Metro counties alarmed at precedent-setting bill

Asked Deal to veto millage cap

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ATLANTA – The battle over a bill that would cap Fulton County’s millage rate drew 11 metro county chairmen into the fray, who say House Bill 604 violates the principle of home rule.

Fulton County Chairman John H. Eaves met with Gov. Nathan Deal April 30 to present a letter signed by 10 Democratic and Republican chairs of the metro Atlanta counties stating their opposition to legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly that capped only Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners millage rate. An 11th chairwoman has said she will send her own letter to the governor.

Deal signed the legislation into law May 6.

Eaves said he spoke with his fellow commission chairs at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia annual meeting, where he said he had little trouble in getting them to co-sign the letter to the governor.

“It wasn’t hard at all. This resonates beyond party affiliation because it really attacks the jugular,” Eaves said.

“I think that specifically House Bill 604 is causing some angst among the county commissioners, because this is an infringement on home rule. The reality is county government depends on flexibility in its ability to set a millage rate,” he said.

Forsyth County Commission Chairman Pete Amos, one of the signatories of the letter, said he had concerns about H.B. 604 because it set a precedent that raised concern.

“We feel that if they can do this to one county, they can do this to another county,” Amos said. “It would hurt our bond rating; it would hurt our ability to do projects and get money into the county. I believe, as a commissioner, that counties should decide their own fate.”

They obviously have a problem with the way the Fulton County legislative delegation’s Republican majority took it upon themselves to draw up H.B. 604 and ram it through the General Assembly. With powerful legislators such as Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer and House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones on the Fulton delegation, their legislation carried clout.

The commission chairmen’s letter specifically addresses H.B. 604, which places a cap on Fulton County’s millage rate that they say violates the principles of home rule in allowing local governments to set their own budgets and levy taxes.

Eaves noted Fulton County is the only county in metro Atlanta that has not increased its millage rate since 1991, and the county has reduced spending by nearly $70 million from 2007 to 2013. Fulton has also reduced staff by nearly 1,000 employees since 2008.

H.B. 604 was cited by Fitch Ratings Service as one factor in a decision to downgrade Fulton County’s credit rating, with long-term financial ramifications for Fulton County taxpayers and the programs supported by Fulton County.

When Eaves met with Deal to outline his reasons why the governor should veto this legislation, he showed him the letter signed by the metro chairmen voicing their opposition to the bill and their support of the veto.

“The governor, I think, was surprised. I gave him the letter, and he received it cordially,” Eaves said.

“My fellow commission chairs realize that this issue is much bigger than Fulton County government. The voices and rights of residents are diluted when the powers of their local governments are overrun by the state.”

In addition to Chairmen Eaves and Amos, the letter is signed by Cherokee County Chairman L. B. “Buzz” Ahrens Jr., Clayton County Chairman Jeffrey Turner, Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, Douglas County Chairman Tom Worthan, Fayette County Chairman Steve Brown and Rockdale County Chairman Richard A. Oden.

Gwinnett County Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has also expressed her strong opposition to violations of home rule, and said she will send her own letter to the governor.