Buckhead cityhood bill that 'makes no sense' fails in the Senate
A yearslong effort by a small but vocal group pushing for a wealthy Atlanta neighborhood to secede from the city's control was roundly rebuked Thursday, as a bipartisan coalition in the Georgia Senate rejected legislation for the City of Buckhead City.
Ten Republicans joined the entire Democratic caucus to defeat Senate Bill 114 33 to 23, as opponents of the measure warned of likely negative financial and logistical consequences that would cascade beyond the proposed city limits.
SB 114 sought to create a referendum for residents who live in Buckhead — but not the rest of Atlanta — to vote on creating a new city through an unprecedented step of de-annexing an existing portion of Atlanta. It would also pay its top leaders salaries that rival those of the country's largest cities.
Supporters of the bill, largely Republicans outside of metro Atlanta, argued that Atlanta's leadership has ignored concerns of Buckhead residents about crime rates and the only solution was to create their own government in response.
"I truly believe that we have reached the point where we are today because city leaders and elected officials who felt that they could ignore the concerns of their taxpayers without being watched because that group of taxpayers only represented a small portion of their population," said Sen. Randy Robertson (R-Cataula), who lives about 100 miles southwest of Atlanta.
Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming) said Buckhead residents told him they were living in a "warzone." Sen. Ed Setzler invoked a quote mistakenly attributed to Gandhi to suggest the inevitability of the City of Buckhead City. Northwest Georgia Sen. Colton Moore said the bill was about freedom as he recalled a story of driving past a car accident in Buckhead where the drivers left the scene.
"Doesn't seem like a very safe community to me," Moore said.
But both Republican and Democratic opponents to the measure pushed back on the idea that secession from Atlanta would address crime problems, saying instead that removing 20% of its residents and even more of its tax base would create more issues that could negatively impact surrounding communities.
The trio of Democrats who represent the Buckhead neighborhood in the Senate blasted the proposal as extreme overreach that would jeopardize existing bond agreements, leave thousands of students in limbo and left many questions unanswered about the feasibility of a municipal divorce.
"Imagine if legislators who do not represent your city or your county were to do the same thing," Sen. Sonya Halpern said. "Imagine if legislators whose insight came from a small group of people in neighborhoods in the city were the ones proposing to split up your city... the same thing could happen to your city next, where you would be stepped on and stepped over. And your delegation would be disregarded."
Halpern, who lives in Buckhead, touted Georgia and Atlanta accomplishments ranging from a booming film industry to a favorite line of Republicans about Georgia being the "No. 1 state to do business" as things that could be jeopardized if the process were to continue.
"If it was just a normal cityhood movement, then why do you have attorneys both in this building and outside this building warning us that it's not possible?" Sen. Jason Esteves said. "The reality is constitutionally, today, it is not possible to divide the city of Atlanta given the complexities with its schools, with its debt obligations."
While both the City of Buckhead City measure and an accompanying bill that would essentially allow the new city to purchase buildings, parkland and other municipal assets for pennies on the dollar of their actual value passed out of committee, their momentum was short-lived after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's general counsel sent a memo outlining multiple constitutional concerns with the City of Buckhead City's plan that could "ripple into a future of unforeseen outcomes" and unsettle billions of dollars in bonds and financial stability.
Beyond the cityhood movement's lack of details about how the financial aspects would work, where thousands of children would attend school and other basic logistical questions, polling and political data suggests the effort would neither succeed at the ballot box nor give Republicans more control over local issues.
"A new Buckhead City, were it to exist, would elect the type of people that the voters who are pushing for this don't want in charge," Sen. Josh McLaurin said. "Put simply, it would elect Democrats, because that's what the numbers show."
The more significant pushback to the cityhood measure came from within the Republican Party, as numerous senators gave floor speeches thanking Lt. Gov. Burt Jones for bringing the bill to a vote but declining to support its passage.
"If we jerk the heart out of Atlanta, which is Buckhead, the city of Atlanta will die," said Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Daniellsville), who chaired the committee that vetted the bill. "I don't want to see our capital city die. But at the same token, I know we've got to fix it."
Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) listed statistics from the police zone that covers Buckhead that showed crime was actually decreasing in the area in recent years, heaped praise on current mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum and said there were other, better ways to address concerns that residents are raising.
"In my 13 years of being here, I've never seen so much opposition to one thing," he said. "This makes no sense politically, operationally, or financially. So what are the next steps? How do we really fix the problem? It's time to drop the angst and the egos and start working together, and this goes for both sides."
For his part, Dickens issued a statement shortly after the bill's failure thanking the Senate for bipartisan opposition and promised to keep working to address concerns of Buckhead residents, calling Atlanta a "group project."
"When I came into office, I committed to building strong bonds across Atlanta, including in Buckhead, and with our state's leaders," he said. "We've delivered investments in public safety that have driven down crime, filled potholes and are moving Atlanta forward, together."
In a brief statement posted online Thursday night, the Buckhead City Committee thanked the senators that spoke out in favor of the process and promised to continue to press the proposal despite its overwhelming opposition.
"We are of course disappointed in the results of the Senate vote today, but we will never give up until Buckhead gets to VOTE," Buckhead City Committee CEO Bill White said.