The collection of lawmakers who gather under the Gold Dome of the Georgia Capitol for the state’s annual legislative session seldom are lacking for topics of discussion, and 2016 isn’t likely to be an exception to the rule.
Two issues likely to get some attention from legislators are the rules for formation of new cities, and the separate, but related, topic of annexation of unincorporated areas by city governments.
As a result of some previous changes in state law, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of efforts to form new cities in Georgia — largely in the metro Atlanta area — in the past few years. It seems every election cycle in recent years includes the incorporation of a new city on the ballot for some metro area county.
An effort to create a new town of Sharon Springs in neighboring Forsyth County apparently has fallen by the way for the coming legislative session, but may yet pop up again at a future date.
Generally when residents start discussing the possibility of forming a new city, it is because of dissatisfaction with the level of government service they are receiving from the county. Often, such an effort is sparked by a desire to exercise more control over planning and zoning issues within a confined geographic area.
Those responsible for decision making at the county government level have to look at “the big picture” on issues such as land use, basing decisions on policies and procedures drafted for application to an entire county. When area residents feel those policies aren’t in the best interest of a specific, defined area, they sometimes explore creating a city so as to make their own rules.
But when a new city is created, a lot more can change than just zoning rules. Anyone who has ever observed the operation of government knows that they tend to have voracious appetites for growth, so that what starts out as a plan for limited services can become, over time, a much broader application of government services.
A desire to have control of planning and zoning morphs into a perceived need to issue business licenses, offer police protection, run water lines and any of a number of other tasks governments are inclined to take on.
As new cities expand the services they provide, there sometimes is a duplication between what the city offers and what is handled by the county, and usually a second set of taxes to be collected to finance it all. Those living in the new city may prefer to pay higher taxes in order to get a higher level of localized service.
Tax collections often are the driving issue when existing cities look to expand geographic boundaries, an issue with which Hall County has struggled in recent years. When an existing town grows by annexation, it brings within its borders more taxpayers, which is especially beneficial if the property being annexed is commercial in nature generates a much higher level of taxes paid than it does services needed.
That is an issue that has sparked controversy between Gainesville and Hall County in recent years, as they city has annexed numerous “islands” of previously unincorporated property. The county has accused the city of annexing commercial islands with the highest tax potential, while leaving behind residential properties that demand more government services that the county must provide.
A couple of county commissioners have broached the possibility of creating an incorporated Hall County by taking all of the land not part of existing cities and forming a “city of Hall” to stop the tide of annexations by towns within the county.
We aren’t so sure there is a legal foundation to allow such an effort to succeed, but we do understand the level of frustration that brings the idea to the forefront.
Whether the issue is establishment of new cities or expansion of existing incorporated areas, the level of infighting between municipal governments and the counties in which they reside has increased. And the state legislature is the only place the give-and-take between city and county officials can be mediated.
Proponents of new or expanded cities invariably cite a lack of sufficient government services; county leaders opposed to new incorporations or annexations volley back by citing unnecessary duplication of services and taxes.
Some of the many new towns created over the past decade in Georgia have done well and residents living there are proud they exist. Others have struggled to find the right level of services to offer without unrealistically stacking taxes on top of taxes.
To a lesser degree, the same issues are at play in the area of annexations. Some owners of annexed properties are more than willing to pay more taxes for higher levels of services; some are just as content to remain “out of town” and depend on the county government.
Deep down at the heart of the debate officials of both cities and counties are at odds over who gets to be in control and which bank account gets taxpayer money.
Legislators are being asked to determine what should constitute a city in Georgia, when the existence of one is needed, and what limits there should be on expansion of geographic boundaries. That’s no easy task, especially in an election year.