A potentially explosive dispute in the City Too Busy to Hate is taking shape over a proposal to break Fulton County in two and split off Atlanta’s predominantly white, affluent suburbs to the north from some of the metropolitan area’s poorest, black neighborhoods.
Legislation that would allow the suburbs to form their own county, to be called Milton County, was introduced by members of the Georgia Legislature’s Republican majority earlier this month.
Supporters say it is a quest for more responsive government in a county with a population greater than that of six states. Opponents say the measure is racially motivated and will pit white against black, rich against poor.
“If it gets to the floor, there will be blood on the walls,” warned state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus who bitterly opposes the plan. Fort added: “As much as you would like to think it’s not racial, it’s difficult to draw any other conclusion.”
Change to state constitution sought
The legislation calls for amending the Georgia Constitution to allow the return of Milton County, which succumbed to financial troubles during the Depression and was folded into Fulton County in 1932.
The former Milton County is now mostly white and Republican and one of the most affluent areas in the nation. Atlanta and its southern suburbs are mostly black, are controlled by Democrats and have neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in America. (Buckhead, a fashionable Atlanta neighborhood of clubs, restaurants and mansions, would remain in Fulton County.)
“The only way to fix Fulton County is to dismantle Fulton County,” said state Rep. Jan Jones, the plan’s chief sponsor. “It’s too large, and certainly too dysfunctional, to truly be considered local government.”
Jones, a former marketing executive who lives in the Fulton suburb of Alpharetta, cited the county’s troubled library and public transit systems and a jail that was taken over by a federal judge because it was filthy and unsafe. He denied the move is racially motivated.
Don Petree, the 62-year-old owner of Don’s Hairstyling in Roswell, another northern Fulton suburb, said many of his customers “feel like they’re not being taken care of like they should be with the tax dollars they’re spending. I think there’s some truth to that.”
Milton County would have a population of about 300,000, instantly making it Georgia’s fifth-largest county.
Fears of devastating effect
Residents of north Fulton represent 29 percent of the county’s population of 915,000 but pay 42 percent of its property taxes, according to a local taxpayers group. A split would lead to the loss of $193 million in property taxes alone for Fulton County.
About 25 miles to the south in downtown Atlanta, the Rev. J. Allen Milner said he is afraid the tax revenue loss would have a devastating effect on those who need government help the most.
“If you take that money out of their coffers, human services will suffer greatly,” said Milner, a black man who runs a homeless mission and is pastor of the Chapel of Christian Love Church.
Critics of a split also worry about the future of Grady Memorial Hospital and the Atlanta area’s MARTA commuter-rail system — both of which have contracts with the county.
In addition, some warn that a breakup of Fulton could harm Atlanta’s international reputation as a progressive city and hurt its appeal as a business, entertainment and convention destination.
Issues for ‘The City Too Busy to Hate’
While other Southern cities erupted in violence a generation ago, Atlanta came through the civil rights movement with little strife, earning the nickname The City Too Busy to Hate. It is now home to one of the nation’s largest black middle-class communities.
“This would send a clear message to companies around the country that Atlanta may not be as progressive as it would like people to think,” Fort said.
The measure would require the support of two-thirds of both the House and Senate. Then it would have to be put to a statewide vote. Also, residents of what would become Milton County would have to endorse the plan.
While Republicans have majorities in both chambers, they would need to win over three Democrats in the Senate and 14 in the House to get it passed.
The legislation has support from some of the Legislature’s key leaders. Republican House Speaker Glenn Richardson has referred to his top lieutenant, Rep. Mark Burkhalter, as “the member from Milton County.”