ATLANTA – Atlanta’s recently elected mayor unveiled a new police precinct in the city’s large Buckhead district on Thursday, as he tries to head off an effort to turn the wealthy, white enclave into its own city over concerns about a spike in crime.
Meanwhile, a bill at the state Capitol that would allow residents of Buckhead to vote on secession suffered a setback.
The Buckhead City movement is being led by a business consultant and political fundraiser who has cited the crime surge to argue that Buckhead residents would be safer with their own police force and municipal court system.
Some opponents see racial politics at play. Secession would leave poorer, Black communities in Atlanta. The loss of Buckhead — a tony area of multimillion-dollar mansions and high-end retail shops — would be a financial blow that would diminish the city’s clout.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who was sworn in this month, has made retaining the area a central focus of his early days in office, though he insisted on Thursday that the new police precinct was not part of that effort.
The precinct, scheduled to be operational by summer, is expected to have at least 12 officers who will mostly deal with traffic calls, allowing other officers in Buckhead to focus on patrolling their beats and responding faster to crime, officials said.
It is a block from a Dior store and next to a St. Regis hotel on a busy strip of restaurants and shops.
Bill White, who is leading the drive for secession as chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, said the precinct is too little, too late. Buckhead needs far more police officers, along with better garbage service and lower taxes, White said in a phone interview ahead of Dickens' precinct announcement.
The district has a population of roughly 90,000 people — about a fifth of the city's residents — but it's also a magnet for shoppers, diners and workers from around the region that swell those numbers. The Buckhead City Committee said it has experienced a disproportionate increase in robberies, assaults and other crime. The committee has also raised concerns about potential zoning changes increasing housing density and says the district doesn't get infrastructure funding commensurate with its large tax contribution to the city.
Critics say that beyond the racial subtext, secession would create a slew of thorny problems that would be hard or impossible to resolve.
Tom Gehl, with the Georgia Municipal Association, said credit rating agencies are watching the effort closely over fears it could lead other cities in the state to break apart, disrupting the tax base used to finance debt.
“Bottom line: Should Buckhead City legislation pass, it’s quite likely that the credit rating agencies could easily downgrade municipal bonds in Georgia, which essentially just raises the borrowing costs to taxpayers and cities across the state,” he told state lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday.
The hearing was organized by members of the state Legislature who represent Atlanta and are opposed to secession. Two bills for the referendum at the state Capitol are sponsored by Republican lawmakers from outside the city.
Other opponents raised concerns about apportioning debt and the education of thousands of students who currently are part of the city school system.
White said Buckhead would cover its financial obligations to Atlanta, and his committee has come up with plans to address the debt and school concerns. He expressed confidence that state lawmakers would approve a referendum.
“It’s a very sad, sad day in Georgia when we can’t have a bipartisan agreement to give people who are demanding the right to vote simply that right,” he said.
But prospects for the referendum bill in the state Senate dimmed Thursday after Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan assigned it to a committee made up of Democrats that is unlikely to advance it.
A similar bill in the state House also faces an uncertain future. Georgia’s powerful House Speaker, David Ralston, has raised concerns the referendum could set a bad precedent.
Dickens said Thursday that Buckhead residents who are angry with the crime surge have a “real gripe," and he vowed to restore their trust. He touted his ties to the district, saying he lived there for about 17 years and his daughter goes to school and works at a restaurant there.
“We will be one city with one bright future,” he said.