Gov. Nathan Deal has signed a flurry of bills that could spark dramatic changes in Fulton County government, affecting everything from property taxes and elections to the size of the county workforce.
The bills will cap property tax rates, expand north Fulton representation on the County Commission and make it easier to fire county employees. They also will give the Republican-led legislative delegation the authority to appoint the county election board chairman and give local courts more control over their budgets.
Republicans hailed the 10 bills as much-needed restraints on a county government they say has ignored calls to downsize for far too long. Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said taxpayers will benefit “through enhanced accountability, better representation and improved cost controls.”
Democrats said it’s the General Assembly that needs to be restrained from interfering in local affairs.
“I cannot wait for the federal government to step in and tell Georgia how we should be spending our money, because clearly that is what Republicans feel should be done when one party disagrees” on spending priorities, said Rep. LaDawn Blackett Jones, D-Atlanta.
Similar concerns were raised by Republicans as well as Democrats in other counties, but the governor came down squarely on the side of Fulton’s critics. “Don’t put yourself in a position where your local (legislative) delegation has to take measures to restrain your spending,” Deal said Tuesday of his decision to sign the property-tax measure.
His decision to sign the bills caps a bitter debate over the future of local government in Georgia’s largest county.
North Fulton Republicans have long complained the county spends too much and didn’t downsize enough as cities incorporated and fewer residents needed municipal services from the county. They say the property-tax measure — which would prohibit the County Commission from raising the tax rate for the next two years and require approval by a supermajority of commissioners to raises taxes after that — will force the county to cut spending.
Critics have complained the bills are less about reform than about imposing a Republican philosophy of government on a Democratic county. And even some Republicans have complained about lawmakers meddling in local government affairs.
“Conservative principles dictate that local control, control closest to the people, is best,” said Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, a Republican. “We should never stand for the selective execution of our principles. You either stand for home rule or you do not.”
Deal said local governments that aren’t having spending problems have nothing to fear. And he said if Fulton officials don’t plan to raise property taxes in the future the tax bill will have no impact.
This year may be just the first round in the debate over Fulton County’s future. Another property-tax bill - which would double the size of the county’s homestead exemption - passed the House and will be considered by the Senate next year. So will a proposal to make the county tax commissioner an appointed instead of elected position. County commissioners are likely to ask the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviews election changes in Georgia and other states with a history of racial discrimination, to overturn the new commission districts. Those new districts pit two incumbent black Democrats against each other in a single district and eliminate the at-large seat of a third black Democrat in favor of a new district in largely white, Republican north Fulton. Democrats say those changes violate the federal Voting Rights Act.
The bills affecting Fulton County government that Gov. Nathan Deal has signed:
HB 171: Redraws county commission districts, eliminating one at-large position and creating a new district in North Fulton. Changes the election schedule for commissioners.
HB 347: Gives the local legislative delegation authority to nominate the chairman of the Fulton County Board of Registrations and Elections. Currently the county Board of Commissioners nominates and appoints the chairman.
HB 435: Expands the duties of the chief judge of State Court and gives the judge a $6,000 raise.
HB 441: Gives the Superior Court administrator more authority over the court budget.
HB 442: Gives the State Court administrator greater authority over the court budget.
HB 443: Makes the chief magistrate judge an elected position. Currently the chief magistrate is appointed by the State Court judges. When the current chief magistrate’s term ends in 2014, the next magistrate would be appointed to a four-year term by the governor. After that, the chief magistrate would be elected.
HB 444: Requires Fulton County to give Superior Court judges a $7,816 raise. State Court judges’ salaries are a percentage of Superior Court judges’ salaries, so State Court judges also would get a raise.
HB 594: Makes all new employees except those in public safety unclassified, allowing the county to dismiss, demote or suspend them for any reason not prohibited by law without prior notice or explanation. Employees could not appeal. All public safety employees would continue to be classified employees and could not be dismissed, demoted or suspended without prior notice and could appeal.
HB 598: Makes all new employees of Superior, State and Magistrate Courts at-will employees who would not be subject to the county merit system of employment.
HB 604: Prevents the Fulton County Board of Commissioners from raising the property-tax rate for two years and requires approval by a supermajority of commissioners to raise taxes thereafter.