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Wealthy Atlanta District Vying for Cityhood

October 4, 2021 by Reece Nations
A picture of the business district of Buckhead in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew NYR, Wikimedia Commons)

ATLANTA — Atlanta’s affluent uptown residential district, Buckhead, is making a push to secede from the city and create its own government.

The Georgia Senate’s local government operations committee is set to convene hearings on legislation that would allow Buckhead residents to vote on the matter in November 2022 during the General Assembly’s special session that begins next month. Lawmakers will not be taking a vote on any of the five cityhood bills during the special session, instead choosing to do so when the regular session convenes in January.

On Monday, a joint meeting of Georgia’s House Study Committee on Annexation and Cityhood and its Governmental Affairs Committee was conducted to gather information on the process of city formation in the state. During the meeting, experts pointed out that current state law contains few provisions governing the creation of new cities which can impact the future growth plans of neighboring cities.

“Almost every year, members of this committee and members of the General Assembly get pulled in the midst of what has turned out to often be a controversial turf battle,” Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said during the meeting. 

“There have been concerns by counties with the impacts on [their] budgets’ service delivery. I know that’ll be talked about later, land use plans will be impacted. There have been concerns and we’ve been torn between unincorporated neighborhoods and communities caught in uncertainty and [the] impact on their property values. And recently, you’ve been caught in the middle of new cities being created out of existing cities.”

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia has not taken a position on any proposed plans for annexations in the state, Edwards said. Instead, the association encourages creating new statutes that require a certain percentage of registered voters in the proposed municipality to sign a petition in favor of incorporation before a referendum is held.

This way, Edwards said, legislators would be provided with a clear indication of whether there is broad support for the new incorporation prior to initiating the process. Further, it would ensure that the public is driving new city efforts rather than special interest groups that stand to financially gain from the incorporation.

Atlanta has experienced over 120 homicides this year alone, nine of which occurred in Buckhead. While stakeholders cite rising crime rates in Atlanta as the driving force behind the referendum, others contend the issue stems from the wealthy and powerful residents of Buckhead attempting to reclaim lost tax revenues that get distributed elsewhere.

Bill White, CEO and chair of the Buckhead City Committee vying to secede from Atlanta, contends that Atlanta’s increase in crime and decrease in arrests is due to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ kneecapping of the police department following protests movements last year in which community activists called for policing reforms in the city. Earlier this year, Bottoms’ initiative to fund investments in public safety culminated in a $90 million police and fire training facility to be established in what was formerly a 300-acre prison facility.

“People in Buckhead are not only wanting to leave Atlanta due to the insane crime [rates], it’s the leadership, it’s the lack of funding, it’s the lack of transparency with taxpayer dollars,” White told The Well News. “We don’t want to be strapped by politics. So this would be a nonpartisan election set up here with a mayor and six city council [members]. We’ve done a feasibility study – it shows that we are able to increase our police force three times from 80 — which is currently the amount of cops in Buckhead — to 250, and we’re going to allow them to do their job.”

In 2020, violent crime was up 5.6% nationwide from the year before, according to statistics released by the FBI. Homicides in Georgia rose by 55% while homicides in Atlanta increased by 62% from 2019 to 2020. However, the rates of aggravated assaults and homicides both in Georgia and nationwide are lower than the rates experienced in the late 1980’s and 1990s, according to the FBI’s crime data explorer.

While the number of murders and shooting incidents since this time last year has increased by 50% and 47%, respectively, arrests and charges filed are down by 24% and 10%, respectively, according to APD statistics. In the policing zone encompassing Buckhead, the murder rate is up 50% and the number of shooting incidents is up 47% while the total number of physical arrests is unchanged.

“Atlanta is going to have to do something they’ve never done in the history of Atlanta, and that’s going to be to operate on a budget,” White said. “And it’s a tough lesson, right?”

White continued, “And it has all to do with just doing a better job at running this place. And they’ve been doing it for the last umpteen years and getting out from underneath these crazy policies that are not serving us well.” 

Further, White said the proposed legislation to create the city of Buckhead contains an intergovernmental provision that would allow students to continue to attend schools in the Atlanta public school system.

While Buckhead accounts for roughly 20% of Atlanta’s population, it also comprises about 40% of assessed property values. Although the metro Atlanta area has seen new city movements before — starting with unincorporated Sandy Springs becoming a city in 2005 — Buckhead City would become the first to form after seceding from the city. 

“Part of the challenge in the current incorporation processes is that the county, other cities and residents really do not know for certain what the new city will be providing and which government entity will be providing other services,” Edwards said. 

“Proponents via the fiscal impact study should prepare a preliminary service delivery agreement prior to the legislators voting on it, and it’s the only way to get a feel of what services are feasible as to what impact the creation of new study will have on existing service delivery areas, agreements and investments. We understand that this cannot be binding in the study phase.” 

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