A panel of experts and representatives on both sides of the debate of adding a second city in south Forsyth gave their thoughts this week.
On Thursday, District 25 state Rep. Todd Jones – who introduced House Bill 626, which provided the process for creating the proposed city – hosted a town hall at South Forsyth High School to discuss issues surrounding Sharon Springs.
Voters living in the area of the proposed city will have a chance to vote on whether it becomes a reality on May 22 primary, and advance voting for the primary begins Monday.
At the beginning of the meeting, Jones said voters should try to see both sides of the issue before casting a ballot.
“It’s easy to hear the things you want to hear. It’s harder to intellectually try to absorb the conversation … on the other side,” Jones said. “So, I’m not asking you to move to that side. All I’m asking you to do is acknowledge [the other side.]”
If approved, Sharon Springs would begin with three services — zoning, sanitation and code enforcement — and would have a millage rate capped at 0.5 mills. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, which is 40 percent of the actual market value.
The approximate boundaries of the proposed city are east of Ga. 400 except the portion west of McFarland Road; south of Hwy. 20 except for areas in the city of Cumming; west of the Chattahoochee River — already a boundary with Gwinnett County — and north of the Fulton County line.
To pass, the bill will need the support of at least 57.5 percent of voters, a compromise between a simple majority and two-thirds majority.
The city would be home to about 50,000 residents.
During the town hall, three groups answered common questions on the city from Jones and some members of the community in attendance. Those groups were those in favor of the city, those opposed and a group of experts made up of UGA Professor Jeffery Dorfman and Mayor Mike Mason and City Attorney Bill Riley of Peachtree Corners, a city offering similar services as those proposed for Sharon Springs and approved by voters to incorporate in 2011.
The expert panel was given four minutes to answer questions, and the for and against sides had a minute and a half to respond.
Resident Scott Fuller said after the meeting he was still on the fence for the proposed city but having speakers on all sides helped. He said he left the meeting feeling more in favor of the city than before.
“I see the value of both sides on it,” he said. “It’s actually a good meeting to hear some of it out… I think it was very worthwhile.”
Another layer of government
One of the meeting’s pre-submitted questions dealt with whether Sharon Springs would add another layer of government, which has been asserted by those against the city.
“I think the correct way to think about this is that forming a new city is adding a new layer of government,” Dorfman said. “The reason you do it is the hope that a new layer of government will be more responsive to your local needs.”
Brian Francis, who spoke in favor of the city, said the argument was a matter of semantics. He said the new city would replace government, not add it.
“It’s not that we’re going to have a planning and zoning commission that will have a planning and zoning commission in Sharon Springs that will report to a zoning commission in Forsyth County,” Francis said. “We are replacing those services which we feel Sharon Springs are not being effectively delivered for our area … and replacing those with our own, locally-controlled [services.]”
Charlie Smith, who spoke in opposition, said Sharon Springs would add more government and create the potential for ambitious elected officials in the future to expand the city’s services beyond the initial three offered.
“Creation of Georgia’s 497th city, how could it possibly not result in another layer of government, not just replace a layer of government,” Smith said. “The potential for significant expansion of powers and costs of a new city is limited only by … what the majority of the city council wants to do with the home rule doctrine.”
Mason said Peachtree Corners only had five employees and used contractors for various city projects.
Though Sharon Springs has been proposed with a millage cap of 0.5 mills, Jones said there had been questions about the enforceability of that cap. Riley said he believed it was not enforceable through courts but would need to be approved by voters.
“I don’t think you can enforce a 0.5 millage cap. I think the enforceability is the ballot box,” Riley said. “There has not been one city that had a millage cap that’s been created that’s ever gone … above the millage cap.”
He said Peachtree Corners made long-term agreements with Gwinnett County to provide certain services.
Mason said the city started with a millage rate of 0.85 in its first year “because we didn’t have any money.”
“At our second [year] budget, we would do zero [mills],” Mason said.
He said the city made up funds through means such as franchise fees and business licenses.
A total of three studies have been done on the proposed city. The first study was commissioned by the Sharon Springs Alliance, a group that is in favor of cityhood, and done by the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia.
Jones said the results of the study indicated Sharon Springs would be economically viable through franchise fees, permits, business licenses and similar ways.
Francis said the residents were already paying those fees to the county.
“These are long-term contracts,” he said. “The city council does not have the ability to materially affect the franchise fees, which will be passed on to us. So, it is a simple way of funding the city.”
Jessica Mercon, who spoke in opposition to Sharon Springs, said the city would need to add new fees to run.
“According to the Carl Vinson study, franchise fees provide a significant revenue for the city. About 30 percent of the city’s projected revenues come from these fees, which includes cable fees siphoned from the county’s current revenue,” Mercon said. “But the study continues to say unless new franchise fees are enumerated and produced, the city may not be viable.”
Conversely, Jones said studies funded by Forsyth County done by officials at Georgia Tech and Georgia State University found the county could have a revenue shortfall between $6 million and $8 million.
“Forsyth County is a very efficiently-run operation,” said Eric Duncan, arguing against the proposed city. “You have evidence of this by the fact that we have an AAA bond rating, the highest possible credit rating a county can achieve. Would you rather your tax dollars go to [county uses] or an unnecessary city?”
Francis said the creation of Sharon Springs wasn’t to break up Forsyth County and thought there were other ways to ensure funding.
“I find it interesting we are one of the most deeply-red counties in the nation, that when a report comes out that says we’re going to have a revenue shortfall, that the only option the no side [has is] to raise taxes,” Francis said.