Battle On Over Fulton County’s Budget

I wrote last year about Georgia legislation [AJC Paywall] that capped Fulton County’s property tax ‘millage’ rate and limited its ability to increase that rate. This legislation reached the Republican-controlled House because the Fulton County delegation in the legislature was transformed by redrawn legislative districts to yield a Republican majority in both House and Senate (in a county that voted by 2/3 for Obama over Romney!). At the time, Fulton County officials denounced the attack on home rule and the fact that north Fulton Republican legislators were enlisting their partisan allies across the state to manage Fulton County’s affairs.

That battle just got serious, as Michelle Wirth writes for WABE Atlanta.

After hearing protests over the prospect of $4 million in cuts to senior services, $27 million to Grady Hospital (the public health resource of last resort for the county’s poor and uninsured), and $7 million to libraries, the Democratic controlled Board of Commissioners in Fulton County has defied the legislature by enacting a 15% millage rate hike in their 2014 budget.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones (representing a north Fulton constituency that would like to separate itself into a new county) invoked the legislation, the state constitution, and the favor of Attorney General Sam Olens who, as a former Commissioner of adjacent Cobb County, certainly shares her antipathy to taxation and the public sector:

“That law, which I authored last year, was passed and it is based on a local constitutional amendment that was passed in the 50s, reauthorized in the 80s, and unequivocally, definitively gives the legislature the authority to stop the Fulton County Commission from raising its millage rate.”

Representative Jones is currently in talks with legislative legal counsel and plans to speak with Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. She says if county commissioners finalize the millage rate later this year , there will be consequences.

Democratic Fulton Board of Commissioners Chair John Eaves seemed prepared to pick a fight over the legislation on home rule grounds:

“If it has to come down to some sort of legal fight, we’ll do it. Our sovereignty as a local jurisdiction is at stake, and we’re not going to allow state legislators who are a step removed from local residents to dictate what we’re going to do.”

Honestly, the north Fulton contingent in the legislature has made considerable progress in its “shrink Fulton County Government to bathtub-size” agenda and seems sufficiently committed to see it through. For Eaves and his allies to reverse the trend politically, they need only (1) for Democrats to retake the legislature (2) coincidental to a redistricting period (3) and commit to a legislative agenda whose principal constituency is African Americans in Atlanta and south Fulton and that therefore threatens to alienate white suburban moderates. In the hundred or so years it might take for those things to happen, the County might as well go to court.

“Unspoken” By Whom?

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflects on the fact that virtually all–45 of 46–of the elected officials in recently incorporated metro Atlanta cities are white. Reporters Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy tiptoe around the racial unbalance of the new cities, affluent and white-majority portions of counties where whites are not a majority. They note that the disproportionate whiteness of local government is causing some people to wonder if race was a motivating factor, while giving equal time to officials of the new cities and advocates for incorporating more white-majority cities who claim a color-blind racial innocence.

What’s more galling, however, than this brand of wishy-washy balance, is the way that Torpy and Edwards construe the controversy as new:

But one impact of new cities in metro Atlanta has gone largely unspoken: all have led to elected governments that are almost entirely white in counties where whites are no longer a majority.

The problem with the “largely unspoken” claim is that it’s utter and complete bull. Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus opposed the incorporation of Sandy Springs for years, charging that the incorporation was an effort to create a white-controlled city and to protect the affluent area from annexation by Atlanta’s black-majority government. The incorporation only passed in 2005 after the Republican takeover of both houses of the General Assembly. After the affluent and white-majority cities of Milton, Johns Creek, and Chattahoochee Hills in Fulton County and Dunwoody in DeKalb County incorporated, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Reverend Joseph Lowery sued under the Voting Rights Act to demand that the cities be legally dissolved precisely on the grounds that the new cities would make it impossible for minority residents of those cities to have effective political representation.

The suit, Lowery v. Deal, was dismissed by the district court and an appeal failed to win in the Circuit Court. I’ve written about the suit here, and will have an article published at some point in the future in the Journal of Urban Affairs dealing with the racial dynamics of local government in Fulton County. I won’t spoil the plot, but I argue that white suburbanites have, just as much as they resisted residential integration out of fear of having black neighbors on their block, resisted political community with African Americans because of stereotypical understandings of black-led government as profligate, corrupt, and accountable exclusively to black interests. This form of racial antipathy, which focused on the presence of black people in city hall, undergirded resistance to annexation of Sandy Springs by Atlanta in 1966 and a three-decade movement to incorporate the area. Today it undergirds efforts to reduce the scope and power of Fulton County government and to separate north Fulton in a new Milton County. Color-blind rhetoric about efficiency and responsiveness of local government are intelligible to voters in the context of this racialized set of assumptions about black-led governments. So my argument is that the whiteness of local government in these cities is, if not the whole point of incorporation, a major motivating factor. It’s unfortunate that the AJC gives equal time to disingenuous denials of this political reality. 

But it’s more disappointing that the AJC fails to acknowledge its own complicity in making the charge of racial exclusion “unspoken”. The paper offered no substantive coverage of the claims made in Lowery while the suit was pending. If the arguments of the most influential group of black elected officials in the state, along with one of the most influential leaders of the ongoing movement for black freedom and civil rights, have been ignored by a major metropolitan paper, it is a clear indication that arguments on race made by nonwhites are not unspoken so much as unheard.

More on the Sharing Economy

Thorough analysis by Tom Slee in Jacobin of the controversy surrounding municipal regulation of short-term rental-by-owner and ride-share companies, something I’ve discussed, albeit more briefly and considerably less diplomatically.

I think the key to understanding the issue is to think about the way that the highly capitalized tech companies are deploying a self-representation that brings them into line with a legacy of community cooperative enterprises:

the sharing economy invokes images of neighbourhoods, villages, and “human-scale” interactions. Instead of buying from a mega-store, we get to share with neighbours.

that obscures their motive: extracting profit by opening unregulated markets in housing and labor:

Lyft moved instead to offer something closer to an alternative taxi: they kept the language of sharing in the company slogan “Your friend with a car,” but Lyft is now clearly positioned as a source of income for its drivers, who increasingly look like employees who have to supply their own cars. Uber started off as tech-driven limo service, but has moved into the “sharing” space to cut prices.

Both Uber and Lyft have adopted controversial tactics like “surge pricing,” in which the price of a ride rises in busy times or during bad weather conditions in order to attract more drivers on the road, a move that places market incentives at the center of their business model. While Lyft originally called its fares “donations,” it has now abandoned the pretense.

And, while the companies’ rhetoric merges the legacy of urban cooperatives with the gloss of technological innovation, they’re certainly not above some good old-fashioned exploitation of people on the fringes of the labor market.

The Google-funded house cleaning service Homejoy is a partner of Peers, but its cleaners are, according to Forbes, people who need to show proof of employment to receive government assistance, recruited through municipal employment services. Meanwhile delivery giant DHL has launched itsMyWays delivery service, powered by “people who want to deliver parcels and earn some extra money.” TaskRabbit and others call their workers “micro-entrepreneurs,” but that is a poor description of precarious piecework. The preferred phrasing of “extra money” harks back to women’s jobs of 40 years ago. And like those jobs, they don’t come with things like insurance protection, job security, benefits — none of that old economy stuff.

As Slee makes clear, the sharing economy is a particular sector of the new metropolitan economy that is driven by the consumption choices of affluent and networked professionals. The companies don’t facilitate the sharing of skills or resources among equal members of a community, they exploit employees made more desperate by the collapse of living wages and the arms race in the cost of food and housing driven by the consumption power of the wealthy. Cooperative enterprise certainly has a place in many imaginations of better urban living, and indeed there are many historical examples of it that we can draw on today. The sharing economy isn’t one of them.

Thesis: Metropolitics Killed Moderation in the Two-Party South

In their 2002 work The Rise of Southern Republicans, political scientists Earl and Merle Black assessed the shift of white conservatives into the core of the Republican base and the GOP’s success in peeling white moderates from Democratic candidates. Given the significance of affluent suburbanites as a swing bloc, Black and Black predicted decreased sway for conservatives over Republican policy and ideology. In a prediction that might strike a reader as bitterly funny from today’s vantage, they wrote:

to attract more moderates into the party, Republican politicians and officeholders would need to emphasize matters they usually ignore or deemphasize. A more sympathetic understanding of issues that appeal to women and environmental groups, more nuanced positions on abortion, a greater sensitivity to the practical side of governing, and above all, perhaps, a greater concern for improving public education might help the Republicans with these groups.(1)

As it turned out, while the Blacks had clearly tracked trends in partisan alignment, voter preferences in national elections, and Congressional and Senate races, they missed important trends in metropolitics. While metropolitan conflicts are particular and vary from metro to metro and state to state, events like the tax revolt in Fulton County in the early 1990s are crucial to understanding how the GOP finally consolidated its edge in Presidential elections in the South (since 1964 interrupted only by Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976) into control of the increasingly influential state legislatures by the early 2000s. Understanding the bottom-up building of the Georgia Republican Party as a process significantly (though certainly not exclusively) rooted in Fulton County metropolitics helps to explain the failure of their prediction of moderation. As the tax revolt mobilized north Fulton Republicans, it also caused them to view the kinds of “moderate” and quintessentially suburban issues through a particular lens–of the imagined expropriation of their resources by a county government controlled by Black Democrats.

As leaders of the Fulton tax revolt became leaders in county and state Republican politics, they did not abandon the suburban moderate agenda as much as they reconfigured it to fit the frame of zero-sum and racially polarized metropolitics. Public education has been notionally defended through reform regimes that substitute tight labor discipline for material equity and preserve segregation. Environmental protection has been refigured through the quality of life concerns of north Fulton suburbanites angered that county authorities have allowed more intensive land uses (while ignoring the county’s role in steering business and infrastructure development to north Fulton). Even abortion politics have been reconfigured away from the question of prohibition to the question of poor (and implicitly Black) women’s access to abortions through publicly funded facilities or public regulation of private insurance. And in particular, an emphasis on “practical governing” took the form of privatism that presented the inherent ease of governing an affluent area as a result of efficiency and discipline, and the inverse, a rhetorical club with which to bash Black urban Democrats.

As a urbanist who studies the relatively recent metropolitan past, I think it’s important to consider carefully the cross-cutting influence of national and metropolitan and local politics, and particularly the organization of parties and priorities at the state level. Work like the Blacks’ does demonstrate the rapid and transformative nature of the South’s partisan realignment, and books like Matt Lassiter’s The Silent Majority particularly focus our attention on the significance of suburban voters, not only as a swing bloc but as a structural check on the ideological and policy approaches of both parties in the rise and fall of the Great Society. Writing about the times and places they studied, all are correct in arguing for suburban votes as a force for some moderation. But that tendency is not inherent.  The devolution of social spending power from Federal to state governments (and suburban-led initiatives to enhance the power of states relative to big cities) heightened the stakes of metropolitics in the 1980s, making them more polarized by race and by party at the same time as metropolitan areas became more influential in state politics.


(1) Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002), 228-229.

Good Thing It’s Not About Race

It’s understandable why some thoughtful people would prefer to interpret the controversy over Detroit’s emergency management arrangements and bankruptcy (conditions imposed by a Republican-dominated state government) in terms of balanced budgets, lean expenses, and local fiscal responsibility. Doing so helps both white racists and liberals avoid addressing how and why race has tracked so closely with the fiscal and social fates of Michigan’s cities and the hostility of one of the state’s political parties toward them.

One man is willing to face the issue head on: Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who I suppose is envisioning launching rations by catapult across Eight Mile.

“I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and the corn.’”

More on Patterson here, in the New Yorker article that first published his remarks.

Neoliberalism in US Antipoverty Policy

Although Lyndon Johnson made particular efforts to focus on Appalachia as a referent for white rural deprivation when launching the War on Poverty, the touchstone documents of antipoverty policy, including the Moynihan Report and the Kerner Commission Report, along with the influential studies of William Julius Wilson, have encouraged Americans to figure poverty as a spatial and particularly urban problem.

Many studies have evaluated the political relationships between urban governments and Washington in the implementation of the early phases of the War on Poverty. But the ascendancy of the market as a means both of disciplining urban governments and populations and encouraging capital accumulation as the preferred (and today, virtually exclusive) antipoverty device is a particularly urgent question as the transition to neoliberal political economy becomes less the domain of political theorists and critical geographers and historians claim some territory in the recent past.

Here are two reads on the subject.

Sam Wetherell, writing in Jacobin, examines the transatlantic rise of the urban enterprise zone, a neoliberal spatial intervention whose influence is out of proportion to its demonstrated effectiveness in reducing poverty. This suggests, of course, that it’s not a failed solution to the problem of poverty as much as a successful solution to a concurrent problem. Identifying President Obama’s recently announced “Promise Zone” initiative as a reiteration of Reagan- and Thatcherite spatial reforms that liberated property in defined urban districts from regulation and taxes (though Obama’s version has a culture war sop to encouraging marriage that suggests an unholy union of Jack Kemp and Charles Murray), Wetherell argues that

The Promise Zones announced this week are only the latest in a long line of spatial policies designed to benefit market forces rather than meet people’s needs and reduce structural inequality.

And Tracy Neumann looks to the frequently-overlooked Carter administration for the roots of American neoliberal urban policy in the Journal of Urban History.

GM, Flint, and Metropolitan Organization

Check this new article by Andrew Highsmith in the Journal of Urban History (while you’re at it, you can check out my article on the San Fernando Valley secession movement)
Highsmith complicates the narrative of capital flight established in many classic histories of Michigan’s auto cities by arguing that General Motors sought not so much to flee the Flint area as to leverage surrounding suburban governments to pursue metropolitan consolidation. 
These events also complicate the public choice theories of competitive localism that follow from Paul Peterson’s City Limits, which would predict that a major employer would prefer fragmented government to increase its leverage over whatever municipality housed its facilities. 
I’m thinking about how to apply some of this insight to the case of Atlanta in the 1970s. Although Atlanta wasn’t a one-company town like Flint, it did have a centrally organized business elite that was deeply enmeshed in metropolitics debates on two planes–should businesses invest in booming outlying areas or defend downtown? and should they seek consolidation of regional governments or enhance suburban autonomy?–that neither the mechanistic logic of public choice nor the historical trope of disinvestment adequately recognize.