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January 29, 2013SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. – The new cities of Johns Creek and Milton spent months revising their charters, and salient among the changes all recommended was changing the charter's language that practically prohibits the cities to raise their millage to float bonds.
The charter committees were mandated to convene five years after North Fulton's three new cities were created to examine their charters and make recommendations for any changes they want to make in the governance of the cities.
All three are seeking to change the requirement to raise the millage cap – and allow the cities to float bonds for capital projects – which says a majority of the registered voters must approve.
The city charter committees want it to be changed so that the cap can be raised if a majority of ballots cast give consent. They say the requirement of a majority of registered voters is unattainable and cripples the cities from putting legitimate projects before the people because most voters just don't turn out.
At a Jan. 24 luncheon with the North Fulton legislative delegation – the folks who must approve it in a bill of local legislation – they were not receptive to the idea.
State Rep. and House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones helped write the provision and said she is not disposed to change. When asked if the request would meet any stumbling blocks, Jones said she "didn't see a problem" with the original wording.
Jones in the past has defended the requirement of a vote of the majority of registered voters, and said that has not changed.
"I don't see any reason to raise the millage rate or how that would affect a bond issue," Jones told the mayors.
But she said she was open to any evidence the cities could provide that the current language puts the cities at a disadvantage in obtaining a bond or the cities' credit rating.
Johns Creek Councilwoman Bev Miller said her city's charter commission did a good job on this question weighing the sense of the people and came to the conclusion this is what they wanted.
"After all the months and all the town hall meetings, they deserve closure on this," Miller said. "This is so important for our city."
The issue of paving roads is critical in Johns Creek, and its City Council has said it would bring a bond referendum for roads in which the cap would be lifted if the wording is changed. But asking for a majority of voters registered to even cast a ballot is a likelihood so remote that they say it is a near impossibility.
Jones said she was not convinced. She said the cities could earmark the annual funds for capital improvements to make the payments on a bond referendum and have no need of adjusting its millage rate.
But she agreed to meet with the cities to see if they had "evidence" that such a change in the charter was really necessary.
Earlier, the legislative delegation had told the cities that it planned to curtail Fulton County spending by placing caps on its ability to raise the millage rate. Jones said she did not see this freezing of the county millage as any different from the cities' situation.
"But I would like to have conversations about the effect the cap has on [the cities' creditworthiness]," Jones said.
After the luncheon, Miller said she was "not at all satisfied," with Jones' response.
"We have talked with bond counsels, and they tell us the millage cap most certainly affects the interest rate we would have to pay," Miller said.
The bonding authorities who set the interest rate gauge a city's ability to repay the debt. Cities that see a dip in revenues and can't raise taxes to meet their obligations to repay the debt are a higher risk, if indeed they can even float bonds, Miller said.
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker was also upset over what he had heard from Jones.
"This issue has nothing to do with raising the millage cap. It has everything to do with our ability to meet our obligations in exactly the same manner as every other city in Georgia," Bodker said.
"This is the issue I'm running on in my election campaign," Bodker said. "We need to be able to react to our needs in a timely fashion."
His city's needs for infrastructure improvement are pervasive and persistent, Bodker said.
"Fulton County did not leave our roads in very good shape, and we need to rebuild them. I dodge the potholes every time I turn into my subdivision," he said.
Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said he would prefer his city to have the ability to have a millage vote settled by a majority of the voters than a majority of registered voters.
"I certainly see [Jones'] concern. We certainly don't anticipate raising taxes. I would like to see them put a sunset on that limitation," Lockwood said.
Milton Councilwoman Karen Thurman said she understands Jones' position.
"She wants to keep her promise that she made when the cities were getting started that we would never raise taxes," Thurman said. "But she told us if we could show her that the cap the way it is stated hurts our bonding capacity and our interest rates then she would [agree to the change].
"We just need to do our homework to show if it truly does affect our bonding capacity, then talk with [legislative delegation members]," she said.