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Fascinating people of Forsyth: Leading the charge for Sharon Springs
fascinating
Phillip Barlag is co-founder and chairman of the Sharon Springs Alliance, which is advocating for the formation of a city of Sharon Springs in south Forsyth. - photo by Micah Green

About this series

Beginning today, the Forsyth County News embarks on a Sunday series spotlighting some of the fascinating people of Forsyth.

SOUTH FORSYTH -- In recent months, the movement to create a city of Sharon Springs has been a hot topic in Forsyth County politics and one that has gathered its share of supporters and opponents.

If approved, the new municipality is planned to be a “city light,” meaning it would offer limited services. In this case, supporters say, sanitation, zoning and code enforcement.

Opponents believe that Sharon Springs would eventually lead to a full city or an increased tax burden on inhabitants wanting to use county services.

The proposed city, the county’s second, would have about 50,000 residents and cover an area in south Forsyth stretching from the Fulton County line to Hwy. 20 with an eastern border of the Chattahoochee River and the western border of Ga. 400.

Sharon Springs was introduced in the 2015 Georgia General Assembly by District 25 state Rep. Mike Dudgeon of south Forsyth. It is expected to be brought to a vote in the 2016 session, which starts in January.

If it clears the legislature, a referendum on the city could be held later that year. Only those living within the proposed city limits — an estimated quarter of the county’s population — would be eligible to vote. If the measure were to pass at the polls, the city could begin operating by 2017.

A driving force for the cityhood movement is the Sharon Springs Alliance, which unsurprisingly supports the city’s formation. Behind the alliance is Phillip Barlag, co-founder and chairman of the group.

Barlag is a father of three, youth lacrosse coach and author who works as a managing director at World 50, a firm that facilitates private business discussions between company executives.

Question: To start off, what got you interested in the Sharon Springs cityhood movement?

Answer: “My wife and I have been together for 17 years and married for 14, and probably the largest single regret she has is sending me to a town hall meeting with a commissioner that had come out to the neighborhood to hear residents’ concerns about a particular zoning.

“I didn’t really want to go. I wasn’t that interested. I hadn’t been very involved in community affairs really ever, but I was enthralled with the process.

“I was a little bit disheartened that you can have 100 people in a room saying I don’t want this and the commissioner was throwing his hands up saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’

“I try to be an intellectually curious guy, so I set out with some friends just to see, is there a better process, maybe there’s another way to do this. So Sharon Springs was really born out of a quest, if you will, just to see if there was a better way of accomplishing the goals that citizens have for their community.

“That’s what got us going two and a half years ago and it’s been a whirlwind ever since.”

Q: What has changed about the movement since it began?

A: “To lay a little bit of context, it really started out as a research organization looking into this as one option for the community.

“We have been in learning mode for more than two years, understanding whatever we could about municipal government, about how things work in the county, about what has worked and has not for incorporation in other areas.

“It has not been picture perfect for other people and it has been really good for others.

“The biggest change has been simply getting to the point where we have set aside the conditions for ourselves that we think this is the right thing.

“If you go back and look at the communications of the Sharon Springs Alliance, it is very clear that there is a point of demarcation maybe a couple of months ago where we went from, ‘We’re looking into this option,” to ‘This is the right thing to do.’

“The more steam the movement has picked up, the more rumors and criticisms have come out, especially that the new city would raise taxes.”

Q: How do you respond to those criticisms?

A: “I think it’s fair, it’s the single biggest reaction that we get back. And then when we explain how it works, if people are willing to meet it with an open mind, we have a pretty good success rate of convincing people that they should learn more.

“There is a cap in our city charter on the millage rate, so it actually can’t lead to exorbitant tax increases. And I would also argue all of our taxes are going up. Taxes have risen pretty substantively in Forsyth County.

“The gap between a resident in unincorporated Forsyth versus let’s say someone in Johns Creek or Milton has narrowed … The bond millage rate went up 63 percent last year and will likely go up again.”

Q: You’re also a published author can you tell me a bit about that?

A: “A few years ago I wrote a book which I self-published, it’s called ‘How to Fix America,’ and it’s a nonpartisan exploration at what it would take to have better government at a national level. The premise is that we have bad government, but we try to fix it through policy. But you can’t flow good policy through bad government.

“The second book, which is set to be published a little under a year from now … is a completely different take on things. It is a study of what Ancient Rome means to modern leaders.

"A leader is very broadly defined as anyone from a school teacher, to a CEO, to someone in government.

“They got a lot of things right for a very long time, so what did the Romans get right and really distilling it down to the essence and characteristics of Julius Caesar and applying his life to the modern context.”

Q: Finally, can you tell me something fascinating about yourself?

A: “Both my mother and my father have good, but very poor, Midwest backgrounds. My father grew up in an orphanage. My mother grew up the third of seven kids in essentially a construction services company for whom her father worked ... My wife’s father is from equally humble roots.

"I think the backgrounds of myself, my wife and other people in my family have given me a very unique perspective on what we have in Forsyth and what we have in the schools, that isn’t grounded in excluding anyone, but making it the best for everyone.”