The Push for “Buckhead City”
By Jim Durrett, President of Buckhead Coalition and Executive Director of Buckhead Community Improvement District
By now you have heard about an effort among some in Buckhead to divorce from the City of Atlanta and incorporate as its own city within Fulton County. This is not the first time that the idea has been pursued, but previous efforts did not clear the major hurdle that the current effort did when the state legislature actually had a bill submitted by a Forsyth County legislator in the final hours of the very last day of the 2021 legislative session.
Now, the complaints that are voiced by the group pursuing cityhood are shared by many, including me. The distress of violent crime in Buckhead and around the city is real and seems unending. The taxes that the residents of Buckhead pay to the City of Atlanta, as well as to Atlanta Public Schools, are significant, while the deterioration of city services, such as trash collection and road paving, as well as zoning ordinances that would appear to harm our neighborhoods, are unacceptable.
The group pushing the cityhood effort believes that forming their own city is the best way to address these issues, and a campaign has begun to convince not only the Georgia legislature, but also the residents of Buckhead, that this is true.
So what is the process and where is this group in that process? Here are the steps for forming a new city in Georgia.
- A local group decides it wants to incorporate. (This has clearly happened.)
- A bill, sponsored by a member of the State Legislature, is introduced. (A placeholder bill was introduced in the final hours of the last day of the 2021 legislative session in the House by Representative Todd Jones of Cumming.)
- A feasibility study needs to be done to see whether the new city would be viable.
- Two different bills will need to be reviewed and considered by the General Assembly. The first is a “local bill” requiring support from a majority of the House and Senate local delegations. The second is a city creation bill similar to that introduced by Jones.
- If the House and Senate pass the two bills, they bill go to the governor’s desk. (This would happen in the 2022 legislative session.)
- If the governor signs it, a referendum is then placed on the ballot, allowing only voters in the affected area of Buckhead to choose whether they would like their community to form a new city. It is approved with a simple majority. Residents in other parts of the City of Atlanta, who would no doubt be affected, would not get to participate in that vote. (This would take place in November of 2022.)
There are a great number of important questions that need to be answered before anyone should draw conclusions about this attempt to create “Buckhead City.” Until now, what I have read and heard directly from the leaders of this secession effort is, aside from the very real concerns and complaints listed above, conjecture.
Here are some facts.
- Buckhead is an area within the City of Atlanta that comprises approximately 18% of the City of Atlanta’s land area and comprises 20% of the City’s population.
- Of the City of Atlanta’s households earning $100,000 or more, a disproportionate number (51%) reside in Buckhead.
- Buckhead contributed 38% of the City of Atlanta’s 2019 budgeted revenues from local sources and 55% of the Atlanta Public Schools’ 2019 budgeted revenues.
- Buckhead contributes 47% of the City of Atlanta’s property tax digest.
And here are just some questions that I have. You may have more.
- Were this effort to succeed, what would the impact be on the finances of the City of Atlanta and its ability to satisfy its debt obligations, including the impact on its bond ratings, as well as its ability to fund infrastructure improvements and pension obligations?
- What city, county and school system services would a new “Buckhead City” necessarily continue to receive and pay for from existing entities (think water and courts, for example)? Sandy Springs pays a much higher water bill to the City of Atlanta than residents did before that city was incorporated. Would “Buckhead City” residents’ water bills increase as well?
- What will the effect be on the City of Atlanta’s and the State’s reputation, not only of a successful effort to secede and incorporate, but the attempt to do so?
- Without Buckhead’s contribution, where would our capital city rank among other state capitals in terms of tax base and poverty?
- What is the likelihood that legal challenges and other entanglements will drag on for years, and what will the costs be to resolve them?
- What additional social unrest would follow a referendum that would divide us even further than we find ourselves now?
- If, through the very political legislative process, this reaches the point where a referendum is to take place, who will get to vote to decide on the future of “Buckhead City” and, at the same time, the City of Atlanta? Is it all of the voters in Buckhead shown on the map above, or just those in a smaller area where polling has indicated support? And what about the other residents of the City of Atlanta who would be very negatively affected? Should they not also have a say?
- Will the feasibility study referenced above, that is paid for by those wishing to secede, answer the question of how viable a more impoverished City of Atlanta will be?
- If the rest of the City of Atlanta is worse off by Buckhead seceding, will Buckhead really be safer?
I believe that if we truly understand the facts and get good answers to these and other questions, that this quixotic attempt to create a “Buckhead City” will fail due to vast legal, legislative and political entanglements. I also believe that the administration of the City of Atlanta needs to take Buckhead’s concerns very seriously and address them all, because today that is clearly not happening.
In July of last year, just after I was named President & CEO of The Buckhead Coalition, we released the following statement regarding this effort:
“The Buckhead Coalition has historically opposed the incorporation of Buckhead into a separate city, and the Coalition leadership would like at this time to reaffirm that stance. Our partnering organizations – the Buckhead Community Improvement District, Livable Buckhead and Buckhead Business Association – share this vision. Now, as much as at any time in our history, we believe Atlantans need to come together across racial, geographic and economic differences to find common ground and build a more unified community.
The Buckhead Coalition is committed to working with City Government to ensure that the businesses and residents of our City are supported with the necessary municipal services and to build a more cohesive, equitable, safe and prosperous city for all.”
Since becoming part of Atlanta in 1952, Buckhead has benefitted from being part of our diverse and dynamic city. When Ivan Allen set us on an enlightened path to civil rights that made us the capital of the new south, Buckhead benefitted. When Andrew Young and Billy Paine brought the Olympics to Atlanta, Buckhead benefitted. When Mayor Massell brought federal money to create the MARTA system, Buckhead benefitted. When Atlanta’s research universities foster startups and help attract corporate relocations, Buckhead benefits. Buckhead is essential to Atlanta and Atlanta is essential to Buckhead.