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Fulton County remains a regional punching bag

Instead of fixing the county's structure of government, lawmakers have weakened it

The marginalization of Fulton County–or, more precisely, its elected leadership–continued apace this week with injury, quickly followed by insult.

The first came courtesy of Gov. Nathan Deal, who brushed aside entreaties by Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves not to sign a bill freezing the county’s tax rate. The second was from Mayor Kasim Reed, who told WABE listeners that the tax cap probably won’t matter because “the county doesn’t do anything anyway.”

To back up a little, you’ll recall that a band of North Fulton state lawmakers led by House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones of Milton passed several bills in the waning days of the recent Legislative session that chipped away at the sovereignty of the Georgia’s largest county. Superseding the authority of the county commission, the GOP-controlled Fulton delegation adopted measures to increase the compensation of judges in the Fulton State and Superior courts, as well as shifting new county hires away from its pension system. There were partisan and ideological motives involved, certainly, but the implicit–no, make that explicit–message behind the actions was, “We don’t trust the county to run itself.”

Senate Republicans indulged their House colleagues in these efforts, but they drew the line at Jones’ plan to double the county’s homestead exemption while imposing a cap on the tax rate, a measure designed to force the county to slash its budget by up to $45 million. In the end, the Senate passed the millage cap, but balked at the homestead exemption bill, punting the matter to next year’s session.

Now, by itself, the tax rate cap may appear an empty gesture. After all, Fulton County hasn’t raised its millage rate in more than 20 years, and hasn’t announced plans to do so in the near future. But the ability to raise taxes is a vital tool for any jurisdiction in meeting its budget obligations–so necessary, in fact, that Fitch lowered county’s credit rating last month on the mere threat that the governor would sign the bill.

Then there’s the argument that singling out any jurisdiction for the imposition of such a handicap sets a disturbing precedent for the abrogation of home rule and local control, which often are touted as core conservative values. That’s why the commission chairman of such Republican strongholds as Cobb, Douglas and Forsyth counties joined Eaves in his very public appeal for Deal to veto the bill.

But no dice. Then, a day or so after the governor bestowed his John Hancock, Reed was asked by WABE’s Denis O’Hayer if he’d attempted to lobby against the bill when it was in the Senate. This was a question I heard floating around the halls of the Capitol in the last days of the session, since the mayor is known to retain a measure of influence among his former Senate colleagues, but Reed said matter-of-factly that, no, he’d not tried to intervene on the county’s behalf.

Reed explained that his actions likely won’t affect the “relationship between the county and the city [because] that relationship has not been very good anyway.”

When O’Hayer followed up, the mayor expressed his frustration with the county’s running of its chronically overcrowded jail, and cited the commission’s refusal two years ago to buy the city’s jail to obtain much-needed bed space.

Eaves later responded to the radio station, defending the management of the jail and, in his typically diplomatic style, affirming his desire to work with the mayor to tackle local issues, etc. But, honestly, who’s listening at this point? For all his good intentions, Eaves doesn’t run the county. Nobody does. That’s exactly the problem. Want to know why the Fulton Commission was left out of all discussions about a new Falcons stadium? It’s largely because there’s no single person who has the authority to negotiate or make promises on the county’s behalf, and because the seven-member board is wildly unpredictable, with some members quixotically hostile to the city and other entities.

The irony of this situation is that state lawmakers had an opportunity to try to help Fulton fix itself by giving it what every other county has: someone to call the shots. Restructuring the county government to give more authority to the chairman might have helped Fulton find a workable balance of power. But such a change might have provided political stability and sapped some of the momentum behind the Milton County movement, so, instead, the North Fulton legislators stuck in a knife.

The twisting of that knife is likely to continue.