Fulton remains a county divided

New leadership in Fulton County government has inspired talk of bipartisan cooperation. But November’s election results show Georgia’s largest county remains divided along geographic, partisan and racial lines, and it will take more than rhetoric to overcome them.

Democratic County Commission Chairman John Eaves cruised to re-election with 63 percent of the vote – but lost nearly all precincts in north Fulton, a Republican stronghold. Earl Cooper, his Republican opponent, did best in far north Fulton and in other largely white and affluent areas.

Fulton’s partisan divide remains so stark that Democrats didn’t bother to field candidates in three northern commission districts, while Republicans abandoned two of the three Atlanta and south Fulton districts. In the one contested district election, Atlanta Democratic incumbent Emma Darnell trounced her Republican opponent, gaining 91 percent of the vote.

Those political dynamics will shape the new Board of Commissioners – four Democrats and three Republicans – that will hold its first meeting Jan. 7. They’ll also influence the upcoming legislative session, where some Republicans have pledged to renew their campaign to remake Fulton County government to their liking – or to split it in two if they can’t.

Officials in both parties have talked of more collaboration. But some wonder if those pledges can withstand the county’s ingrained demographic and political tensions.

“The (north-south) split is what it is,” said south Fulton community activist Benny Crane. “Let’s embrace what it is, or let’s find a way to fix it in a way that doesn’t destroy each other.”

Democrats have long controlled Fulton County government. Local Republicans have often complained Fulton spends too much and should be more efficient.

A 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Fulton spends far more than nearby suburban counties on some key services like libraries and criminal courts. But the investigation found Fulton’s spending is often comparable to or less than that of similar large urban counties.

Still, another AJC investigation confirmed the long-time complaint that north Fulton residents don’t get their fair share of services like libraries and senior centers. That sense of neglect has fueled anti-government sentiment in north Fulton for decades.

“They don’t feel all the love that they should feel from their county government,” said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker.

Unable to change Fulton County government from within, in 2013 Republicans took a new approach, using their big majority in the General Assembly pass a series of bills designed to remake the county. Among other things, they made it easier to fire county employees, capped the property tax rate and redrew commission districts to give north Fulton – and Republicans – a greater say on the commission.

The property tax cap is tied up in court, and county commissioners approved a 17 percent tax increase this year. But the redistricting has proven more effective. Two new Republicans – Bob Ellis of Milton and Lee Morris of Atlanta – will join new Atlanta Democrat Marvin Arrington Jr. on the seven-member commission. It’s the biggest turnover on the commission in a generation.

The Republicans campaigned on fiscal responsibility and condemned the tax increase. Though they may not have the votes to have much impact immediately, they hope to accomplish much over time by working across party lines. Morris said people across Fulton have similar concerns despite their political differences.

“They want good, clean, safe neighborhoods. They want good government,” Morris said. “I think we’ll find common ground.”

They may find a willing partner in Eaves, who may be a key swing vote on the closely divided commission. During the campaign, he talked of redistributing county spending to better serve north Fulton residents.

“I do think there is some merit to criticism about how funds have been disproportionately applied across the county,” Eaves said.

But talk of collaboration could be drowned out when the legislative session begins in January. State Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, has pledged to renew her effort to double a property tax break for Fulton County homeowners – a move supporters say would grant needed tax relief and critics say would decimate the county budget. Other legislation affecting the county also could spark partisan bickering.

The race to replace Johns Creek Republican Rep. Lynne Riley – recently named the state’s new revenue commissioner – shows how deeply dissatisfaction with Fulton County runs in some areas. Two of the leading candidates in the Jan. 6 special election – former Johns Creek City Council members Brad Raffensperger and Kelly Stewart – have blasted county government during the campaign.

Raffensperger says if elected he’d force Fulton commissioners to rescind this year’s tax increase. Stewart would go further, stripping Fulton of the authority to levy property taxes at all — perhaps replacing that tax with a sales tax. Ultimately, she supports a long-simmering campaign to allow north Fulton to break away and form Milton County.

“I do think (Fulton is) beyond reform,” Stewart said. “The number of pieces of legislation that have been introduced to try to reform Fulton, it’s not made the situation better.”

Morris hopes the General Assembly will give the new commission time to make some changes.

“If we aren’t able to find the common ground and work toward solving some of the perceived issues, then I expect the Legislature will continue to try to do what they think is right,” he said.

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