Fulton County first in Georgia to relinquish city services


When they left work on Friday, employees turned the lights off at the Fulton County Department of Planning and Community Services for the final time.

Monday, those who returned to the same building worked for the newly incorporated city of South Fulton.

VIDEO -- More about the City of South Fulton:

With almost all of Fulton County now part of one of its 15 cities, the county no longer needs to keep its planning department, which helps with rezoning cases and land use decisions. In fact, it’s getting out of the business of city services entirely, focusing instead on big-picture issues.

Next, code enforcement workers will leave county employment, followed by parks and recreation and the fire and police departments. This is the first time a Georgia county that provided such services is relinquishing them, said Todd Edwards, the deputy legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Edwards said. “The experience they’ve gone through can be a learning experience for all counties.”

Though others may follow suit, no other county is yet in the position Fulton is. New cities seem to be considered in other counties in every legislative session.

As Fulton shuts down departments, handing everything from employees to office furniture over to South Fulton, there is still a need for county government. Fulton provides a number of countywide services, including administration of libraries and jails, the sheriff’s office and the courts.

But the move away from city services could let the county play a new role, in partnership with the cities, said Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves.

A county-wide police or fire authority could help set standards and improve communication among departments. An economic development arm could work to bring businesses.

“The county’s still relevant,” he said. “We can be even more relevant. We can be better at coordinating our services at less cost.”

Last year, before South Fulton was incorporated, Fulton County spent $53.1 million to provide services in the unincorporated area. In 2017, it expects to spend about half that. The $28.3 million Fulton budgeted paid for the first four months of the year, before South Fulton incorporated. It also covers the expense for Fulton Industrial Boulevard, the only remaining unincorporated area, for the full year.

The county will contract with South Fulton to provide services in that unincorporated area, once the transition has taken place. Talks are underway to put the Fulton Industrial area into either South Fulton or Atlanta.

Edwards, with the ACCG, said not having to worry about police or planning for a small part of the county will allow Fulton government to better focus on those county-wide needs.

“It’s a good idea for the county to continue working with cities to bring them all together,” Edwards said. “It’s always good for the county and cities to communicate. Coordination is key.”

The county is used to transitioning new cities: starting with Sandy Springs, they’ve also gone through the process with Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills. In each of those instances, though, there were unincorporated areas left after the transitions that still needed to use the departments in question. This is the first time they will simply cease to be.

The other departments are expected to transition over the next year.

The city of South Fulton, with nearly 100,000 residents, is expected to make offers to the more than 400 employees who will have their county jobs eliminated, said Todd Long, Fulton’s chief operating officer. The county will still have about 4,800 employees left, after the transition is through.

Those that move on to South Fulton won’t have far to go. The new city is taking over Fulton’s lease on a building at Fulton Industrial, using it as city hall. The county is selling its desks, chairs and computers to the city for $1 apiece. (When the time comes, fire stations will go for $5,000, while parks will cost the new city $100 an acre.)

Residents likely won’t notice much change, said Emma Darnell, a Fulton County commissioner who represents part of the new city. She said she doesn’t expect most people to keep straight which government does what.

“People don’t care whether it’s city or county,” she said. “They want the trash picked up.”

As South Fulton readies itself for the change, Mayor Bill Edwards said he is happy with the progress the city is making, “laying the foundations” to form the new government.

It’s being felt on the county end, too.

“The reality is, part of our family is moving away,” Eaves said. “It’s bittersweet.”

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