By Gerhard Schneibel
Although Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Jan. 14 State of the State speech was in part focused on a sobering depiction of current economic conditions and Georgia’s projected $2.2 billion budget deficit, many local lawmakers said they are optimistic they’ll be able to make progress on initiatives that matter to the people they represent.
“We must not allow ourselves to be trapped in a short-term mind-set where rash decisions result in dire long-term consequences,” Perdue said. “Our perspective must be one of optimism even in the face of difficult economic cycles.”
Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs) called the governor’s speech “very straightforward and to the point.”
“These are going to be difficult times, and he made very clear that we’re going to have to work together to come out of them,” he said.
There may be some budget relief coming, however, in the form of a special 1 percent sales tax or a $1.2 billion bond package, either of which would require voter approval in a referendum.
If the appropriate legislation is passed during this General Assembly session and signed by Perdue, some of that money could be used on transportation projects that affect Buckhead, Sandy Springs and Brookhaven.
Rep. Elly Dobbs (D-Atlanta), who is in her first term representing Buckhead after defeating fellow Democrat LaNett Stanley-Turner last year, said she would like to see sound barriers erected along I-75 through Buckhead.
“A regional transportation commission needs to be put in place, and funding needs to be found to help our very ailing transportation system in Georgia,” she said. “The most important thing is to earmark those (sales tax) funds specifically for transportation.”
Fixing transportation problems in Georgia will require progressive thinking about the environment and the future, she said. “We need to work really hard in finding ways to save our energy and get away from using oil from countries that we don’t see eye to eye with. In Georgia we need to look at our biotechnology and biofuel.”
Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) said if voters do approve a special transportation sales tax in a referendum, he wants more oversight for how the money is spent and how projects are carried out.
“I certainly want to see things like the Georgia 400/I-85 interchange on the list, and I certainly would like to see the top-end Perimeter between I-75 and I-85 included,” he said. “I would also like to see greater legislative oversight so we can be sure whatever happens on that top-end Perimeter … is not harmful to my constituents who live up there.”
He expressed concern about the possibility of a $1.2 billion bond issue.
“It is a large amount of debt which future generations must pay,” he said.
Sen. Dan Moody (R-Alpharetta), whose district includes Sandy Springs, said the need for more transportation funding is “on everybody’s top-three list.”
A $1.2 billion rainy-day fund should help tide the state over in difficult times, Moody said. “We are fortunate that we have that money there because it does help us with our (AAA) bond rating. … Our interest expense is the best you can get.”
Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) said he is worried about a proposal to close the budget gap by cutting the money the state pays localities to compensate them for the homestead exception, which reduces the property taxes homeowners pay. That measure could force local governments either to raise tax rates or make up the lost revenue with money from their coffers.
“We’re all concerned about the budget proposal cutting back on what has been the homestead exemption. … This is a source of revenue all the cities and counties have really had an expectation for,” he said.
Sandy Springs, however, should be OK because it has a “pretty diverse tax digest and tax base with the commercial properties,” said Willard, who is the city’s attorney.
Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), who represents Buckhead and a sliver of Sandy Springs, defended a tax measure he is sponsoring, H.R. 1, from claims that it would drain local governments of their funds. H.R. 1 proposes a constitutional amendment to cap annual increases in property assessments at 3 percent unless the property is sold, in which case the assessment would jump to the sale price.
“That is a huge misconception,” he said of the criticism. “All it does do is it nails shut the door to tax increases. It does not limit their ability to raise taxes if necessary through the front door, which is by adjusting the millage rate. By doing so, we make local government more accountable to its citizenry.”
Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Dunwoody), whose district includes part of Brookhaven, put an emphasis on transportation. The first step to a solution for transportation problems is to create a consolidated regulatory agency, she said. Currently, nine public transportation systems, the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Atlanta Regional Commission compete for the same funding.
“If we only had one umbrella agency, we’d actually be able to do something other than just another study,” she said. “Then we will actually be able to see some transit expansion. Every time we do another million-dollar study, we could have had three or four commuter buses to take cars off the roads.”
There is always the possibility starting to create a new city or county or to annex land to an existing municipality, but
Most legislators said the budget crisis makes it unlikely but not impossible that any action will be taken to create a new city or county in this area.
Sen. Horacena Tate (D-Atlanta), who represents Buckhead and part of Sandy Springs, said she hasn’t heard any talk about Buckhead seceding from Atlanta, but she does expect talk about turning north Fulton County into Milton County. “I would tend to think that with the moving forward on the county of Milton that they might hold off on that.”
Dobbs said: “The problem is, and we have to be realistic … that any local-option bill like that would have to be passed by the Fulton County delegation first, and the Fulton County delegation is comprised of mostly individuals that do not live in Buckhead. … They represent the city of Atlanta.”
Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody), who represents Brookhaven, said there may be a move to annex Huntley Hills and part of the Sexton Woods area into the city of Chamblee. If Brookhaven residents want to seek more local government control, annexation into Chamblee could be an option, he said.
“If they want to do that, then certainly I’m there to support it, and that’s what I’ve told them from the beginning. Logistically, delivery of municipal services could come best from Chamblee,” he said. “Chamblee’s got a great mayor and City Council. They’re an up-and-coming city, but it’s up to the neighbors.”