By John Schaffner
Fulton County Commissioners Emma Darnell and Robb Pitts share the same strong opinions on two issues: that the proposed formation of Milton County from the top end of Fulton would be “disastrous” and that Fulton is one of the best run among the nation’s 3,000 counties.
Darnell, who has represented northwest Atlanta on the County Commission since 1992, and Buckhead resident Pitts, who was elected to the commission in 2002 after serving on the Atlanta City Council for 20 years, spoke at the July 15 meeting of the Northwest Community Alliance, which represents neighborhoods and businesses in Buckhead and northwest Atlanta.
Darnell said Fulton is in “good financial shape” and had a $59 million surplus at the end of the past fiscal year. She said the county has had surpluses the past 10 years.
“We’ve been saving money for a rainy day, and now it is raining,” Darnell said, referring to the state of the economy and the reduced revenues the county is collecting.
She predicted the commission will have to go back and cut the budget again, possibly resulting in layoffs. “It is not good to go in and cut, cut, cut,” she said, explaining she thinks the county needs to provide excellent services. “We need to have good program data. What do we need to meet the needs of the people we serve?”
But she pointed out that the county is responsible for only a few services. “The jail is the No. 1 priority.”
The county also provides the libraries for all of Fulton, including the individual cities, and provides health , election, property assessment and some public safety services in unincorporated areas in the south part of the county. The northern part of the county is now fully incorporated.
Pitts said the county is looking to bring back an economic development department, which it eliminated some time ago because the only zoning issues are in unincorporated south Fulton. He said the reason for the revived department is that the county needs new revenues and is not at the table now in discussions with relocating companies.
Darnell summarized her perspective on how to produce an “environmentally safe community without impeding development” for the NCA representatives, who were meeting at the Senior Center on Commerce Drive in the Berkeley Park neighborhood.
She said the communities should be economically strong, environmentally safe, and based on justice and fairness. “I believe we should not minimize justice and fairness.”
She cited as injustices and unfairness the fact that Fulton, along with Atlanta and DeKalb County, is subsidizing the health care of the region by paying for the operation of Grady Hospital and “paying for the care of residents of every county in the 20-county region.”
She said the same is true of MARTA.
“If we are not a community of justice and fairness,” Darnell said, “we will not be able to stand in the 21st century.”
In response to a question, Darnell said Fulton is heavily invested in Atlanta development through five TADs (tax-advantaged developments). “There is no evidence that investment in TADs has any benefits in revenue for the city and county,” she said.
She said the Atlantic Station TAD was needed to clean up a major brownfield area in the city. But she said the benefits of the other TADs are not financial. She told the group that Fulton County is the leading supporter to date of the BeltLine TAD, but Atlanta Public Schools is the biggest of the three governmental entities — along with Fulton and Atlanta — in terms of revenues.
Pitts said the re-creation of Milton County would be “devastating to Fulton County.” He said he believes the votes are there to re-create Milton County, “but there is no reason for it. Fulton is well-run, well-managed and financially sound.”