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Legislature likely to punt annexation issue

ATLANTA - The General Assembly may be about to put the brakes on legislation that has aggravated an ongoing tug of war between cities and counties over annexation.

A House subcommittee on Tuesday tabled a statewide bill introduced by Rep. Doug Holt, R-Covington, and delayed acting on a second more narrowly drawn measure brought by the freshman.

After almost an hour of discussion, the panel's members welcomed a suggestion by Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, that the Legislature handle the second bill by declaring a moratorium on annexations by four Georgia cities with independent school districts until lawmakers can study the issue further.

The bill would apply to the school systems in Buford, Atlanta, Social Circle and Vidalia.

"That's an acceptable result,'' Holt said after the subcommittee heard testimony from supporters and opponents of both bills.

"By bringing these two bills, I raised a valid question. ... We're going to address the issue.''

The dispute stems from legislation the General Assembly passed two years ago allowing county officials to delay annexations being pursued by neighboring cities for up to 150 days while they submit their objections to a mediator.

However, since the mediation is nonbinding, cities have the final say over annexations.

"It took the partnership out of the negotiations,'' Newton County Commission Chairman Aaron Varner told the subcommittee. "Cities aren't bound to do anything. Counties can delay it, but we can't stop it.''

Holt's statewide bill, the Fair Annexation Act, would prohibit cities from annexing unincorporated areas of counties receiving county services without the affected county's approval.

It also would target annexations for the sole purpose of enhancing a city's tax base rather than "community building,'' instances where the area being annexed already is a natural extension of an adjacent city.

In a concession to the Georgia Municipal Association, Holt last week agreed to a provision allowing cities to appeal county votes against an annexation to binding arbitration.

But Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, a member of the subcommittee, said the bill still would move the balance of power between cities and counties too far toward counties.

"We've got a bill here that gives counties veto power,'' he said.

It was Meadows, a former small-town mayor, who made the motion to table the statewide bill, suggesting that representatives of the GMA sit down with advocates for county governments and resolve their differences.

Holt's second bill is aimed at preventing cities with independent school districts that spill over into an adjacent county from undertaking an annexation without that county's approval.

The Buford district has annexed portions of Hall County in recent years, and Gwinnett County officials have long accused their counterparts in Buford of harboring notions of annexing the Mall of Georgia property.

Holt said he has heard from sources he would not name that Social Circle is eying a commercially valuable corridor in Newton County.

He said such an annexation would hurt the county school district.

"The tax parcels (would) get removed from the school system's tax digest,'' he said.

Social Circle Mayor Jim Burgess said his city isn't considering such a move.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the bill, Smith suggested that the Legislature create a study committee to examine the issue and make recommendations. In the meantime, he said, a temporary moratorium could be put in place to prevent cities with independent school systems from doing annexations until the General Assembly acts.

"Great idea,'' said Jim Grubiak, legislative counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. "That would be the pressure needed to get the parties together.''