Milton, Johns Creek say charters tie hands

Legislators’ snub of charter committees raises ire in cities

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NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Charter commission members of Johns Creek and Milton are incensed that their key recommendation – that a majority of voters casting ballots decide a tax referendum – is getting a deaf ear from their legislators. If ignored, charter commission members say their cities will be dangerously hamstrung.

Now they say the Fulton legislative delegation – which must approve the charter request to bring it before the General Assembly for approval – is crippling the cities’ ability to maintain infrastructure and public safety by depriving them of any realistic chance they will get a majority of voters to ever turn out to pass a bond referendum.

When the charters of the two cities were created, they mandated no millage rate changes for five years and, after that, a majority of REGISTERED voters would have to approve any change. Given that even popular elections don't see 50 percent of registered voters turnout, this requirement makes it near-impossible to raise money if the city needs it – be it through taxes or bonds.

After months of public meetings, research and interviews, the charter commissions of Johns Creek and Milton came up with recommendations for their cities’ charters, chief among them to change the charter wording that requires a majority of registered voters to allow the cities to float bonds.

“What amazes me is the hubris of these elected officials that they are not going to accept any citizen input on this,” said John Buckett, the chairman of the Johns Creek Charter Commission. “The biggest problem I have with this is they have held no public meetings about this to gauge the public’s feelings about [changing the charters].”

Johns Creek Charter Commission member Susan Grissom said, based on their study of bond ratings, that the language of the charter should be changed.

“Based on what we learned, it is a limiting factor and will affect the city’s ability to go out and get a rating that is favorable. In fact, it will likely increase the interest rate because we will be unable to raise the funds to repay as readily as other cities would because of limitations on us,” Grissom said.

Buckett noted their commission held three public meetings to gather input and at the end of those meetings incorporated that citizen input to modify the recommended changes. They were politely heard by the legislators months ago, and are only now seeing their recommendations are ignored.

State Rep. and Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones wrote the charters with that language specifically to make it difficult for the cities to obtain a majority that would allow the millage rate to rise.

“[The cities] can live within their means. They can borrow money for bonds and repay them with the money they would normally allocate to their budget for the projects,” Jones said.

Last month at the North Fulton legislative delegation luncheon, Jones said she was not aware of any problems obtaining bonds at a favorable rate because of the charters’ limitations for voting a bond issue. She said at the time she would “be happy to meet” with officials to see what those effects were.

However, Milton Charter Commission member George Ragsdale said that at best was disingenuous.

The Milton Charter Commission came to the same conclusions on the millage cap when they presented their findings to Jones several months ago.

“We made it very clear when we met with her why we were making those recommendations, that it affected our ability to get bonds.” Ragsdale said. “We did not then or in the seven months since our presentation, get any indication or feedback that she did not support our recommendations.”

But that does not take into account the bond rating agencies that would charge a higher interest rate than other cities in Georgia because Milton and Johns Creek are prevented from raising taxes to repay the bonds should property values fall as they did in 2008.

The cities would have to make draconian cuts in other areas of the budget such as public safety unless they held and passed a new referendum on the millage rate. That is a problem that would call for exceptional solutions and banks don’t like that.

For that reason, they are a greater risk than their sister cities in Georgia and will pay for that in the form of higher interest rates.

Grissom said it was disappointing that all of their work and recommendations are being ignored by the county legislators.

“They are throwing away the very, very hard work of the commission over many, many hours of meetings,” she said. “It disturbs me that they could mandate a commission to make recommendations and then ignore those recommendations.

“I would expect that the top of their actions would be to review the commission recommendations and then act accordingly,” Grissom said.

What the charters have created are two municipalities that are treated differently than all other cities in the state, she said.

“That in and of itself treating us differently so that we cannot afford to do the things we need to do for infrastructure is not fair,” Grissom said.

Buckett agreed that the changes are necessary.

“There is nothing in these changes which makes it easier for a city council to raise money. The only thing that is in the existing language is that you are certain you can’t raise money, which is ludicrous. It takes away the right of the citizens to vote on their future,” Buckett said.

When talking with bonding authorities, charter members were told that the current language made it impossible to get a better rating.

“That’s not our opinion or intuition, that is what the rating authorities told us in black and white,” Buckett said.

The charters as written also will have the long-term effect on property values as well.

“The problem I see is this [charter] guarantees the degradation of home values, especially in subdivisions that don’t pave their own streets,” Buckett said. “Then there is a further degradation caused by the application of the millage rate against the [falling] home value. So it is a vicious cycle.

“Once you stop spending money on the infrastructure, you are guaranteed the outcome,” Buckett said. “It’s a public safety issue; it’s a property value issue. What we heard at the public hearings was this was the key topic that everyone wanted Johns Creek City Council focus on. And that is infrastructure.”

Buckett said the legislators’ view is not only disappointing, but short-sighted.

“What this does is ensure the people who come out and vote and participate in the process do not have a voice,” Buckett said.

“Our city incorporated to avoid the overlord of Fulton County dictating what happens. And now we have the overlord of the state legislature telling us, ‘Oh well, you’re just not informed enough. I’m not going to do this.’

“What we have is the state legislature dictating to the local citizens paternally – or maternally – telling us what we need. That is insulting,” Buckett said.