittee that he led. He also cited the pending forgery and credit card theft charges against a former financial systems supervisor, as well as allegations that the county manager fired one employee and demoted another when they refused to suspend their investigation into the matter until after elections.
“Fulton County is sort of like the bull in the china shop,” he said. “We’re now at the point of going, ‘OK, we’ve had enough.’ ”
John Sherman, president of the Buckhead-based Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said the commission’s refusal to make changes or downsize is driving the push for division, which would be “catastrophic for Atlanta and south Fulton.” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who sat on one of the commission-appointed blue ribbon committees, said he would also prefer to fix what the county has.
“I think that Milton County, ultimately, is more of a cry for reform than it is the most optimal solution,” he said. “But in my heart, I don’t believe it is fixable.”
Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, a co-sponsor of Jones’ resolution, said even if Lindsey got his reforms, north Fulton residents would still want their own county.
“That is, by far, the public opinion up here,” Willard said.
In the upcoming session, Jones said she will pitch her plan to Atlanta and Fulton County representatives as being in their best interests, too, should their two governments consolidate.
Jones said Atlanta-Fulton County would eliminate duplication of services, have far less people to serve and keep one of the wealthiest tax digests in the state, tapping into Buckhead, Midtown, north Atlanta, the sports franchises and the airport. She said she will make assurances that Milton County would still take on liability for Grady Memorial Hospital and MARTA, paying on some negotiated scale.
On Friday she told the north Fulton mayors about her strategy, but she cautioned that she’s at a disadvantage because Republicans fill only eight of the 24 seats in the Fulton delegation and therefore have little chance of putting local legislation on the floor.
“I have found that a lot of people in Atlanta don’t let facts and logic get in the way,” she told the group. “Because it’s convenient to make it racial.”
Bruce counters that while he has seen studies touting how fiscally viable a new Milton County would be, he has not seen anything describing what would be left behind.
“That’s what she’s been saying all along, that they would be doing south Fulton a favor,” he said. “But the reality is that anything done without a plan is doomed to create chaos.”
Bruce said he doesn’t see how the system is broken considering that Fulton operates at a surplus, with a high bond rating and stellar libraries and senior services.
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., which is consolidated with Duval County, and he said such arrangements don’t always lead to savings. There are areas where Atlanta and Fulton could combine services, but the governments should look to hybrid models found in Charlotte and Miami, not full consolidation.
“I think there’s an attempt to oversimplify the issue,” Eaves said. “But the reality is it’s a no-win situation for everybody.”