Study panels find plenty of holes to plug in the incorporation law

[private]The process of creating new cities – or expanding current cities through annexation – was so important that Georgia lawmakers established two different study committees to look at the issue, one panel for each legislative chamber.

As the two committees hold their public hearings, they are finding plenty of holes to plug in the leaky vessel that contains this particular section of the Georgia code.

Incorporation and annexation have become vexing issues for legislators because the campaigns to create new cities can spark seething hostilities between the opposing sides, and that anger often spills out onto the House and Senate floors when the bills are debated.

Rep. Jan Tankersley (R-Brooklet), who chairs the House study committee, opened last week’s hearing with this warning: “This committee will not tolerate personal attacks, threats, or other signs of disorder during this meeting.”

When a new city is carved out, disagreements often arise between city and county officials over how much the new government should pay the old government to acquire physical assets such as fire stations or parks.

As the study committees are discovering, the changes caused by incorporations and annexations can also create more complex problems that go beyond the price set for a government building.

When a city with its own independent school system, for example, annexes property that contains residential areas, it takes in students who had been attending schools in the county system. How do you sort out which schools the students should attend and who pays the costs involved?

“The schools, that’s where people really get upset, when you cannibalize the school systems,” said Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), a member of the Senate committee chaired by Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta).

Fulton County, where at least three new cities have been created and another could be on the way, may soon become the first county in Georgia – aside from the handful where there was city-county consolidation – to be made up entirely of municipal properties.

Sharon Whitmore, Fulton’s chief financial officer, pointed out to the Senate committee that when all of those cities are operating, the county will still have to pay off bonds issued to build government facilities and fulfill pensions for retired police officers and firefighters. Do the new cities escape all financial responsibility for those long-term obligations?

“It could, frankly, be overwhelming,” Whitmore said.

“Is there a way to allow the debt to follow those who incurred it?” Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) asked.

Both of the legislative committees have been confronted with this issue as well: the push to create more new cities overlooks the fact that Georgia probably has too many municipalities already. There are about 700 incorporated cities, but many of them are so small they don’t have the financial resources to provide the required number of government services.

“As of the 2010 census, we have 234 cities with less than 1,000 people; 47 of them have less than 200 people,” said Jeff Lanier of the Office of Legislative Counsel at a House committee meeting. “How you provide services in a city that small, I don’t know.”

“That is another area the committee might want to look at,” Lanier suggested.

Incorporation has been a major issue since 2005, when the advocates of cityhood for Sandy Springs were finally able to call a referendum on the issue – it passed with more than 93 percent support.

Since then, several other new cities have sprung into existence, primarily in Fulton and DeKalb Counties: Johns Creek, Milton, Chattahoochee Hills, Dunwoody, Peachtree Corners, and Brookhaven. The next city votes will be held Nov. 3 on the questions of creating Tucker and LaVista Hills in DeKalb.

The percentage of voters approving the creation of new cities has steadily decreased since the first landslide passage in Sandy Springs. The most recent referendum to incorporate Brookhaven only passed with 54 percent support of the area’s voters.

But there apparently is still an appetite for more new cities. The next push might happen in Forsyth County, where for years the only incorporated city has been Cumming.

Citizen groups are moving ahead with an effort to create the city of Sharon Springs.

© 2015 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: annexations , Charlie Bethel , elena parent , Fran Millar , Jan Tankersley , legislative study committees , new cities