A Georgia Senate committee held a hearing Nov. 4 about the proposed “Buckhead City,” laying the groundwork for a high-profile discussion next year.
During the three-hour hearing, cityhood advocates centered their testimonies on violent crime in Atlanta, saying an independent Buckhead would hire its own police force.
Opponents said breaking Buckhead off would be financially disastrous to Atlanta, citing impacts to its economic development, bond ratings and national reputation.
At the hearing, Sen. Brandon Beach (R – Alpharetta) said he would be pre-filling a bill on Nov. 15. Beach is among a dozen state legislators who have expressed support of the cityhood effort, although none represent the city of Atlanta.
Cityhood supporters hope to get legislation passed at the Georgia General Assembly next year, which would place a referendum on the November 2022 ballot allowing Buckhead residents to vote on whether to form a new city.
“I was involved in the creation of Milton, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs,” Beach said. “Those citizens wanted control of their own destiny … The city of Buckhead wants to do the same on local control. They want to have their zoning and trash pickup. But make no mistake about it, crime is driving this issue.”
Beach had started his testimony with a video compiling recent violent Buckhead crimes, including a security guard who was shot at Lenox Square mall. At the hearing, the Senate committee also heard from Eliana Kovitch, who was violently attacked by a man in Buckhead last year.
To combat crime, the proposed Buckhead City would hire 250 police officers, said Buckhead City Committee CEO and Chairman Bill White, the face of the cityhood effort. He added that the police force would be the highest paid in the state.
“It is clear that Atlanta and its leadership, which is bankrupt of new ideas, is not up to the job of providing adequate police coverage for its 500,000 residents,” White said. “So, reducing the area they need to patrol makes perfect sense to us.”
White slammed city leadership’s ability to effectively police the city. “Regarding the results of the mayoral election this week, no one that I speak to in Buckhead wants ‘Moore’ of the same, nor do we want the ‘Dickens’ scared out of us,” he said, referring to Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens, the two Atlanta mayoral candidates headed to a runoff on Nov. 30.
But, cityhood opponent Peter Aman, a former chief operating officer with the city of Atlanta, said there was no indication that public safety would improve if Buckhead left. “Criminals do not respect boundaries,” he said.
Aman also said that it would be an “unmitigated disaster” for the city of Atlanta to have its revenues slashed if Buckhead broke off. Cityhood opponents in September released a study that said the net fiscal loss to Atlanta could range from $80 million to $116 million per year.
Aman said the proposed Buckhead City would incur significant startup costs, including the acquisition of community assets such as Chastain Park, which could cost in excess of $250 million, he said. Residents of the new Buckhead City would also have to pay much higher water costs, up to 36% more, he said.
“Separating Buckhead from the city of Atlanta would be calamitous for everybody,” said Aman, a Buckhead resident who ran for Atlanta mayor in 2017.
Kevin Green, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance, said tearing apart Atlanta would harm the city’s ability to lure companies and would tarnish its national reputation.
“Bond markets being downgraded, increasing cost of future debt, years of litigation over this, virtually guaranteed higher taxes, and a national narrative that this is going to exacerbate economic and racial segregation —that is not the kind of atmosphere that any company or investor wants to enter,” Green said, adding that if the proposed cityhood goes forward, competitor cities such as Charlotte, Dallas, Houston and Chattanooga would benefit.
Tom Gehl with the Georgia Municipal Association said carving a new city out of Atlanta could hurt taxpayers across the state. “Should this legislation ever pass, it’s likely that the credit rating agencies would essentially downgrade the municipal bond market in Georgia, thus raising the costs to taxpayers and cities across the state,” he said.
“But from just a PR perspective, the Atlanta brand and the state of Georgia’s brand may be tarnished forever,” Gehl said.