Fulton County Republicans propose legislation to fix dysfunctional county

By Saba Long

“Fulton County is dysfunctional and overtaxed.” That sentiment has been the hook to a long song being sung by North Fulton Republicans for many years.

Three years ago, as a member of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, Lynn Riley sat in front of the county’s ethics board in response to a complaint by a few Democratic state representatives from the Fulton County Delegation. Her attorney during the case was State Representative Wendell Willard.

Now serving as the chairwoman of the Fulton County Delegation, Riley has cosponsored, with Willard and other North Fulton representatives, legislation that will enact sweeping, “burn the barn down” changes to the governmental structure of the state’s largest county and parallel legislation to allow for the re-creation of Milton County.

There is much scuttlebutt of the true intention of this series of legislation, namely is this a final attempt by North Fulton Republicans to save Fulton County as we know it.

Redistricting  the Fulton County Board of Commissioners

State Representatives from Roswell, Milton, North Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek have co-sponsored legislation to redraw the county commission maps and give more power to the county chair.

The county would move from its current format of two at-large seats and five district seats to one at-large seat — this person would be elected to serve as the chair of the board — and six district seats. This proposal shifts the power to what some say  is a more equitable representation of north and south Fultonites having three commissioners each.

Republican Commissioner Liz Hausman of District 3 currently represents Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton Mountain Park, Roswell, and parts of Sandy Springs.

In the proposed map, her district will split in two — District 1 in which she will represent Johns Creek and part of Alpharetta and District 2 represented by a candidate from the Alpharetta, Milton or Roswell communities. District 3 will stretch from Sandy Springs, currently represented by Republican Commissioner Tom Lowe, to Midtown, Atlanta.

Districts 4, 5 and 6 encompass communities such as West and South Atlanta, Fairburn and Palmetto. Current District 6 Commissioner Joan Garner will see her seat, represented as District 5 in the new map, expand as far south as College Park. The new maps also pit veteran commissioners Bill  Edwards and Emma Darnell against each other —  neither seem interested in giving up their seat.

Fulton County Board of Elections

House Bill 347 modifies the appointment of the chair of the board of elections, shifting the appointment as a role of the County Commission to that of the Fulton County legislative delegation. Due to gerrymandering, Republicans hold a majority in the county’s legislative delegation with 13 Republican State Representatives to 12 Democrats and seven Republican State Senators to four Democrats.

If passed, the Board of Elections will be made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and a board chair appointed by a Republican majority county delegation. In the November 2008 and 2012 elections, President Barack Obama received 63.9 percent and 67.1 percent of the vote from Fulton County residents.  The last time the county voted for a Republican presidential candidate was for incumbent President Richard Nixon in ‘72.

Tax Commissioner

Riley et al have co-sponsored House Bill 346 bill to make the Fulton County tax commissioner’s position an appointed rather than elected one.

Nominated by the board chair and approved by the commission, the four-year term for the county’s tax commissioner would begin January 1, 2017.

If passed the legislation prohibits the tax commissioner from receiving compensation “other than the salary, expense reimbursements and benefits paid to the tax commissioner by Fulton County.”

Current tax commissioner Arthur Ferdinand’s annual base salary is just under $135,000 while an antiquated personal fee system allows him to bring in more than $300,000 — more than the governor of the state.

Tax Relief

House Bill 170 hopes to provide tax relief to a county that hasn’t raised its 10.281 millage rate since 2007.  Section one of the bill mandates the millage rate to stay the same until fiscal year 2015 in which a proposed change in the rate  would have to receive the “yes” vote of five out of six commissioners.

The bill also asks to present a ballot measure on a modification to the homestead exemption before voters in the 2014 election cycle. The ballot language will read as follows,

“(  )  YES

(  )  NO

Shall the Act be approved which lowers property taxes for Fulton County homeowners by increasing the homestead exemption from Fulton County ad valorem taxes for county purposes from $30,000.00 to $60,000.00 after a two-year phase-in period?”

If the ballot measure passes, Fulton County could experience declining tax revenues just a few years from now and it will require the vote of nearly every commissioner to modify the millage rate.

Note to readers: Coincidentally, some members of the Atlanta City Council have been watching these legislative matters concerning the county closely as it could possibly effect the city — particularly as it relates to the popular Tax Allocation Districts. As a reminder, I work for the City Council.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

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