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Secession fever

Damn the expenses, north Fulton breakaway speeds ahead

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Santa apparently didn't quite deliver the goods in north Fulton; what people there wanted was a shiny new county.

"I couldn't go anywhere over the holidays without being asked about Milton County," says state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, referring to a proposal to split Fulton County in two, with the northern half becoming a new entity not controlled by the notoriously squabbling commission in Atlanta.

What had previously been a question of whether it made sense to secede from Fulton has become, in many northside minds, an issue of how much territory to grab on the way out the door.

Rather than simply reviving the 1930s-era boundaries of the old Milton, a tiny county whose southern boundary roughly followed the Chattahoochee, the current sentiment is for a new Milton to include all land north of Atlanta -- and maybe even to cherry-pick Buckhead.

The notion of cutting ties with the rest of the county has percolated for at least a decade as an offshoot of the Sandy Springs incorporation campaign. The issue was revived over the summer by House Republicans Mark Burkhalter and Jan Jones, both of Alpharetta, who vowed to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session. But in recent weeks, it's hit a boiling point following Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin's involvement in a racially divisive radio ad for John Eaves' successful Fulton chairman's campaign.

"That ad has pushed people over the edge who had been taking a go-slow approach," Wilkinson says.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, says his constituents desire the split because Fulton's Democratic-majority commission has long ignored northside interests. But while he believes Milton's relaunch is doable in a GOP-controlled Statehouse with its appetite whetted by the creation of new cities, he is mindful of the many hurdles that stand in the way.

For starters, there's the time involved. Although the cities of Milton and Johns Creek are evidence that new cities can be birthed in a few months' time, creating a new county would require a constitutional amendment to get around a long-standing rule capping the number of Georgia counties at 159. Assuming Burkhalter can leverage his power as the House's second-in-command to pass his bill this session, a statewide referendum (which is needed for an amendment) wouldn't take place until November 2008, plenty of time for county-makin' fervor to cool.

Then there's the price tag. Reviving Milton would cost a fortune in legal fees associated with restructuring more than $1 billion in bond debt and in the many lawsuits an attempted split would provoke, not to mention the expense of building a new county government from the ground up. Splitting Fulton also could mean splitting the county's huge school system, which would trip over another constitutional prohibition.

"There's simply no precedent for dividing school systems," notes outgoing state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, who chaired a legislative study committee that examined the practicalities of relaunching Milton.

He believes many Milton supporters assume that spinning off their own county would leave Fulton holding the bag for such financial liabilities as Grady Memorial Hospital and MARTA. They couldn't be more wrong, he says, and any attempt to weasel out of existing debt would likely send local bond ratings plummeting.

Zamarripa argues that much of the zeal for Milton stems largely from a "screw-you attitude" directed at Fulton's leaders, and perhaps a suburban yen to turn one's back on the inner city.

"I think the motivation is wrong," he says. "It's not an issue with government structure, but with elected officials, so let's deal with that issue instead of jumping into this quagmire."

Wilkinson is among legislators concerned about Milton's eventual cost. "Right now, I support the concept, but I have to make sure it's the right thing for my constituents, the schools and the local tax base," he says.

Willard supports Milton's revival but also is working on a bill that calls for a Fulton overhaul. Under that fallback plan, a study committee would suggest ways to limit the duties of the county government and to restructure the commission, probably trimming its membership from seven to five and giving the chairman more authority.

Although Eaves, who was sworn in this week as chairman, says he's not sure yet how to deal with the secessionist fever, Commissioner Robb Pitts says he wants to show north Fultonites that "the county is not in as bad a shape as they might think," having reduced taxes, streamlined its health department and addressed mismanagement by tax assessors.

Those assurances may not be enough to satisfy the immediate hunger for self-governance, says Willard, who adds, "There are people willing to pay the price to walk away from Fulton."

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