ATLANTA – So many new cities have been created in Georgia over the last decade or so that lawmakers have instituted procedures to slow the process down to make sure mistakes aren’t made in a rush.
People usually want to create a city because they’re unhappy with their county commission. Typically it revolves around money – either taxes and how they are spent or land use which affects property values.
Usually, it’s been high-income neighborhoods that want independence from the rest of the county, figuring they can do better by electing their own government.
Democrats tend to oppose city creation, warning that doing so will weaken counties – which in most cases have been controlled by Democrats. Republicans who run the legislature and generally represent the suburbs wanting independence have been supportive.
“I’m motivated by letting the people ultimately decide,” said Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, who chairs the committee these bills go through.
When Republicans took charge of state government after 2002, it broke the dam holding back city creation.
The first out of the breach and the longest one in discussion was the city of Sandy Springs in northern Fulton County, 35 years after it was first proposed. Ten years later, Mayor Rusty Paul calls it a model for cities around the world that have come to study how it operates by outsourcing nearly all city services.
He’s realistic that his citizens aren’t likely to always be as happy as they are now.
“I tell folks the time will come when you will be as angry at the mayor and city council as you ever were with the Fulton County Commission,” he said. “The difference will be you’ll be able to see us at church, see us at the grocery store, see us at Rotary, and we’ll have conversations where we can at least talk about it.”
Members of a city council have to live with the decisions they make, while county officials may live far away.
Tom Gehl, governmental-relations director for the Georgia Municipal Association, said self-determination is a driving factor in most efforts toward city incorporation.
“Cityhood efforts are organic movements where people feel the need for a closer form of government than county government,” he said. “They’re not easy, but the self-determination is the motivation, the ability to set your own zoning, planning, decide the level of services, police, fire. City governments, because of their size, are just more responsive than county governments, that’s just a geographical fact.”
The House Governmental Affairs Committee instituted its own rules shortly after the Republican takeover establishing procedures for incorporation legislation. First, it had to be introduced one year and could not be acted on until the second year. In the interim, a university study had to be conducted on the financial feasibility of the new city examining its likely revenue and expenses.
A Senate bill to make those requirements into state law has apparently died this session, but the leadership there intends to stick to the process. That would mean incorporation bills could only be introduced in odd-numbered years and voted on in the even years.
Paul says the delay is a good idea and probably should be at least twice that long.
“Step One is to go out and do the hard work of consensus building, and that takes time,” he said. “I think the legislature did the right thing in requiring a two-year period. Honestly, you need more time than just two years.”
The consensus building ensures that the new city doesn’t have to organize itself with what he calls “a built-in chorus of naysayers” rooting against every proposal. It also ensures all ramifications are examined ahead of time.
The trade organization for county commissioners says one of the critical factors to be examined and explained to the public is how a new city will change the rest of the county, such as the division of local-option sales taxes that are split between the county and all cities in it.
“Economically feasible? Sure it is — if you’re not taking into consideration the impact on the county taxpayers as a whole or different municipalities in terms of LOST and SPLOST distribution,” said Todd Edwards, a lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia “So, it’s having their cake and eating it, too, particularly with these new city-lite concepts.”
A so-called city lite is one which offers the legal minimum of three services required to stay incorporated, usually low-cost services than can be contracted out to a company or the county. It can be an affordable way to have a city that controls land use.
Edwards isn’t its only critic. Sandy Springs’ Paul isn’t a fan either.
“I personally have a problem with the city-lite concept where they cherry pick the services and leave the counties with the hard services to deliver,” he said. “I think if you’re going to become a city, you need to step up to the plate and provide the services.”
ACCG doesn’t enter the debate about individual cities, Edwards said, only the push to ensure the whole process is fair.
Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, agrees. He represents both residents of Glynn County and those who would live in a city on St. Simons Island and Sea Island. He’s concerned about the possibility that losing hotel-motel taxes on the islands to a new city, for example, could force the county to raise taxes on the rest of the residents.
For that reason, he doesn’t want to introduce an incorporation bill until the completion of a study by the Georgia Institute of Technology on the countywide impact. If it would trigger a tax increase, he wants the whole county to vote whether to create the city.
Jones has been criticized for not introducing an incorporation bill to start the clock on the two-year process. His response is that the Senate insists the clock start in an odd-numbered year and wouldn’t credit a bill introduced now.
He also wants more time for the public to consider the matter.
“The longer-term and more important issue is that we do it right,” he said.
Jones prefers small government, and he would like to see restrictions on any new city’s ability to raise taxes or add services.
“I’m also looking for a limited-government solution, one that just focuses very narrowly on the problem at hand and not another layer of government that tends to grow into whatever government has a tendency to do,” he said.
Jones and the other local legislators favored legislation that would have allowed Georgia to create townships, which would be more limited than city lites but would control land use. The proposal failed to gain traction in the legislature. Land use is a major reason for incorporating the islands.
Paul offers a warning about those wanting to control land use. It may not be the solution they were hoping for.
“You can’t just say no to every proposal that comes down the pike. Georgia is a strong property-rights state,” he said.
In Sandy Springs, city officials discovered that the zoning created by the county conferred vested rights to the property owners with court decisions backing them up. That prevented the new city from imposing greater restrictions.
“People often don’t understand that those vested rights exist,” he said.