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Calls increase for pause in creation of metro Atlanta cities

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker faces allegations of conflicts of interest and other ethical questions from in in-house investigation. He was re-elected mayor of the city, one of six to be created in metro Atlanta since 2005. (Special photo; johnscreekga.gov)

Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker faces allegations of conflicts of interest and other ethical questions from in in-house investigation. He was re-elected mayor of the city, one of six to be created in metro Atlanta since 2005. (Special photo; johnscreekga.gov)

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A spokesman for Rep. David Ralston, speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, says that the Blue Ridge Republican will meet with various stakeholders to discuss the merits of pending proposals for new cities to be formed in metro Atlanta. (Albany Herald file photo)

ATLANTA (MCT) — A growing chorus is calling for the state to tap the brakes on metro Atlanta’s fast-cruising cityhood movement, saying the slowdown will help everyone better see the road ahead.

The lobbying group that represents the interest of counties has long asked for a moratorium to examine the harm that creating new municipalities does to the revenue collected by the counties they are carved from.

But now supporters of a slowdown point to new cities that are struggling with the very old-government strife they planned to shed: ethics questions, frayed political relations and outsized spending.

The would-be cities, too, would benefit from a bit more time to plan, said Lee May, the interim CEO of DeKalb County, where seven proposals for new cities will be reviewed by the Legislature in the coming session.

“There has been very little actual discussion so far beyond whether you are for or against new cities,” said May, who is expected to garner County Commission support on his request for a three-year moratorium on new cities statewide. “If there is an orientation toward cities, let’s learn from others’ mistakes and make sure we talk and are able to plan for our future together.”

The national trend for less and smaller government began taking shape here when Sandy Springs became Georgia’s seventh-largest city overnight in 2005.

Six new cities have since followed: Johns Creek, Milton, Chattahoochee Hills, Dunwoody, Peachtree Corners and finally Brookhaven, the state’s newest city when it formed out of north-central DeKalb last year.

While the path to incorporation for Sandy Springs took three decades, the others became cities under a state law that requires a two-year review before voters decide whether to incorporate. The seven proposals in DeKalb are now in the second year of that state-mandated review.

Now, residents in some of those new cities are dealing with the same struggles advocates said greater local control would calm:

— Brookhaven’s 2014 budget nearly doubles the city’s legal fees, to $415,000, from costs projected in its feasibility study. The jump follows a high-profile and ongoing case against the longtime strip club Pink Pony and a headline-grabbing legal fight with neighboring Chamblee.

— Peachtree Corners launched in 2012 amid gripes about a $2.7 million budget, almost four times higher than projected, and a 90-day halt on business licenses that paused development.

— An in-house investigation cited Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker on allegations of conflicts of interest and other ethical questions that were similar to the sorts of complaints about Fulton County leaders that prompted the city’s creation. Voters returned Bodker to office, though tension in City Hall remains.

“The crux of it is, you’re still going to have problems, so maybe a moratorium isn’t such a bad idea to be more deliberative about how to handle them,” said Katherine Willoughby, a public policy professor at Georgia State University who has lauded the incorporation movement for allowing greater public input in government.

Not surprisingly, talk of stalling incorporation angers supporters of carving new cities into the landscape.

If nothing else, the move would change the rules midway through the game, said Mary Kay Woodworth, the chairwoman of the Lakeside City Alliance.

That isn’t fair for those who donated or raised the money for Lakeside and backers of Briarcliff, Stonecrest and Tucker to pay for a state feasibility study to examine services and taxes, she said.

“There will be an enormous backlash if they do indeed impose a moratorium,” Woodworth said. “At this point, I think a lot of people have come to the conclusion that the only way to make the county better is to allow these new cities to form and give the county time to get its house in order.”

Marshall Guest, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge — who will help set the agenda for upcoming legislative session — said that in the coming weeks Ralston “plans to discuss the merits of the various DeKalb County cityhood proposals with members who have an interest in them.”

A moratorium could be the default action if state lawmakers decide they want to sidestep the deadlock over three new cities’ boundaries.

Tucker began pursuing cityhood only after early maps showed Lakeside taking many of its retail and industrial areas. The two would-be cities are still fighting over which will get Northlake Mall and nearby offices, with the proposed city of Briarcliff now also in the mix.

The key will be whether a moratorium includes a specific plan on how to map all of DeKalb — so far the only county facing so many pending cities at once.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, spearheaded that cityhood movement yet said he is open to a temporary stop — while also issuing a caveat for that plan.

“Ultimately, we have to let the citizens decide what they want,” Jacobs said. “If a moratorium isn’t geared to that end, getting that input, it’s simply a top-heavy attempt at stalling.”