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City creation reform bill stalls in Georgia House

After a decade of contentious debate over creating new cities, many state lawmakers tried to require more thorough vetting this year before communities could incorporate.

But the effort to bring order to Georgia’s cityhood movement – with deeper feasibility studies and a formal legislative process – appears to have fallen short. The legislation passed the Senate 55-1 but didn’t get a hearing in the House.

Sen. Elena Parent, the chairwoman of a task force that recommended the changes last year, said the Georgia General Assembly missed an opportunity.

“It would be helpful for people and legislators to have a more robust and predictable process so the General Assembly isn’t mired in what are essentially local fights,” said Parent, D-Atlanta. “We’re creating a new government. It’s not a small thing.”

Eight cities have formed in metro Atlanta since Sandy Springs started the incorporation trend in 2005. Legislation for a city of Stonecrest is awaiting final votes at the Capitol this week.

Senate Bill 375 would have required potential cities to commission studies of their economic impact on surrounding jurisdictions, in addition to the existing mandate that they prove their ability to operate a financially sustainable government.

The bill would have also set a two-year legislative process before a city could be approved, and referendums on cityhood would have always been held during November elections.

» INTERACTIVE: Learn more about the effects of cityhood in Fulton and DeKalb

House Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Rynders said he didn’t think the measure was necessary.

Despite contentious cityhood debates, like last year’s over the borders of Tucker and LaVista Hills, communities seeking to incorporate have successfully navigated the legislative process and then held referendums. Voters approved Tucker and narrowly rejected LaVista Hills in November.

“I don’t know why we need to put in statute something that’s clearly working,” said Rynders, R-Albany. “I’m about less government, not more.”

The group that represents Georgia’s 159 counties, The Association County Commissioners of Georgia, advocated for passage of more rigorous cityhood creation rules.

Cities shift political power, taxes and government services away from counties, and the extent of those changes often aren’t clear as lawmakers are evaluating cityhood proposals, said Todd Edwards, associate legislative director for ACCG.

“These are real issues with real impacts on Georgia taxpayers – not only those within any new city created, but for the county and nearby cities as well,” Edwards said.

Counties outside of metro Atlanta are also concerned about the potential for more cities to be formed, he said. Proposals for the cities of Sharon Springs in Forsyth County and St. Simons in Glynn County didn’t advance in the Georgia General Assembly this year.

In addition, the cityhood legislation called for an evaluation of how a new city would affect its county’s pension liabilities. That’s an issue in DeKalb County, where Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, had proposed House Bill 711 to make residents of recently formed cities pay a share of pension debts that are now largely borne by residents left in the county’s unincorporated areas. HB711 stalled in this year’s legislative session.

Several city mayors opposed the pension measure, which could have been attached to SB375 if it had moved forward.

“This is another attempt by the county to burden those who live in cities with a financial obligation they created through neglect and poor policy decisions,” said Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson.

Sen. Steve Gooch, the sponsor of SB375, said his goal wasn’t to stop cities from being created but to provide more information before decisions were made.

“People who are going to vote on a new city should know how it’s going to affect their communities,” said Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “They don’t need to rush into a new city and not know about some of these unintended consequences.”

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