In 2018, Fulton County leaders want to focus on fixing things.
The property tax system, which was inundated with complaints about too-high assessments. The elections system, which has been plagued by errors that often lead to slow returns. And the jail, which has a stubbornly high inmate count, despite attempts to reduce the population.
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On top of that, county leaders still expect to spend millions of dollars upgrading libraries, expanding water treatment plants and fixing buildings with leaky roofs, slow elevators or malfunctioning heating and cooling systems. Those are all projects that are already in the works.
It will all cost money: an estimated $964.7 million, which is a 2.7 percent decrease from the 2017 budget.
The amount of spending in the general fund, though, is up 0.8 percent, to $666.9 million.
Because Fulton County is losing $20 million in revenue from a local option sales tax that will go to the government of the new city of Renaissance, county leaders had to find ways to make up some of the lost money. They plan to do so in two ways: by eliminating half of the vacant positions at the county, and by setting a county tax rate that allows the government to take in more money as property values rise.
The actual tax rate won’t be known until next year, but the county is planning for a 4 percent increase in property tax revenue, between value increases and new construction. The tax rate will likely be set in a way that means residents will pay more in property tax, even if the value of their house remains the same.
Dick Anderson, the county manager, said the money will go toward improvements that residents will notice.
“We’re really zeroing in our focus on three core processes,” he said. “They touch every citizen in some shape or form.”
The county will spend $7 million to conduct elections in 2018, and some of that money will go toward reviewing the system to see if there are any choke points that can be fixed, or other issues that need to be addressed. About $300,000 will pay for new equipment to handle mailed-in paper ballots.
Efforts to reduce the jail population will get a $5.5 million boost, part of what is known as the justice reinvestment initiative. The money, which comes from cost under runs in the court system, will pay for a pre-arrest diversion program, linking behavioral health treatments to the jail and other programs that could help keep people from being incarcerated.
It is the third year the county is investing in the program. In the past, money has gone toward reducing the backlog of cases, in order to get people out of the system more quickly.
And $3.4 million will be spent to map the property tax process, to add customer service employees, more assessors and other workers and to upgrade technology, including the tax appraiser’s website.
The proposed budget is preliminary, and county commissioners will have to vote in January to pass it.
Anderson said the county is trying to become more disciplined in how it spends its money. The government usually spends about 5 percent less money than it budgets, and Anderson hopes to cut some of that slack out of the system.
In addition to the aforementioned projects, the budget will fund countywide services like libraries and courts, and will pay for an investment into Grady Memorial Hospital. Though the number of employees has decreased as some departments move to the newly incorporated city of Renaissance, Sharon Whitmore, the county’s chief financial officer, said the notion that the county is shrinking because more cities have formed is wrong.
“We’re still providing services county wide,” she said. “Our countywide footprint doesn’t change when incorporation happens.”
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