Fayette’s missing puzzle piece


There are always plenty of issues present in Fayette County, from political to economic to lifestyle. And there is much to talk about in Fayette and the variable components wrapped up in its future.

Yet there is a missing component, in fact a significant component, which seems to always fly below the radar. This component is one of the issues being addressed in the ongoing Fayette Visioning Initiative.

But first things first. Fayette County is on the cusp of an incremental but steady increase in economic growth unlike anything it has seen before. This will come as new endeavors such as Pinewood Atlanta Studios evolve. It will take some time but it is already beginning to happen.

Fayette enjoys Georgia’s second highest median family income level, the second highest median home/condo prices and one of the state’s best school systems.

And while the tendency to boast about such statistics exists and can often be heard in government and civic settings, there is an underlying component that does not bode well for Fayette’s future.

A missing piece of the puzzle in Fayette’s future may not be taboo to mention, but it is at least politically very incorrect. So be it.

That missing piece rests with the reality that, on the main, Fayette has not been able to attract young families or couples who will be starting those young families.

An example of this reality came at a recent governmental meeting where one of the public speakers noted that the birth of a child in their subdivision had been cause for a celebration among the residents.

This was not a senior subdivision. As the years passed, this subdivision had transformed into one populated by older adults.

A big reason why many young couples do not move here: home prices. The very thing that makes Fayette so desirable for so many well-established families to move here is the very thing that many young families, or young couples who want to start a family, simply cannot afford.

The high home prices across Fayette County, even in the face of the Great Recession, are out of the reach of many young couples and young families.

This is nothing new since, historically, a large number of families moving into Fayette do so when their children are in the higher grades in elementary school or already in middle school or beyond. This fact of life has been noted at several school board meetings.

The reason is simple: fed by the economic engines of Atlanta and Hartsfield, Fayette’s population increase over the past few decades has included significant numbers of people already established in their jobs and earning a higher income so that when transferred to metro Atlanta they can afford to move into Fayette with its higher home prices and mortgages.

Once already-established families are here, some of them do continue to have more kids, but the school system enrollment numbers speak for themselves.

Fayette schools have lost more than 2,000 kids since 2007. We broke even last year but, even with the local economy beginning to rebound, we lost another 300 this year.

A loss of kids translates into fewer state dollars coming to the school system — $1 million for every 250 students. A 2011 enrollment study by the Carl Vinson Institute at UGA showed Fayette losing another 1,650 students by 2021. With current enrollment now at the level seen in 2000-2001, Fayette has already lost a dozen years of enrollment growth.

If the study is correct, and I hope it’s not, Fayette by 2021 will have lost a quarter-century of enrollment. The 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimate shows 24.3 percent of Fayette residents under age 18. That’s down from 29 percent in 2000.

The after-effects of the recession are waning, yet even with decreased home prices brought on by the recession making housing here temporarily more affordable, Fayette is still losing enrollment. And as home prices rise, it makes affording our prices even more out of reach for many.

Those of you reading this column might reflect of your economic status when you were in your 20s. How many of you could have afforded to make the mortgage payments on the home you live in today?

There is another facet of the education equation. It rests on the flip side of the age and income coin.

The 2012 census estimate shows that 14.6 percent of Fayette’s population is 65 years of age or older while the state average is 11.5 percent.

(Compare Fayette’s numbers to Forsyth – the state’s most affluent county with the highest income and housing prices and the top school system — with 10.2 percent).

Add to Fayette’s numbers the Atlanta Regional Commission estimate from 2008 forecasting that Fayette County, with the third fastest growing senior population in the 10-county ARC area, will increase its senior population by 450 percent by 2040.

You read it right – 450 percent. Even if the recession altered those numbers, anyone interested in a glimpse of Fayette in the near-term future can do the math on that one to see just how the ranks of seniors will alter the age demographics of this county in the next couple of decades.

After all, no other age group or combination of age groups can compare to those numbers.

Simply put, Fayette at this point is slowly turning into a retirement community. And that’s fine, except for the school system.

Back in 2000, 43.1 percent of Fayette County households included children. By 2010 that figure had dropped to 36.3 percent.

For Fayette’s highly-vaunted school system this translates into cold cash. Seniors still pay the full price on city and county property taxes, but they pay only half, and sometimes none, of the school system property taxes that people under age 65 pay.

And for those of you who think seniors should continue to pay the full tax rate until they drop dead, consider whether you would like to take on that growing group who have already paid the full property tax rate all their lives.

This is also the age demographic who go to the polls in higher numbers should the matter go to a referendum.

With a school system large or small, it can still be a premiere system. The underlying issue is that, as Fayette’s population continues to age, there must be a way to attract young couples and families to re-populate the county.

Many in Fayette proclaim that they do not want starter homes or apartments. The rationale for that perspective is sometimes clear and above board while, for others, it is shrouded in perspectives linked to affluence or race. In my line of work I’ve heard both perspectives, and I hear them often.

The time has come for a new conversation about attracting young couples and young families to Fayette County.

Perhaps the Fayette Visioning Initiative can tackle the problem of Fayette’s missing puzzle piece.

[Ben Nelms is a reporter for The Citizen.]