Championing Home Rule
For 75 years, the Georgia Municipal Association has been the chief advocate for cities large and small, helping them address changing needs and fighting off challenges to their well-being.
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The Georgia Municipal Association is paying a lot of attention these days to the proposal to eliminate local property taxes and replace them with sales taxes – a measure that would drastically alter the way local governments fund and deliver services to their citizens.
That’s familiar territory for the GMA, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It was a challenge to local taxation that sparked formation of the association in 1933 when James Key, a four-term mayor of Atlanta, organized 35 cities to fight for their revenue rights. Economic forces unleashed by the Great Depression meant cities were growing; and they needed to be able to raise money to address their needs and control their own destiny.
For the GMA, the principle of Home Rule – or local self-government – is sacrosanct, says Jim Higdon, executive director of the municipal association, who assumed his position in 2001, after serving 22 years as director of Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs.
The GMA, a nonprofit with responsibility for more than $1 billion in assets, now has more than 500 member cities for which it provides legislative advocacy and a range of educational, employee benefits and technical consulting services. Ken Smith, mayor of Kingsland, is the current GMA president.
The association is governed by a 56-member board of directors, made up of city officials. A professional staff of 80 carries out the organization’s various programs.
But it is threats or challenges to cities’ authority and well-being that are always a preoccupation of the GMA and reflected in its mission statement: “Our purpose is to anticipate and influence the forces shaping Georgia’s communities and to provide leadership, tools and services that assist local governments in becoming more innovative, effective and responsive.”
Over the years, the GMA has worked to help cities address their changing demographics and changing needs – from the influx of rural residents drawn to town for employment opportunities during the Depression to, a generation or so later, the population loss resulting from increased suburbanization.
The association has been a force in helping devise funding mechanisms such as the Local Option Sales Tax, to allow cities to levy a one-cent sales tax for operations and tax relief. It has worked, often in partnership with other entities, to revitalize downtowns and foster new kinds of urban development, such as live-work-play communities.
But Higdon says the current threat to local property taxes ranks right up there with any issue the GMA or its member cities have had to contend with.
He believes the GREAT Plan, advocated by Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, which calls for the abolition of ad valorem taxes – crucial to cities’ fiscal health – would strip local leaders of their influence and authority. “Everything the cities have worked for for 75 years would be gone if the proposal passes and sales tax is the only source of income,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
FIGHTING FOR A SHARE
Given the recent surge of new Georgia cities – Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton among them – it may seem surprising that municipalities have often had to fight for their fair share of revenue, as well as respect.
“When I first worked with GMA in 1963, I was shocked at the way cities were treated in the legislature,” says former GMA executive director and current mayor of Social Circle Jim Burgess. “If a bill had the word ‘city’ or ‘municipal’ in it, a legislator would move for it to lie on the table.”
Legally, Georgia’s counties are considered “subdivisions of the state,” says Joseph Whorton, a senior fellow at the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute, which works closely with the GMA. Cities, nowhere to be found in the original state constitution, have had only fleeting governmental support.
“Cities are an asset that aren’t appreciated nearly enough in state government,” he says. Nonetheless, the GMA has created a structure for Georgia cities to accommodate the growth that has come their way. Its proponents say the association has become an “in-crowd” of caring city officials and employees, providing a deep bond and nurturing a fraternity of committed, innovative leaders. “It’s a cult really,” jokes Amy Henderson, GMA’s public information manager.
Elmer George, 92, now retired and living in Griffin, was GMA executive director from 1957 to 1983, and he is a rich source of information on the association’s history.
“Family farms were disappearing,” says George, of GMA’s early days. “As large farms became more businesslike, using machinery instead of labor, unskilled laborers were coming into towns, and cities were really strapped to provide services and jobs.”
During George’s tenure, GMA membership grew from 150 cities to about 450. The economy was very much a concern. “We had to give attention to raising Georgia’s per capita income, which was way below national average,” he says.
“In a 1960 census, we learned that 101 counties in Georgia had lost population,” he says. “Young people were becoming more educated, leaving the family farms. We began to initiate programs to accommodate the state’s problems, and with help from UGA Professor J.W. Fanning and Georgia Tech Professor Howard Menhenick, we created the Planning and Zoning Enablement Act. It was voluntary, but provided a standard where every county and city was involved in planning, tied to an increase in planning at the state level.”
Over the years, cities have had to adapt and adjust to the changing realities of state and federal funding.
After the legislature authorized financial aid for cities and set up a mechanism for sharing the funds, Gov. Ernest Vandiver, in 1962, allocated $1 million to be set aside for municipalities. The annual allocations grew to nearly $10 million by 1965, but were eventually discontinued as part of budget cuts. Federal revenue sharing established in the ’70s helped make up for the loss but proved temporary, as President Ronald Reagan dismantled federal aid to cities in the ’80s.
As GMA grew in size and strength, Georgia cities won other concessions. A standardized tax assessment process that set up mechanisms for property taxes passed the legislature in the early ’60s, raising the value of some properties 100 percent.
The ’60s also produced a state law that allowed municipal annexation by contract and established standards for incorporation. Another law eliminated a fee system that had allowed “speed traps” to flourish, to the detriment of local tourism.
“We were able to raise the per capita income of Georgia cities to, or close to, the national average,” George says of the sweeping changes that affected Georgia’s cities. Yet not everyone outside the state had noticed. “Georgia was still not appreciated in certain parts of the country. In the Midwest and Northeast, we were still considered rednecks, and the speed traps were one of the reasons. I remember Folkston was making more than $100,000 [a year] from fees.”
George spearheaded an ambitious campaign to enhance the state’s national reputation, using the personable young governor, Carl Sanders, who took office in 1963, to symbolize the new image. The effort included a memorable gathering. At a National League of Cities meeting in Miami, with delegates from 6,000 municipalities, Georgia and the GMA threw a massive party – paid for with private money. George describes the occasion with great relish.
“We got Governor Sanders to address the delegates and tell them what they wanted to hear,” namely that Georgia was a welcoming and progressive state. “Carl was a good-looking guy, and [we] scattered people throughout to give him a standing ovation, with which everyone else went along. We had a six-foot ice sculpture, six violinists in tuxes, a dance band, six antebellum-dressed ladies, all these Georgia people in their Sunday best, circulating. It made the front page of the Miami Herald and no one thought of Georgia as redneck after that,” George says.
George and his GMA colleagues also recognized the need to back up the marketing with some substance – and some high-powered help. “I was lucky to have [longtime Atlanta Mayor] Bill Hartsfield’s influence in getting me on the National League of Cities Board of Directors. He was a former president when it was called the National Municipal Association,” George says.
“I also led the [successful] effort to block the organization of a Southern Municipal Association after the civil rights movement” gained prominence, George says. His action served to enhance Georgia’s reputation as the most progressive state in the South.
HELP FOR CITIES
Amendment 19 to Georgia’s Constitution, which was approved by voters in 1972, had particular significance for local governments; it gave counties authority to provide municipal services, such as water and sewer. It also set the stage for conflict between cities and counties.
Laws authorizing the Local Option Sales Tax and the Local Option Hotel and Motel Tax passed in 1975 when Gov. George Busbee was in office. (The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, for capital projects, was created in the mid-’80s.) That year also saw the creation of the Bureau of Commun-ity Affairs, now the De-partment of Community Affairs, an advocate for local governments that is part of state government.
Other new measures helped Georgia cities prepare for and handle growth – and, in many cases, save money. The GMA was instrumental in establishing the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia [MEAG] in 1975. This made it possible for cities to purchase electricity wholesale. In the ’80s the GMA helped create the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia, so cities with their own gas systems could buy wholesale.
The association became adept at negotiating “third party” contracts for cities for utilities, telecommunications and even purchasing services at lower rates than cities could obtain individually. “We even do it for some counties and school systems,” says William Thornton, GMA deputy director of the division of internal affairs.
The GMA helped cities respond to Gov. Joe Frank Harris’ Growth Strategies Commission, which led to the Comprehensive Plan-ning Act of 1989. This required local governments to plan for land use 20 years out and update the plan every five years.
“We’re still working on it, but it was a breakthrough,” says the Fan-ning Institute’s Joseph Whorton. “Georgia is stronger for it, and has a positive reputation nationally as a place where local governments can work out issues without a lot of heavy-handed play from the state.”
Just as in-migration had been a city concern earlier in the GMA’s history, sprawling growth beyond the city limits became a serious problem in the ’70s and ’80s. Jim Burgess wrote in the ’80s that “cities must give attention to the scattering of urban development throughout the countryside.”
Sprawl or suburbanization pitted cities against counties. Some worked together successfully or even consolidated; others did not. “Houston County, south of Macon, had three different water systems running lines on top of each other down a state highway,” Whorton says.
Post-1972, after Amendment 19, “Tensions began to arise in rapidly growing areas,” says Al Outland, the GMA’s director of policy and communications. “Gwinnett came out of nowhere, and took off like a zenith.”
Subdivisions mushroomed throughout Atlanta and other suburban areas, creating what Outland describes as a “period of disinvestment” when many downtowns suffered as residents fled city centers. The shift created traffic snarls and strained public services to the breaking point.
In 1997, with active help and support from the GMA, House Bill 489, often referred to as the Service Delivery Strategy Act, was passed. It actually grew out of the Georgia Future Communities Commission, which had been created by an act of the legislature. The law encouraged coordination of services between cities and counties and prevented double taxation and the duplication of services. “That was a landmark legislation,” Burgess says. “I’m very proud of the role we played.”
Attention to relationships between cities and counties has been an ongoing GMA concern. Burgess says the Service Delivery Strategy Act and the Comprehensive Planning Act helped bring cities and counties together as growth hit faster than either could pay for new services.
“It was key to understand that no one prospered when cities and counties were in conflict, and growth problems of development are never limited to a city or county boundary,” says the Fanning Institute’s Whorton.
GMA has been a strong force in the movement to revitalize downtowns. The association and its member cities worked with the Department of Community Affairs and with downtown development authorities and local historical groups to utilize DCA offerings such as the Main Street and Better Hometown Programs, established in the ’80s.
The GMA established its own Georgia Cities Foundation (GCF) in 1999, which, bolstered by matching donations from the Woodruff Foundation, provides loans to cities to reinvest in their downtowns.
During Jim Higdon’s tenure with the DCA he helped create a revolving loan program for cities.
“The GCF and DCA will both do a quarter million dollar loan at three percent, creating a half million dollar incentive that some developers say makes projects more feasible,” Higdon says. “Towns look at a variety of resources these days, especially Tax Allocation Districts like the one that created the $2 billion Atlantic Station in Atlanta. These loans are bringing people back to live downtown, which was unheard of 20 years ago.”
Tax Allocation Districts, or TADs, authorized in the mid-80s, make it possible for taxes collected above a certain threshold to be reserved for specific improvements, to help revitalize areas based on the increase in property value such investments will generate.
Such city-financed projects have blossomed of late: Roswell’s $33 million Riverwalk and Suwanee’s $18 million bond to purchase green space and create a town green are prime examples.
Outland says the city of Smyrna, which used a Tax Allocation District to literally build a new downtown, “broke the mold,” and now TAD-funded projects such as the Savannah Riverwalk Extension ($800 million) and Woodstock’s Town Center ($100 million) represent nearly $18 billion worth of investment around the state. “I remember in 1997 when Smyrna won the Urban Land Institute award for their project – some didn’t learn until the annual GMA meeting,” Outland says. “Then it was like, how can we build a downtown?”
“There’s been a re-awakening of the city center – first Smyrna, and now Stockbridge and Lawrenceville are creating them,” says the GMA’s Amy Henderson.
With the incorporation of Sandy Springs, the conservation-municipality Chattahoochee Hill Country, and other entities emerging on the political scene, citizens seem to be demanding a shift toward more “personalized” services that only locally elected leaders can anticipate. “Attention to detail is a hallmark of cities,” Outland says. “People want to see local results.”
Questions of accountability always are present in revitalization projects, especially when cities are trying to rejuvenate dilapidated areas.
“People want to know that their tax dollars are being spent in the city, and not pushed out,” Thornton says.
On a more human level, “broken” downtowns depress a city, while a vibrant downtown “provides a sense of community, and a sense of place,” Henderson says. The most popular GCF grant programs often involve revitalizing old theaters and train depots to kickstart interest, cultural or historical, in city centers.
It’s this kind of attention to the specifics and nuances of local needs that requires local control. There is no doubt that the quality of life Georgia city-dwellers enjoy would not exist without the GMA’s efforts; and yet the threat to its reach is as alive today as when it was formed.
Higdon regrets that the current move to do away with property taxes is a distraction from other issues. “We have a huge interest in the new [Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan], but unfortunately we’ve had to spend all our time fighting the challenge to property tax and home rule,” he says.
State leaders need to know that “cities really are an economic unit,” Outland says. “Look at the city of West Point. They took on a $17 million bond to accommodate the needs of the new KIA plant, when their annual budget is just $14 million. Across the state, you see the value of micro-economic units, or ‘micropolitans,’ that have a clustering effect. From Adele’s rail system to Thomasville, to Camilla, Cairo and Moultrie joining together to reduce the cost [for a telecommunications network], you see a significant impact cities can have on a regional basis.”
A new technology park in Social Circle, he adds, wouldn’t have made sense without UGA nearby in Athens, and the Ritz-Carlton resort in nearby Greensboro.
Relations among Georgia’s cities have not always been harmonious. Some smaller cities, frankly, disliked or mistrusted Atlanta. But Higdon says any bad feelings between Metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia dissipated in 2006 when Shirley Franklin became the first Atlanta mayor to serve as president of GMA since William Hartsfield held the office in the 1940s. “We don’t hear the negative comments about Atlanta we did years ago, in part because of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s leadership,” Higdon says. “She’ll tell you Atlanta can learn from other Georgia communities.”
Cities can also learn from Atlanta. Outland notes that other large “daytime population” cities such as Valdosta and Thomasville are struggling to keep up with the growth in their economies, as daytime workers and weekend shoppers require more services than their residential taxes can cover.
Even the retirement boom has helped create a situation where retirees may live outside a city but still place a great demand on services, particularly in the healthcare arena.
“There’s a challenge in communicating the value of cities in the context of a socioeconomic unit,” Outland says.
From planning and zoning boards to comprehensive land use plans, cities today are more prepared and more responsive to their citizens because of GMA efforts, not to mention the GMA network of shared knowledge that helps local leaders solve local problems, says former Camilla Mayor and former GMA President Jay Powell. “The problems I’ve faced have all been faced by someone else in Georgia at some point in time. By keeping the lines of communication open, we can see how others have responded to challenges.”
As the association evolves, the GMA network will prove invaluable to an increasing number of regional initiatives, too. “There has been legislation introduced to create regional entities with taxing authorities,” Higdon says. “I personally think we have to continue to think of regional management of our resources, and the more the state encourages that the better.”
Whether bringing presents to hospitalized children each Christmas as part of the GMA Mayor’s Motorcade, which the association has done since 1958, or reuniting in Savannah for Mayor’s Day each spring, GMA employees, alumni and affiliates have created a continuity of leadership that has been a stabilizing force in local economies. This may be the association’s greatest asset – uniting Georgians faced with steady change for 75 years.
The effectiveness and longevity of its leaders has been a plus: Elmer George served for 27 years, and Jim Burgess has worked with the GMA in some capacity since 1963. Jim Higdon’s long tenure at the DCA made for an easy transition to his role at GMA. “There is an incredible sense of connectivity within the GMA family,” Outland says.
“Thanks to the GMA, I can go anywhere in the state and meet someone I know,” says Bob Knox, Jr., mayor of Thomson and GMA president in 1983. He has been mayor of Thomson since 1978, following in the footsteps of his father, through whom he met George and became involved with the GMA.
“The GMA is a splendid municipal organization,” says Lillian Webb, another former GMA president who was a longtime mayor of Norcross. She says the most rewarding aspect of being president was “meeting different people all over the state.”