Georgia Today: As Crime Spikes Across Georgia, Some In Buckhead Want Out Of Atlanta
Crime is spiking across the city of Atlanta, and perhaps most visibly in Buckhead. Some residents there are saying it's time to secede from Atlanta and that forming their own city is the best way to protect their citizens and keep a close eye on their tax dollars. Opponents of Buckhead cityhood believe that this could be a tremendous hit to the economy of the city of Atlanta. On the latest episode of Georgia Today, we talk to J.D. Capelouto, news reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about the push by some residents for Buckhead to secede from Atlanta.
Steve Fennessy: This year, city of Atlanta voters will elect a new mayor who will inherit from Keisha Lance Bottoms a boatload of challenges. Perhaps none, though, is more vexing than crime. With rates spiking across the city, and perhaps most visibly in Buckhead. Some residents there are saying it's time to secede from Atlanta and that forming their own city is the best way to protect their citizens and keep a close eye on their tax dollars.
[TAPE WSB-TV] Jovita Moore: New at six: We've talked about this before, but could there soon be a city of Buckhead separate from the city of Atlanta? There was a movement underway to make that happen.
Steve Fennessy: This is not a new argument, but it's one that's gained special traction in the past year, especially given high-profile crimes that have occurred in Buckhead. This week, my guest on Georgia Today is J.D. Capelouto, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he's been covering the Buckhead secession movement. So, J.D., if there is one incident that sort of accelerated the secession movement that we're seeing in Buckhead, what was it?
J.D. Capelouto: I don't think there was one single incident that really galvanized this latest Buckhead secession movement. There were a number of things over the past year or so, kind of starting last summer when there were some protests that became violent and there was some looting and violence in Buckhead over the course of that summer and into the fall and winter. There was a rise in violent crime and some high-profile shootings and killings there in Buckhead that really frustrated residents about how the city of Atlanta was handling crime. One of those moments was the shooting of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie outside Phipps Plaza. She was in a car with a family member and they were there to go holiday shopping.
[TAPE 11Alive] Francesca Amiker: Kennedy Maxie died Saturday, days after she was shot by a stray bullet while riding in the back seat of a car near Phipps Plaza. Now the community is demanding answers and calling for gun violence in the city to stop. Joe Ripley is live right now in Atlanta where this took place.
[TAPE 11Alive] Joe Ripley: Atlanta police saying Kennedy was riding in a car with her mother and aunt. Police say a stray bullet hit Kennedy in the back of the head.
J.D. Capelouto: It was one of those moments that really galvanized a lot of support for the Buckhead cityhood movement and got a lot of attention on crime in Atlanta.
Steve Fennessy: So the movement itself had sort of been percolating for a while?
J.D. Capelouto: That's correct. Heading into last fall, some posts online started to circulate about the Buckhead Exploratory Committee. The initial Buckhead Exploratory Committee was started by just a group of residents in Buckhead who said they were just frustrated by crime in Buckhead and wanted to start their own city to deal with some of those issues and deal with infrastructure and zoning as well. Over time, though, it came under the leadership of a man named Bill White.
[TAPE FOX Business NEWS] Ashley Webster: Now they say ritzy Atlanta suburb called Buckhead is pushing to become an independent city amid a spike in crime. The man leading the charge: Buckhead Exploratory Committee CEO Bill White.
[TAPE FOX Business NEWS] Bill White: The crime is out of control because we have no leadership, no love and respect for our police. They just want to be allowed to do their job and put the smack down on this crime. And that's what we're going to do in the Buckhead City Police Department, because we're going to hire a lot of those Atlanta police officers and we're going to treat them with respect, take the handcuffs off of them and put them on the criminals where they belong.
J.D. Capelouto: He was brought in to help with fundraising, and he is a very experienced fundraiser for various political causes, from both Democratic causes in his past and now he is more on the pro-Trump side and has held Trump fundraisers. He kind of took over as the, I believe, CEO of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, which renamed into the Buckhead City Committee.
Steve Fennessy: J.D., do we know how well-funded this group is and who actually is funding them?
J.D. Capelouto: That's one of the reasons why this is being taken so seriously, especially by opponents of the Buckhead cityhood movement, is because there is a lot of funding that's being poured into this. So they told me last month that they have over $550,000 in the bank and are — have a goal of getting $1.5 to 1.6 million by next April.
Steve Fennessy: What does that money go to? Like why is it important that they raise so much money?
J.D. Capelouto: So right now, a lot of the money is going toward a feasibility study and they'll need to do that to kind of show that their city would be financially feasible. And that costs, you know, tens of thousands of dollars. And then after that, it could go to lobbying. I know they have some high-powered state lobbyists that they've already been paying to promote their cause in the state capitol. It'll also eventually, they say, go to grassroots efforts to galvanize support among citizens, because eventually, if this is passed by the state legislature, it would go to a ballot referendum. So it could become, essentially, a political campaign where they are trying to get the votes out in their favor and elections cost money.
Steve Fennessy: Well, J.D., walk us through briefly the steps that are required for, you know, a neighborhood or some group of citizens to say we want to form our own city. What needs to be done? It's not simple, right?
J.D. Capelouto: It's not simple. There's a lot of steps. It's very complex. And there will be a lot of hurdles for this Buckhead cityhood movement to overcome before it becomes reality. So after there's a committee formed, they essentially have to do a feasibility study. They analyze all the tax dollars that could be going into this new city that are currently going to another government and see if they were diverted away from the current government, would they be able to make it work? And how many employees, for example, might the current city have to lay off? How many employees would the current new city employ? It's a lot of logistics and economics, which is why it costs so much and is why usually a research center has to do all that math.
Steve Fennessy: And then let's say the feasibility study comes back and says, “Yes, we can do it.” Buckhead has all kinds of property and potential tax revenue that can fund its own municipality. What's next?
J.D. Capelouto: So usually around the time that a feasibility study gets started, a bill is also introduced in the state House and in the state Senate in support of creating this new city. Any city that's created in Georgia has to go through the state legislature, so a bill is introduced and then that would eventually have to be passed by both houses and then signed into law by the governor. And then it goes to the ballot referendum and the people in Buckhead would be able to vote.
Steve Fennessy: if the the initial fate, at least, of a Buckhead secession movement relies upon the General Assembly, both chambers, which are controlled by Republicans and there's a movement that seems to be led, at least in part by Republicans — isn't it fair to say that that would be a foregone conclusion that that movement would pass?
J.D. Capelouto: I know in the Senate it has a lot of support, especially among many prominent Republicans in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, we haven't heard as much. Speaker David Ralston has said that he's waiting on the feasibility study to kind of determine his support for it. And obviously he does have a lot of sway in the state house. I do know that David Ralston has said a lot of times that he's worried about crime in Atlanta and has spoken out about that. So they certainly share some sympathies there in terms of crime.
Steve Fennessy: And has Gov. Kemp chimed in on this?
J.D. Capelouto: I've reached out to their office for comment. I believe last time was a month or two ago for a story I was working on about this. And they — they said they didn't have any comment on it.
Steve Fennessy: J.D., you mentioned earlier this is not necessarily a new idea, that there are secession movements around the state that that occur occasionally and also just cityhood movements in unincorporated parts of the state, because there are, you know, citizens, taxpayers who believe that they want to have greater control over the government that controls them. And so they think that forming a city will do that. What's happened over the years with Buckhead city movements?
J.D. Capelouto: Buckhead cityhood has been talked about before; it's been tossed around, there have been discussions about it, maybe some studies looking into it, but it's never reached the point where it's at now, in terms of there's a formal committee, there's hundreds of thousands of dollars being poured into it and there's a bill being introduced.
Steve Fennessy: You know, J.D., I'm thinking about Sam Massell, who, of course, was mayor of Atlanta back in the early 1970s and most recently had been president of the Buckhead Coalition, which is a powerful group of businesspeople and companies in Buckhead. Has the coalition come out in any way for or against this movement?
J.D. Capelouto: They have. They've said very early on back, I think even last fall, that they are opposed to Buckhead cityhood. They see it as a very divisive step. They think the best way forward for solving some of the problems Buckhead is facing is with the city of Atlanta. And I'll also mention that Sam Massell has also come out and said he's — he's not for Buckhead cityhood.
Steve Fennessy: Here we are in a mayoral election year where things are gearing up. Keisha Lance Bottoms is not running again, so it's wide open. To what degree is is the Buckhead secession movement a part of the of the political debate happening around the mayoral election?
J.D. Capelouto: It's playing a big part in the mayoral election already. And a lot of that is because of crime. Crime is shaping up to be the top issue on candidates’ lists. And the Buckhead city movement is specifically linked to crime. And so you're already seeing some candidates like former Mayor Kasim Reed — who is running to be mayor for a third term — he said — as soon as he announced his run for mayor, he said, “Look, there's a movement for Buckhead to leave the city. We can't let that happen.” And he's kind of pitching himself as the best candidate to stop that.
[TAPE 11Alive] Kasim Reed: Folks don't want to really think about who the mayor is. They're being forced to because when they go to a gas station, they're fearful. There are people, especially women, who drive around on “E” for fear of going to a gas station. I've never walked into Lenox Mall when I was mayor and there’ll be metal detectors and long gun rifles and German Shepherd dogs in Phipps Plaza and Lenox. I haven't seen that in my lifetime.
J.D. Capelouto: We've also been hearing that, you know, if a the next mayor comes in and take some steps to solve the crime problem and the issue that they're having, that could definitely weaken the momentum that the Buckhead cityhood movement has. On the other hand, though, some of the opponents of the Buckhead city movement are saying these candidates are going to think that we want to leave and they're not going to pay attention to us. But I think you are going to see a lot of candidates put some special focus on Buckhead and say, you know, “We're listening to you. What issues are important to you? We don't want you to leave.”
Steve Fennessy: Next, what could the departure of Buckhead, which counts for just a fifth of Atlanta's population but more than 40% of its tax base, mean for Atlanta's economy? This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy; this is Georgia Today, I'm speaking with J.D. Capelouto, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who's been covering efforts among some Buckhead residents to secede from Atlanta and form their own city called Buckhead City. We mentioned Buckhead Coalition coming out against Buckhead cityhood; to what degree kind of is this a contentious issue within Buckhead itself? Has there been any any polling done that explores the degree to which this movement is supported or not?
J.D. Capelouto: Yeah, it definitely is a contentious discussion and debate in Buckhead. There has been no official independent polling done yet on this issue, specifically in Buckhead, so I can't really speak to that. I do know that the Buckhead City Exploratory Committee has said they've done their own polling and it was, you know, they said it was very supportive, but they haven't provided the specific numbers on that.
Steve Fennessy: J.D., how alarmed is Atlanta City Hall at the prospect of this?
J.D. Capelouto: Opposition to it has mostly manifested right now through either press releases or speeches that Mayor Bottoms has given or answers she's given at press conferences. She's pitching it as a very divisive move and that this would be ridiculous for Buckhead to take this step.
[TAPE 11Alive] Doug Richards: This is a bill that would prevent new cities from grabbing property out of existing cities. That's essentially what would happen if the Buckhead community on Atlanta's north side formed a separate city. Talk of a new city there are heated up in recent weeks as concern has grown about crime. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wants to keep Buckhead in Atlanta, saying that Atlanta is sufficiently equipped to fight the increase.
J.D. Capelouto: I do imagine that once the General Assembly gets back, you might see some city of Atlanta lobbyists possibly pushing more aggressively against this move.
Steve Fennessy: Let's talk a little, J.D., about the impact that, assuming this effort were successful — the impact it would have on the city of Atlanta. What can you tell us about that, given — given the outsize influence, at least economically, if not in other ways, that Buckhead has on the city of Atlanta.
J.D. Capelouto: It’d be a major, major change in the way that so many things are run in the city of Atlanta and in Buckhead. A lot of this, you know, could really have an impact on the city's budget. Opponents say Atlanta's budget would be wrecked if Buckhead were to leave. It kind of remains to be seen how exactly the city would deal with that. There's such a lack of specifics on what exactly Buckhead City would do with a lot of these things. One of those, for example, is schools. That's one other question mark right now. Buckhead City proponents say that they expect these students to go to APS. APS hasn't really spoken about that or endorsed that idea. And it might have to be some intergovernmental agreements.
Steve Fennessy: Is there any precedent for this in the state of Georgia? I mean, we're forming cities all the time. For a populace that claims to hate government, we like to form governments. But in terms of the size and impact that this would represent, is there any precedent?
J.D. Capelouto: So you mentioned the modern cityhood movements like, you know, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Stonecrest. Those all formed out of unincorporated areas of counties. They were not cities before. They were just unincorporated pieces of DeKalb or Fulton that people formed into their own cities. One thing that is similar to what we're seeing now happened a few years ago in Eagles Landing.
[TAPE] 11Alive: Twenty-four hours after Gov. Deal signed a bill that would allow a vote on the new city of Eagles Landing, opponents vow that they are going to sue. The unprecedented new city would peel off portions of the city of Stockbridge. Vicki Consiglio has led the Eagles Landing effort.
[TAPE 11Alive] Vicki Consiglio: They have taken and gutted our community without giving us the amenities that we need in this area.
[TAPE] 11Alive: If approved by voters, Eagles Landing would take many of Stockbridge is pricier properties and put them in the new city. “It could have a significant impact on the city of Stockbridge in that about 50% of our revenue would be taken away.”
J.D. Capelouto: They were able to get their bill all the way through the Gold Dome. It was signed by the governor and they went to a vote. It ultimately failed, though, at the ballot. But the Buckhead cityhood proponents really see that as their path forward and something they would want to replicate.
Steve Fennessy: And just so we know: When we talk about a referendum, is all that's required is a simple majority of voters? Or do they need some sort of, you know, two-thirds or something?
J.D. Capelouto: That's right. It's simple majority. And it's just folks that would be in the city of Buckhead City, not all of it.
Steve Fennessy: And how many people are we talking about? Well, we're talking about Buckhead City.
J.D. Capelouto: Yes. So our analysis of census data last month estimated that there's about 90,000 people in the city of Buckhead city.
Steve Fennessy: 90,000. And what is the current population roughly of the city of Atlanta?
J.D. Capelouto: It's roughly half a million. So Buckhead has about 20% of the population of the city of Atlanta,
Steve Fennessy: 20% of the population, but is contributing in terms of property tax dollars anyway, 41%. It would seem that they got the money.
J.D. Capelouto: Right. I mean, lots of valuable property in Buckhead. Its most valuable is Lenox Mall, valued at $400 million, and that would not go to the city of Atlanta anymore. It would go to city of Buckhead City.
Steve Fennessy: And it's funny you mentioned Lenox Mall, J.D.. I mean, it feels like there there have been a number of incidents of violence and crime that have just added fuel to this movement.
[TAPE] 11Alive: Story in Buckhead. Police now saying two teens arrested for allegedly shooting at a security guard at Lenox Square mall. They were trying to rob the Apple store.
[TAPE] 11Alive: Police say within ten minutes they'd arrested a 15-year-old boy and girl in the parking garage of the Westin Hotel Buckhead. Surveillance cameras, witnesses and extra officers in the area all helping.
J.D. Capelouto: Lenox Mall has kind of become one of the, I would say, flashpoints in terms of the, the issue with crime in Atlanta, especially because in the last year they added these weapons detectors at the door since there's been a number of shootings there. So it's just kind of become this issue of “Is Lenox safe anymore?”
Steve Fennessy: To what degree is this secession movement — sort of, is race also a factor here? Because, yes, Atlanta is a majority Black city, but Buckhead is not a majority Black neighborhood.
J.D. Capelouto: One thing that I think is interesting on the race component is that Buckhead was initially annexed into the city in 1952. It was annexed into the city by under then-Mayor Hartsfield. And many say that that move was racially motivated to kind of offset the growing political and voting power of African Americans in Atlanta. So they added this kind of majority-white, wealthier enclave, and brought it into the city at that point. So our analysis showed that the new city of Buckhead City, if it were to be created, would be about 75% white. Just 11% black.
[TAPE Black News Network] Dr. Rashad Richey: Yes, white flight, but it's white flight utilizing statute instead of white people just moving out of a Black neighborhood. So the creation of Buckhead into the city of Atlanta was based on race. Them seceding is also based on race. They're using crime, Charles, as the pretext because they've been talking about leaving the city of Atlanta for 22 years.
J.D. Capelouto: And so you do see those racial differences kind of in stark contrast between Buckhead and the rest of Atlanta. The Buckhead city proponents say race is not a factor in any of this, and they're made, you know, they're made up of a diverse group of residents who are — just want to make Buckhead a better place for everyone and that race isn't a factor. It's kind of hard to ignore the racial aspects, the racial dynamics, really. It's historical as well as, you know, the current events.
Steve Fennessy: You know, and underlying this whole premise of secession, at least, is prompted by what they see as a crime wave. There's this assumption, I guess, that “If we're our own city, that we’ll be better equipped to deal with it.” Obviously, criminals don't care about borders. So what potentially could occur or what are they imagining would happen if they had their own city in terms of crime?
J.D. Capelouto: They kind of envision this city of Buckhead police that just has a very large police presence and would make criminals afraid to go into the city of Buckhead. They possibly have their own jail and have different rules about, you know, bonding and getting out of jail, that sort of thing. So that's their main argument right now is kind of envisioning this city of Buckhead police.
Steve Fennessy: And, of course, there are many neighborhoods throughout Atlanta that are dealing, dealing with crime problems and presumably don't have the resources to explore a secession movement even if they were inclined to.
J.D. Capelouto: That's certainly true. There's a lot of parts of town that are saying, “Hey, we've been dealing with crime for decades and we've never even thought about the possibility of of leaving Atlanta.” So they kind of see it as a ridiculous move by — by these Buckhead residents. What's interesting is a lot of the concerns of Buckhead residents have are citywide concerns when it comes to crime, infrastructure, potholes, these party houses. A lot of these are citywide concerns. They just kind of become amplified by a lot of Buckhead residents. There's also a perception around the city that, kind of, Buckhead can get whatever it wants and has this undue influence over the city of Atlanta. Whether that's true, I can't exactly speak to that. But it definitely feeds that narrative.
Steve Fennessy: Just kind of looking forward, where we have the feasibility study now. What's the timeline in terms of things need to be debated within the General Assembly? It has to go to the governor, then it would go — presumably it clears all those hurdles — then it would go to the voters. What does that timeline look like?
J.D. Capelouto: So the timeline for the feasibility study, they haven't exactly specified that, but they do say it'll take a number of months. I think they want it to come out probably by the end of this year before the General Assembly session starts. And then if it's passed by the General Assembly, signed into law by the governor next spring, they're aiming for a November 2022 ballot referendum.
Steve Fennessy: And — and in terms of sort of the cultural importance of Buckhead, whenever the city is advertising itself, whenever it's sort of making a play for some national sporting event, say you always see Buckhead as something that's front and center. It's very much a part of the identity of the city. And I have to think that that would be especially galling to the city to lose that affiliation.
J.D. Capelouto: Definitely, and that's one of the main things that Mayor Bottoms pleads with, whenever she's asked about this, is: Buckhead is an important part of the city.
[TAPE FOX News] Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: We know that when Buckhead is strong, we know that the south side is strong. And we know that when the south side is strong, we know that the north side is strong. And so I am committed to making sure that we continue to work together to make sure that our entire city is as strong as it can possibly be.
J.D. Capelouto: Especially in the way that Atlanta is marketed nationally and internationally. It kind of shows in a lot of ways, the diversity and the vibrancy of Atlanta's economy. You often see it on different promotional things, and it's seen as a way of showing that Atlanta is this world-class city.
Steve Fennessy: As as this becomes more tangible and more real, will it sort of lend some momentum within City Hall to start addressing some of the concerns that Buckhead residents have been raising for a long time?
J.D. Capelouto: I definitely think it could. When there's an issue that Buckhead residents care about, even though there's more than 40 neighborhoods in Buckhead, they can really unite on certain issues and advocate in City Hall. And there'll be hours of public comment at the city council meetings. I think you could definitely see, especially as this becomes more of an issue this year, we see some more action from City Hall. But — but that remains to be seen.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s J.D. Capelouto. With 157 homicides, 2020 was the deadliest year Atlanta has had in two decades, and this year is shaping up to be even worse. Through June of this year, homicides were up at least 25% compared to a year earlier. Gov. Brian Kemp is calling on the General Assembly to address the spike in crime in a special session this fall while outgoing Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is creating a special office of Violence Reduction. For more Georgia Today, go to GBP.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jahi Whitehead produced this episode. Jesse Nighswonger engineered it. Thanks for listening. See you next week.