A group of Democratic and Republican county officials from across metro Atlanta has asked Gov. Nathan Deal to veto a proposal that would prevent Fulton County from raising property taxes, saying the bill is “bad for the county and bad for the state.”
On Tuesday, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves gave the governor a letter signed by nine elected officials opposed to House Bill 604, which would prohibit a Fulton tax increase for the next two years and require a supermajority of commissioners to raise taxes thereafter. They said in the letter that the legislation could open the door to more state-level interference in local government.
The letter ramps up pressure on Deal as he decides whether to sign HB 604, a signature achievement of north Fulton Republicans who fought hard to push it through the General Assembly last month. They say it will force Fulton officials to cut wasteful spending.
“There is plenty more opportunity for belt-tightening and financial constraints,” said Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek.
Democrats have decried the move as unnecessary and punitive. And Fitch Ratings recently cited HB 604 in downgrading Fulton County’s credit rating. Now local Republicans as well as Democrats have added their voices to the opposition.
It was signed by Eaves and fellow Democrats such as DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, but also by Republicans such as Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee and Fayette County Chairman Steve Brown. Chairmen from Cherokee, Clayton, Douglas, Forsyth and Rockdale counties also signed. Gwinnett County Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, a Republican, is expected to express her concerns to Deal separately.
“[W]e believe HB 604 violates the letter and spirit of home rule,” the officials wrote to Deal. “Passage of this bill sets a dangerous precedent for legislative interference in other counties and the impact on Fulton County services will have a ripple effect throughout the region.”
Deal’s office had no comment about the letter. In an interview before his meeting with Eaves, Deal said he hasn’t made up his mind about the bill.
“I’m trying to be as informed as I can,” Deal said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind.”
The letter is the latest salvo in the debate over Republican plans to remake a Fulton County government they say is bloated and dysfunctional. Among other things, they passed bills to redraw commission districts and to make it easier to fire county workers.
But the most hotly contested bills have involved property taxes. In addition to HB 604, north Fulton Republicans proposed doubling the county’s property tax homestead exemption, which would grant tax relief to tens of thousands of homeowners but would cost the county $48 million. That proposal passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Fitch Ratings recently cited those bills — along with the county’s reliance on dwindling reserves to balance its budget — in downgrading some existing Fulton debts. The agency said the bills would limit the county’s financial flexibility and signify an “uncomfortable degree of discord and absence of cooperation” between state and local officials.
Democrats say the property tax measures are unnecessary because Fulton has cut spending by $100 million since 2008 and hasn’t raised property taxes since 1991. They say the Legislature is interfering in local affairs.
“The voices and rights of residents are diluted when the powers of their local government are overrun by the state,” Eaves said.
Tuesday’s letter echoed similar concerns. It cited the Fitch rating downgrade and the possible impact of Fulton budget cuts on Grady Memorial Hospital. And it said HB 604 violates the county’s home rule powers.
House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey disputed the assertion that the bill creates a “dangerous precedent.” The Buckhead Republican said Fulton County is in a unique situation, given that most of its residents now live in cities that have carved up once-unincorporated land.
“We’ve been trying to get Fulton County to recognize the changing world it operates in,” Lindsey said. “The Fulton County Commission has repeatedly ignored suggestion after suggestion on how to change the county’s operation now that 90 percent of the population lives in cities. And that’s what precipitated this legislation: It was desperately needed to reduce the footprint of Fulton County.”
Deal has until Tuesday to sign or veto the Fulton County bills. In comments before his meeting with Eaves, he said the Fitch report alludes to the “definite harmful consequences” of HB 604. But he said the report was more critical of commissioners’ spending habits and echoed many of the GOP lawmakers’ concerns.
“I’ve listened to sponsors of the legislation, and their concerns are some of the same concerns by Fitch,” the governor said. “The spending of Fulton County is disproportionately high.”