The leaders of the Buckhead cityhood movement have handwaved away serious constitutional issues about debt and schools. Those issues had an airing today.
“Until we see some structure, some possible solution to it, we’re just whistling in the dark.” — Robbie Ashe, an attorney and Atlanta resident, on the problems of the Buckhead cityhood proposal.
More than 100 people — state legislators, Atlanta city councilpeople, school board members, lawyers, municipal policy advocates, and others — joined a sprawling Zoom meeting yesterday to talk about the Buckhead cityhood proposal.
Bill White, CEO of the cityhood movement and its public face, wasn’t one of them.
Apparently, he had better things to do than to let almost all of the city’s actual leaders pound on him for 90 minutes. Better to negotiate in back rooms where the millions he’s raising can be heard loud and clear, than in the cacophony of one’s detractors.
Or, perhaps after linking his public comments to VDare — a white nationalist publication that subsequently responded with a full-throated defense of Bill White as one of their own — White is trying to lower his profile. Who can say.
I think it’s clear that he would have been dogpiled. And, I think it’s also clear that it probably doesn’t matter politically, since Republicans are firmly in charge of the process and can legislate however they want, regardless of the objections of Democratic local and state leaders.
The question is whether Republicans are willing to do so over the objections of state and local bond ratings agencies and the Georgia Supreme Court.
When Eagle’s Landing, a neighborhood in Stockbridge, Ga., tried to break away from the city and form a new municipality in 2018, the Georgia legislature largely punted on the question of how the two new cities might manage their general debt obligations. But the matter threatened to tie both cities up in court for years — and to tank the bond rating of every city in Georgia, along with any other municipal debt backed by the state.
The credit rating agency Moody’s put out a note within a week of then Gov. Nathan Deal signing the Stockbridge referendum legislation. Moody’s said, “The legislative package is credit negative for Stockbridge because de-annexation would reduce the city’s tax base and the bills include no provisions to reapportion outstanding debt. The bills are also credit negative for local governments in Georgia generally because they establish a precedent that the state can act to divide local tax bases, potentially lowering the credit quality of one city for the benefit of another.”
Capitol One, which bought $11 million of Stockbridge’s bonds, sued when Deal signed the law. That lawsuit was declared moot when Stockbridge rejected the Eagle’s Landing referendum, but Capital One made it clear that even holding the referendum created an injury, by demonstrating a threat to the bonds.
“It's important to point out that this proposal for Buckhead city is 17 times the magnitude of the Eagle's Landing proposal,” said Tom Gehl, director of governmental relations for the Georgia Municipal Association. “The creation of a Buckhead City out of portions of the city will not hurt just Atlanta, however. If the General Assembly sets this destabilizing precedent, it could hurt municipalities across the state. A copycat movement could be started where other legislative delegations may be asked to carve up other cities by dividing up areas in less well-off neighborhoods.”
Here’s the thing: the legislature may have blown off the bond issue because there’s no legal way to work it.
Robbie Ashe, a partner at Bondurant Mixson and a notable Atlanta attorney, weighed in on bond law in Georgia. A city can’t levy a property tax to pay a bond incurred by another city under the Georgia constitution, he said. “I don’t know how you work around the constitutional requirement that general obligation debt is approved by voters before it’s levied, or a way for the property owners of one jurisdiction to pay the debts of another jurisdiction.”
The problems with school attendance, property and debt are equally complex, panelists said. Between five thousand and six thousand students would be displaced in a Buckhead incorporation, said Erica Long, APS’ governmental affairs manager. No constitutionally-legal way exists to keep them in Atlanta Public Schools, she said. The constitution does not allow for new school districts to form, meaning the students would go to Fulton County Public Schools.
But the schoolhouses still belong to APS, and APS can’t just give them away because they’ve also taken out bonds to pay for them. Presumably, APS would have to sell property for whatever they could get. Meanwhile, FCPS would have to find space for 5,000 students, instantly overcrowding schools in north Fulton County, while imposing a significant immediate cost on Fulton County school taxpayers.
I only really care about this because of the fallacious arguments full of racial dogwhistles Buckhead cityhood proponents are making about crime. This morning, Bill White tweeted a Fox News story about cities with high crime, shouting “Atlanta is #2 nationally in deadly homicides.”
In nondeadly homicides we must be around rank number avocado. Setting that aside, White was Tweeting an alphabetical list.
The arguments seem almost purposefully stupid and sensational and superficial.
For the record: Atlanta had a homicide rate of 32 per 100,000 residents last year, which is high by historical measures but doesn’t crack the top 10 nationally among large cities. For a benchmark, St. Louis had a rate of about 63 per 100,000. New Orleans had about 56 per 100,000. Baltimore had 55 per 100,000. Memphis had 53 per 100,000. Detroit had 44 per 100,000. Jackson, Miss. appears to be leading the pack with a murder rate of 99.5 per 100,000.
Atlanta’s police zone 2 — Buckhead, essentially — has about 100,000 residents and had 12 murders last year. Buckhead west of Roswell Road had zero homicides last year. That’s twice the national average of 6 per 100,000 … but Buckhead is always about twice the national average. Four of those murders can be attributed to a single event — the spa shootings one year ago this coming Sunday. Crime in Buckhead rose less than it did in the rest of Atlanta and less than the national benchmarks.
Michael Handelman, executive director of the cityhood opposition group Neighbors for a United Atlanta, said the argument that a separate city of Buckhead could fight crime more effectively is fallacious.
Elected officials appear to be responding to public concern about crime effectively, Handelman said. “Crime is an undeniable problem in our city, as in many cities in our country and within the Buckhead community,” he said. “Everyone deserves to feel safe in our community.”
That doesn’t mean a separate city would do things better, particularly when the proposal to create a new police force lacks sufficient financial detail about how to get it done, he said. “When I read the plans of the Buckhead exploratory committee to combat crime, I am deeply concerned that these so-called plans could, in fact, worsen public safety,” Handelman said. “We are more scared of unfunded empty promises that claim to reduce crime but are simply not grounded in a fiscal reality.”
So, Bill White wasn’t there to hear any of this.
But Sam Lenaeus, president of the Buckhead City Committee, was. While he did not participate in discussion, he was on the Zoom call. I asked him to comment on the proceedings. He refused, referring me to the Lucie Agency for press inquiries.
Which is to say: the president of the Buckhead City Committee isn’t authorized to talk to the media.
Well … OK. I’m a columnist and a critic today. I’ll eat this one, but don’t say I wasn’t trying to be fair. All appearances suggest that they’re not interested in talking to the public on anything other than their own terms.
“The joint delegation is free to meet whenever it wants to talk about whatever it wants,” Lenaeus texted to me. “We offered to send a representative to answer questions from members, but they said no.”
Presenting that representative, Tom Rawlings — a former juvenile court judge, recently-relieved head of the Department of Family and Children’s’ Services and someone I count as a friend — as a “spokesperson” is a bit disingenuous, since Rawlings would have been acting with limited authority and limited knowledge.
I asked Lenaeus about the bond question and when we might get some clarity from them on it. “We will host our own press conference at a latter date,” he replied. When?
We’ll let you know.