One name you won’t see on the ballot this November is Milton, as in the once and maybe future county that we currently call north Fulton.
A constitutional amendment to allow the re-creation of former counties — Milton, like Campbell to the south, merged with Fulton in the 1930s — didn’t come up for a vote in the Legislature this spring. So, a public referendum must wait.
The bid to split Georgia’s most populous county has some powerful supporters, including the House’s speaker pro tem, Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta. It isn’t going away.
But neither are misgivings among the Fulton lawmakers and citizens — including yours truly — who’d be left behind after a split. And the legislative math is tricky for any attempt to pass the amendment without support from the rest of the Atlanta and Fulton delegations.
So, the pro-Milton crowd needs to make the case that the rest of Fulton would be better off, too. In an interview in her Capitol office Thursday, that’s just what Jones tried to do.
“The way the legislation’s written,” she said, “Atlanta could say, ‘Enough. We want to consolidate with Fulton County. South Fulton, go have a good day. North Fulton, have a good day.’ They have their own school system; it would be simple. And we have models for that already in the state, with [consolidated city-county governments in] Columbus and Augusta, and Athens.”
Consolidation, she said, would allow Atlanta and all or part of the remainder of Fulton to eliminate duplicate services and staff, and then fund needed changes or cut taxes.
“I lived in Atlanta about as long as I have lived in north Fulton, and enjoyed living in both,” she said. “But I will tell you that the overall sum of the taxes, and some of the intractable problems that I ran into as a resident … told me that Atlanta in particular needs real reform, structurally. There’s only so much people will pay in taxes, or they’ll leave. And I think Atlanta is there …
“I’ve heard the mayor [Kasim Reed] quoted, and he’s got some long-term problems that are facing the city. … He is going to be hampered by the total sum of the taxes that folks there pay now. You can’t just tax your way out of it. They’ve tried.”
A merged Atlanta-Fulton County would still be the state’s fourth-largest local government (Milton County would rank fifth), so she said it would retain the wherewithal to meet its needs: “You’d have Atlanta, really I think, in the driver’s seat, controlling its destiny. … They have a deeper tax base than either … end of the county.”
Too-big government isn’t the only problem. Jones said some governments and school districts in Georgia are too small.
“When you have [some] school systems that are smaller than individual high schools, it doesn’t take a genius to realize, it’s not possible for … some of the very small school systems, no matter how hard they try, or how good a job they do, to offer the broad array of opportunities that students need. …
“The same is true with local governments. In some cases, you can’t get … the economies of scale to serve the public.”
Still, Jones said she doesn’t consider herself “the champion or the catalyst behind changing how local governments work in other parts of the state … I feel very deeply that’s a local issue for them to decide.”
In the case of Fulton and Milton, a commitment from Atlanta officials to seize the opportunities that Jones outlined for the city would go a long way toward persuading local skeptics to decide to get on board.