Buckhead City Committee Chair Bill White, at far left, stands with cityhood attorney Bill Riley and Sen. Randy Robertson (R-Cataula), the sponsor of two Buckhead cityhood bills, at the Feb. 22 hearing of the State and Local Government Operations Committee. The committee is expected to vote Monday, Feb. 27, on whether or not to send the cityhood bills to the Rules Committee. (Screen capture Georgia Senate)

Buckhead residents who want the affluent North Atlanta neighborhood to become its own city packed a committee hearing this week to vent about crime and urge lawmakers to let them vote to secede from the city of Atlanta.

The Feb. 22 State and Local Government Operations Committee meeting was the second hearing on Buckhead cityhood. Senate Bill 114, if approved by the General Assembly, would put a referendum on the November 2024 ballot to allow Buckhead residents to vote to secede from Atlanta. It also details how the proposed city would be set up. Senate Bill 113 outlines how government services and facilities would be transferred from Atlanta to the proposed Buckhead City.

Residents who want Buckhead to de-annex from Atlanta weren’t concerned with the details in the bills, unlike testimony presented at last week’s SLOGO hearing by cityhood opponents. Instead, residents called Buckhead a “cesspool of crime and drugs and street racing,” alleged Atlanta was negligent in protecting the community, and repeated how they were fearful in their homes and neighborhoods. They also demanded they be allowed to vote on incorporating Buckhead as its own city.

“This violence has reached a tipping point and that is why we are all here,” said Kelly Rodts. She said she realized how much crime was happening in her neighborhood on Peachtree Battle Avenue after joining a “crime alert text chain.”

Dozens of people raise their hands at a Feb. 22 Senate committee hearing to show their support for Buckhead to secede from the city of Atlanta. (Screen shot Georgia Senate)

“Buckhead is a target for criminals in the city,” she said. “We are sitting ducks, and if you want to be kitschy, we’re sitting bucks.”

“For a state obsessed with voter rights, I find it appalling that this chamber would even consider denying the residents of Buckhead the right to vote,” Rodts said to applause.

Niko Karatassos is co-owner of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group whose venues include Atlanta Fish Market, Chops Lobster Bar, Kyma, and Pricci. He told the committee his restaurants serve 700,000 people a year, most of them Buckhead residents.

“I’m here to tell you something about Atlanta. It’s not united. It’s divided,” he said. “It’s divided on the opinion and approach of policy on crime and cops.

“I’ve personally spoken to hundreds of people on this issue, and I’ll tell you what, it’s not unanimous that they all want to have Buckhead as a city,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what is unanimous by all these Buckhead residents, they want the opportunity to vote on it.”

Some opponents of the Buckhead cityhood bills did speak out at the Feb. 22 hearing to explain how de-annexing a big chunk of Atlanta would create havoc with city taxes and debt obligations and leave thousands of students in the Atlanta Public Schools system in limbo.

Rusi Patel of the Georgia Municipal Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for all of the state’s municipalities, said if the Buckhead cityhood legislation were to move forward, it would tell the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation and Atlanta firefighters that the city should not proceed on building the $90 million public safety training center in the South River Forest.

“The reason is this legislation (SB 113) talks about splitting things on ‘pro rata basis’,” he said. “And it talks about splitting things outside the city limits on a pro rata basis, so the city of Atlanta would be told to not proceed on this because if you do and you build buildings, we could cut that in half [with Buckhead City] and make you sell it and you would be wasting money.”

SB 113 discusses how Buckhead City would repay general obligation bonds, but not revenue bonds, pointed out Sen. Jason Esteves (D-Atlanta), who is on the SLOGO committee. Without Buckhead’s payment of revenue bonds, the Atlanta BeltLine could face a budget shortfall, Esteves said.

Attorney Robbie Ashe, a partner at Bondurant Mixson, said his practice focuses on local government and constitutional issues.

“I’ve probably argued more of those to the Georgia Supreme Court than anyone else over the last decade,” he said. “And there are a number of places where this legislation poses serious constitutional problems that will result in more employment for me should it become law.”

A major issue that is not addressed is water and sewer, Ashe said.

“Water and sewer systems follow geographic boundaries, not political boundaries,” he said.

The city’s system serves as the cornerstone of the regional system for decades and provides water and sewer service to 1.2 million people on a daily basis, he said.

“It’s not just the city of Atlanta itself,” he said. “There is no separate bucket system that could be taken out and left alone without an impact on the rest of the regional system. And to give it to an entity that has no experience is too risky to significant environmental issues downstream.”

Sen. Ginn said the committee would meet Monday, Feb. 27, to discuss the bills and vote on whether or not to send them to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee then votes to send the bills to the Senate floor. The bills would need at least 29 of the 56 senators to vote in favor before they would be sent to the House for a vote.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.