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Buckhead Cityhood Probed by Georgia Senate Committee

November 5, 2021 by Reece Nations

ATLANTA — Neither side of the controversial Buckhead City movement held back during the Georgia State Senate Committee on State and Local Governmental Operations hearing on Thursday.

Proponents and opponents alike came to testify before the committee on the neighborhood’s proposal to de-annex itself from Atlanta and institute its own government and police department. Unsurprisingly, members of the committee came prepared with difficult lines of questioning for the stakeholder groups to answer on the spot.

Darrell Moore, executive director of Valdosta State’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact, was the first to be called before the committee for testimony. After Moore detailed the university’s feasibility study commissioned by the Buckhead City Committee, Democratic Vice Chairman Sen. Emanuel Jones pressed him on how many feasibility studies the university had previously conducted.

Pressing Matters 

Moore said the study was the first of its kind ever conducted for a city by Valdosta State. The city of Valdosta in southern Georgia is located far from the influence of the state capital of Atlanta, he said, so it made sense when they were approached for the job.

“Do you know why they would come to you — someone with very little experience in having done feasibility studies before?” Jones asked.

He would go on to point out that other universities throughout the state have conducted various feasibility studies for cities in the past.

“I would argue that we’ve got a lot of experience in feasibility studies from other sources,” Moore responded. “This is the first one we’ve done for a city. The center was created in 2018, and this is the first opportunity we’ve had. Hopefully, we’ll have others.”

But the feasibility study itself has come under scrutiny by groups advocating for Buckhead to remain part of Atlanta because it looks solely at the neighborhood’s revenues and expenditures without considering debt assumed for start-up spending for public infrastructure. Similarly, it offered no proposed city budget for Buckhead and didn’t account for the impact on Atlanta’s municipal bond rating.

Valdosta State’s feasibility study looked only at the fiscal viability of the district if it were to de-annex from the city. Because its estimated revenues were greater than its estimated expenditures, the study determined the proposed city could support itself.

But Jones’ line of questioning centered on whether the scope of the study that Valdosta State was commissioned to conduct might intentionally have been limited in order to show Buckhead City as viable without taking into account the resulting impacts on Atlanta’s budget. In Jones’ view, he said, the study was commissioned only to examine Buckhead’s finances and not to draw conclusions about the expected repercussions to Atlanta.

“I think ‘fiscally feasible’ is a given,” Jones said from the committee dais. “Most statisticians are going to draw some kind of conclusion regarding, for example, whether or not the revenue being extracted from this other source is much too high, or whether or not [its] expenses are too low.”

‘This is not a Business’ 

Diversity exists on both sides of the Buckhead cityhood issue. At the unveiling of the Buckhead City Committee’s newly minted headquarters on Oct. 31, Buckhead residents of various ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds were present and giving feedback about what they saw in their neighborhood.

Bill White, CEO and chairman of the Buckhead City Committee, told The Well News that he was happy to see a variety of people show up in support of his group because it rings true to the feeling he’s had in his heart. Additionally, the crowd offered its financial backing, as around $10,000 in donations were collected throughout the daylong event.

“I think it’s validating what we’ve been saying — that we have great support from the community, both black and white, who are all behind us,” White said. “And I’m sure there are Black and White people on the other side or against this.”

During the hearing on Thursday, state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, showcased a compilation of news clips detailing a litany of crimes committed in Buckhead over the last 18 months. Increases in crime and decreases in filed charges are the predominant justification for Buckhead’s proposed departure, TWN previously reported.

With its own government budget at its disposal, proponents of de-annexation contend Buckhead could hire its own police force to unilaterally crack down on criminal misconduct. Beach said he will file legislation this month that would give residents of Buckhead the opportunity to vote on leaving Atlanta, circumventing the conventional process for cityhood that typically requires the backing of local representatives in the legislature.

“I think most of us would agree that Buckhead is dying on the vine, and that a dead Buckhead is the end of Atlanta,” White said in his testimony before the committee. White would go on to contend that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is neglecting her oath of office by refusing to protect Buckhead residents.

In his remarks, White asserted that his organization and the residents it represents are seeking “immediate relief” from the stark escalation in criminal activity and were asking the Georgia legislature for a vote on its “destiny.” But there are other reasons White and his supporters cite when it comes to issues that embolden their attempt to de-annex.

The failing Atlanta public school system, a lack of transparency around the spending of tax dollars, basic services like trash pickup falling behind, businesses uprooting themselves and moving to other cities in Fulton County or elsewhere are all reasons for the move, White told The Well News. These issues and others have gained Buckhead a poor reputation, something White called a “regional embarrassment” during his testimony before the committee.

Mass Exodus 

But it remains to be seen how the issue of cityhood will ultimately play out. If proponents succeed in their quest for a referendum to be held, they would be blocking other Atlanta residents from having any say in the matter.

In August, KB Advisory Group completed its fiscal analysis on Buckhead’s impacts on Atlanta, should it be de-annexed. While the Valdosta State study looked at Buckhead’s prospects as a new city, Geoff Koski, president of KB Advisory Group, said their analysis examined what effect the move would have on Atlanta.

What’s troubling to cityhood opponents is the estimated cost incurred by Atlanta, which would see over $203.5 million in revenues lost from Buckhead’s departure. While Buckhead would end up with a budget surplus of roughly $113.6 million, Atlanta’s general fund would suffer a net loss of between $80 to $116 million annually, according to the KB Advisory Group’s fiscal analysis.

“This would cause a great deal of social and political unrest in Atlanta, the metro region and the state of Georgia,” Billy Linville, spokesperson for the Committee for a United Atlanta and Buckhead resident, told The Well News. “Especially at a time when we need to be coming together, not pulling apart.”

Linville continued, “Very few people are looking at the economic investment impact of this. If the cityhood were to be successful, you would actually have Atlanta and Buckhead competing for jobs and economic investment. The only ones who would benefit from that live in Nashville and Charlotte.”

In addition, the Georgia Constitution does not allow for the creation of a new public school district in the state and Atlanta Public Schools owns all of the schools in the Buckhead region. White has told TWN his committee will account for this by negotiating an intergovernmental agreement that keeps Buckhead children in Atlanta Public Schools, but Linville said any such agreement would be difficult to parse out and will take time.

Plus, opponents of Buckhead’s de-annexation are skeptical that simply increasing police presence on the streets will do more to improve safety than addressing the root causes of crime in the city. Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, herself a former resident of Buckhead, homed in on that point in her line of questioning to White during the hearing.

“I don’t know that I agree on the premise that financially destabilizing a major American city — that the social ills incurred from that are addressed by more police,” Au said.

Any discussion of the city of Atlanta’s finances and operations must start with the circumstances of its status as a “structurally handicapped city,” Peter Aman, former chief operating officer of the city of Atlanta, said in testimony before the committee. Aman also is a former partner at the consulting firm Bain & Company and worked pro bono for former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin.

Aman contended that Atlanta’s financial disadvantages stem, at least in part, from discrepancies between the city’s population and its daytime inhabitants fueled by the entire metro area in conjunction with the social and infrastructural costs it bears accordingly.

The removal of Buckhead’s property taxes, retail taxes and other methods of revenue for Atlanta would be “disastrous” for both sides of the issue, Aman said. Scaling the city’s budget down to account for the hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues would be “infeasible,” due to the extreme budget cuts and city property tax increases that would follow.

“Few other major cities in the United States are this small in proportion to their metro areas, and those that are often struggle financially and operationally,” Aman said in his remarks. 

“Those who have not struggled as much, for example Boston, do so by receiving very large payments from the state governments within which they reside.” 

Reece can be reached at [email protected]

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