New Buckhead cityhood bills provide more details on schools, bonds
By John Ruch
New, more detailed versions of Buckhead cityhood legislation recently filed in the Georgia General Assembly are dead on arrival for this session but are partly designed to survive for months or years.
Georgia Senate Bills 617 and 618 establish a “Buckhead City” government and incompletely address such major questions as Atlanta Public Schools (APS) coverage and bond debt, in part by creating a new tax to pay any obligations to Atlanta. Other provisions include an initial $225,000 salary for the mayor that would be well above the Atlanta mayor’s pay.
The bills were introduced by state Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga. Like all other legislative backers of Buckhead cityhood, he’s a Republican who does not live in or represent the Democrat-dominated neighborhood. The cityhood issue has a stark partisan divide and a GOP base, with the secession from Atlanta recently endorsed by former President Trump.
The bills were read in the Senate on March 15 — too late to move forward normally under General Assembly rules — and immediately referred by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, an outspoken cityhood opponent, to the Committee on Urban Affairs. Duncan also sent previous cityhood legislation to that committee, an all-Democrat group that is expected to kill it, though its chair has said all bills will get a fair hearing. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) also has declared cityhood legislation to be frozen for at least this session.
Bill White, leader of the pro-cityhood Buckhead City Committee, said on social media that the legislation “puts to bed” the question of how APS would operate in the new city.
Edward Lindsey, co-chair of the anti-cityhood Committee for a United Atlanta, would not comment on the bills’ content, instead saying they are going nowhere in this session of the General Assembly under its rules. “Therefore, our focus is on working with fellow residents in Atlanta to constructively tackle concerns over crime, city services, zoning, education and economic development,” he said.
APS coverage bill
SB 617 authorizes APS to continue operating within both Atlanta and Buckhead City. The Atlanta Board of Education (BOE), which operates APS, is a cityhood opponent. Even if APS wanted to operate in another city, the legality of the move is unclear and it might violate the Georgia Constitution, cityhood opponents have argued. The bill does not clarify such side effects as determining BOE districts, which are currently based on Atlanta City Council district boundaries.
SB 617 may be dead on arrival anyway, as its language calls for it to be automatically repealed on Jan. 1 if a cityhood referendum is not held or not approved by voters this November.
City formation and obligations bill
SB 618 contains a city charter to form a government and details on transitioning away from the City of Atlanta.
The government would be led by a mayor, a six-member City Council and a city manager. The first mayor would have an extended term, apparently for transition purposes, starting with a March 2023 special election and running at least through a November 2027 election. Officeholders would have a term limit of two terms.
The City Council is planned as having staggered, four-year terms. To set up that system, some members would have terms running through 2025 and others through 2027. Those with the initial shorter terms would be considered full-time councilmembers, while those serving standard periods would be considered part-time.
The mayor would be paid $225,000 a year for the first four years and $179,000 in all years thereafter. City Council members would be paid $72,000 as part-timers.
Atlanta, a larger city with a strong-mayor system and no city manager, pays its mayor
$202,730 and City Council members $74,360. Sandy Springs, a suburban city adjacent to Buckhead, has a similar-sized population and the same government set-up of a mayor, a city manager and a six-member City Council; it pays the mayor $40,000 and councilmembers $18,000.
The bill calls for a transition period away from the City of Atlanta government that ends at midnight on Dec. 31, 2025. Several major questions about that transition are touched on, if not fully answered in part because the cityhood’s secession is unprecedented in Georgia law.
One issue is if and how Atlanta would continue providing some services, such as water, to Buckhead City. The bill says that at the “end of the transition period and thereafter,” the new city “shall pay only for the actual cost of services provided by the City of Atlanta.” In one counterexample, Atlanta currently charges Sandy Springs a premium for providing water service there.
Another big issue that has caused statewide concern is cityhood’s impact on Atlanta’s bond debt and ratings. The bill says Buckhead City would “assume a pro rata share” of the debt “to the maximum extent permitted by the Georgia Constitution and the general law.” However, that extent remains a legal mystery and a topic of debate.
The bill also says that Buckhead City also will be on the hook for existing lease obligations and intergovernmental agreements if its creation causes Atlanta “to lose revenues that had historically been used to pay such obligations.” The new city “shall also remain contingently obligated” as long as revenues are “insufficient” to cover such obligations.
A new mechanism to pay such obligations would be a new, special “Buckhead Taxing District” equal to the city limits. The amount of the tax is not defined, since it is contingent on cityhood’s effects on Atlanta, but would be “sufficient to pay its share of the obligations” in question.
While the bill provides a cityhood referendum and various transition and election dates, it also preserves flexibility as a survival mechanism. The language says that if any date in the bill can’t be met for any reason, the action will be considered “delayed rather than abandoned.” That includes the cityhood referendum, which would be held as soon as is “reasonably practicable.”