Tone of new Fulton commission sparks cautious optimism

In their first few months in office, a fresh batch of Fulton County commissioners has set a new tone that is winning praise from some of the county’s critics and a reprieve from further state intervention in its affairs.

In January, commissioners elected bipartisan leadership and approved a budget unanimously for the first time since 1991. Last month, they hired a respected businessman as the new county manager. And they recently took the first steps to implement the customer service and efficiency promised during campaigning.

On a board that some have long regarded as dysfunctional, such actions have inspired new optimism about the future of Fulton County government.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, a longtime county critic. Fulton “has the potential that very few counties in America have.”

Some commissioners wonder if the new spirit of collaboration can survive the county’s traditional partisan, geographic and racial divides. But for now they appear united – a fact that Chairman John Eaves will underscore in his “state of the county” speech Thursday.

“There’s a tremendous desire by all of us to make Fulton County one of the best counties, not just in Georgia and the Southeast, but in the entire nation,” Eaves said. “And we feel we can do it.”

Fair or not, Fulton’s reputation for dysfunction is long-standing. Critics say the county spends too much and delivers too little. Such complaints have been especially loud in largely Republican north Fulton, where some residents have talked of forming their own county.

Two years ago, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a series of bills to reshape Fulton County government. Among other things, they capped the property tax rate, made it easier to fire employees and redrew commission districts to give Republicans a third representative of the seven-member commission.

That last measure has had the greatest impact. Because of redistricting and retirements, the commission has three new members – the most in a generation.

Change was evident at their first meeting in January, when commissioners unanimously named Liz Hausmann – a Johns Creek Republican – vice chairman. It was a mostly symbolic move. But on a commission long dominated by Democrats, it signaled an interest in bipartisanship.

That same month, commissioners unanimously approved a budget that didn’t repeal last year’s 17 percent tax hike, as Republicans wanted, but will roll back the tax rate to account for rising property values.

The board unanimously voted to hire Dick Anderson – a former AT&T executive and Federal Reserve and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority official – to be county manager. Anderson has pledged to improve efficiency and customer service.

Fulton officials also have met with local mayors and state lawmakers to try to repair relations that have become frayed over the years. A proposal to grant big tax breaks to Fulton homeowners – a move that county officials said would devastate their budget – died in the General Assembly this year.

“I think we’re turning a page, starting a new chapter,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, a longtime county critic.

Of course, the optimism is as fragile as it is new. At a retreat earlier this month, commissioners were asked to envision the best and worst things that could come of their effort to transform county government.

The best-case scenarios were peppered with words like “trust,” “efficiency” and “highest quality of services.” The worst-case scenarios? “bankruptcy,” “wasted taxpayer money” and “exacerbated bitterness and divisions.”

New Commissioner Lee Morris, a Republican, said there is real consensus among commissioners to try to restore trust in county government. But he said they also realize that critics in the General Assembly are watching.

“I think there is a sense that we have an opportunity to try to address those concerns ourselves,” Morris said. “And if they’re not addressed to the satisfaction of those folks who have that power, that power might get exercised again.”

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