With all eyes focused on the pandemic, redistricting and the ever-important college football, it would be easy to miss the brewing fight to create the independent city of Buckhead, but make no mistake, it will be highly contentious and could ultimately dominate local news cycles.
For several years, there has been a growing effort in Buckhead to break away from Atlanta, but the movement has recently gained additional steam. Legislation has been filed to permit the people of Buckhead to vote to leave Atlanta. If approved, Buckhead could host a referendum on the question in 2022, but the legislation and subsequent referendum will face some serious resistance. So, why is this such a divisive topic?
Buckhead was not always part of Atlanta, but thanks to legislation in the early 1950s, Atlanta annexed the district. Decades later, Buckhead is a thriving, affluent community—littered with mansions and high-rises. But not all is well according to those leading the effort to create the city of Buckhead.
Buckhead City Committee (BCC) asserts that there are several issues driving the push to de-annex. “The City of Atlanta can no longer protect our residents,” their website reads. “Murders and other violent crimes are skyrocketing as Atlanta has lost hundreds of police officers in the last year.”
The BCC has a point about rampant crime. As I wrote in May of 2021, Atlanta “murders have increased by a whopping 60 percent, rapes by 47 percent, aggravated assault by 39 percent and auto theft by 30 percent.” Matters have deteriorated so much that the governor has expended emergency funds to improve the city’s public safety and the legislature may also get involved. Many in Buckhead feel that they could do a better job of improving their own public safety than the city of Atlanta.
Aside from the crime wave, “Buckhead gets very little return on investment for the amount of taxes that we pay to the City of Atlanta,” according to the BCC. Buckhead has a population of around 90,000, which comprises roughly 20 percent of Atlanta. Yet Buckhead represents about 40 percent of Atlanta’s assessed value—meaning the community pays the lion’s share of property taxes. But their residents don’t feel that they truly benefit from their investment and complain of deteriorating infrastructure. As someone who has spent plenty of time dodging potholes on West Paces Ferry, there may be some truth to this.
While the BCC highlights some other points undergirding their argument for cityhood, the bottom line is that it seems that they have no confidence in Atlanta’s leadership. They feel that they can govern themselves better, but in the end, perhaps the strongest case for the referendum is putting the decision in the people’s hands. In a country founded in part of democratic principles, it doesn’t seem like a radical notion to permit people to vote to decide their community’s future. In fact, according to a poll funded by the BCC, some 62 percent of Buckhead residents want to vote on the matter.
Even so, this doesn’t guarantee victory at the polls. In 2018, there was an effort to create the city of Eagle’s Landing out of part of Stockbridge—although the rationale seems different than in Buckhead’s case. When it came to a vote, residents soundly rejected it. It’s a cautionary tale for the Buckhead City movement, which is garnering serious opposition.
Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms opposes the measure as do many others. The largest concern is financial. Atlanta has come to rely on Buckhead’s income to fund other parts of the city and various services. If Atlanta were to lose this revenue, their budget “would be completely wrecked,” said Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University professor. Indeed, if Atlanta’s leadership is forced to fill a 40 percent gaping hole in the budget, then they will either have to cut vital services or substantially raise taxes on less affluent parts of Atlanta.
What’s more, some have questioned how much of Atlanta’s debt Buckhead will assume if it achieves cityhood and how Buckhead’s citizens will make use of public infrastructure when it’s owned by the city of Atlanta. Fair questions, but it seems that these are issues that could be settled in negotiation.
Time will tell what happens to Buckhead’s bid for cityhood. It still has a long way to go before it can become a reality, but that hasn’t dampened enthusiasm. “Buckhead residents have finally said, ‘Enough is enough.’ So we filed for divorce,” explained BCC CEO. Like many divorces, this promises to get messy, and you should expect plenty of parties to air dirty laundry.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.