CUMMING, Ga. — Forsyth County is ready to cut ties with its regional lobbyist and join more urban counties in Atlanta’s metropolitan hub.
But Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, or GMRC, is mounting a fight to block the county’s move and keep Forsyth in its fold.
For the past 58 years, Forsyth County has been a member of the GMRC, a rural regional commission that represents 13 counties in North Georgia. But the county’s population has more than doubled to nearly 245,000 over the past 20 years. On Aug. 21, Forsyth County petitioned the state to transfer its regional allegiances and be represented by the more urban Atlanta Regional Commission, or ARC.
GMRC leadership responded by sending the Georgia Department of Community Affairs a six-page letter Sept. 15 challenging Forsyth County’s petition to transfer.
The letter was among several recent moves by GMRC officials that has irked Forsyth County commissioners. Commissioners didn’t mince words about it during a Sept. 22 workshop.
“We’ve been treated in a manner that I don’t see a path forward with [the GMRC],” Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson said. “They’re clearly more concerned about the impact to their organization than they are with how that impacts us as members.”
GMRC is one of 12 regional commissions that represent sections of the state. Each serves as a public funnel through which millions of dollars in state and federal resources are distributed.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs oversees these regional bodies.
County files formal request
Forsyth submitted its transfer petition to the state on Aug. 21. Semanson said the county is slated to go before the state agency for a hearing Oct. 16.
GMRC represents Banks, Dawson, Forsyth, Franklin, Habersham, Hall, Hart, Lumpkin, Rabun, Stephens, Towns, Union, and White counties. Like other regional commissions, it offers a swath of services like technical assistance, economic development, community planning and workforce development.
But the Atlanta Regional Commission has been courting Forsyth County for nearly two years. Its representatives pitched Forsyth on what it could offer the county in January 2019. The ARC already represents Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties, and the city of Atlanta.
GMRC is not happy that the most populous county in its region could soon be poached. Forsyth’s population has skyrocketed by about 40 percent over the past decade and the county has added nearly 150,000 residents since 2000, according to U.S. Census numbers.
In its Sept. 15 letter, GMRC said it “strongly opposes” Forsyth’s proposed move and argued that realigning regional commissions based on population sets a dangerous precedent that threatens rural counties. Thirty-five members of the regional council signed the letter.
“If the county moves to ARC, however, and in doing so establishes a trend, then that portends the (regional commissions) surrounding metro Atlanta will continue to grow weaker while ARC grows stronger,” it warned.
Semanson sent GMRC leaders two emails earlier this month, describing the regional commission as “cowardly” and criticizing its handling of the matter. Semanson accused GMRC of discussing Forsyth County’s petition and fishing for signatures during an Aug. 27 meeting she did not attend. She noted the agenda for that meeting included no such items for discussion.
“They’ve controlled all of the dialog with the other members by doing this the way that they’ve done it,” she said. “How they purport to send a letter on their own letterhead that speaks for the entire organization is just mind blowing to me. It certainly doesn’t represent our opinion, nor does it represent the opinion of several other folks I’ve spoken to.”
Agency denies allegations
In a Sept. 10 email to Forsyth County attorney Ken Jarrard, a GMRC attorney said the discussion was not on the Aug. 27 agenda because Forsyth submitted its petition the day after that agenda was made public.
“GMRC has not attempted to hide anything from Forsyth County,” Molly Anderson wrote in the email.
Nevertheless, the recent developments have bred distrust from Forsyth County officials, who said they remain in the dark on what GMRC has told other counties about the petition to move. County officials agreed to request all GMRC’s internal communications, emails and other records to find out what information GMRC has put out on the matter. Forsyth’s commission will have to finalize the vote for the open records request at its Oct. 8 meeting.
“I mean, we don’t know anything,” Jarrard said. “We know what our position is, we know where we believe we belong, and we know the rationale for making those decisions. But we don’t know what has generated this.”
In other action
At the work session, commissioners agreed to give Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman a $32,900 pay bump for the upcoming fiscal year.
Freeman currently earns about $120,000 annually and commissioners called that a “deficient” salary for the position. County officials reviewed the salaries of sheriffs in seven surrounding counties and determined the average salary for top lawmen in the region is $151, 709. Commissioner Molly Cooper said many of those counties have multiple police departments that help carry the law enforcement load.
Comparatively, the Cumming Police Department represents Forsyth County’s lone municipal police force. The Sheriff’s Office handles the rest.
The board unanimously approved a $32,900 increase in the local supplement the county pays the sheriff on top of the state’s portion of his salary. That local supplement, currently $15,000, will go up to $47,900 when fiscal year 2021 begins.