Fulton County has begun building the first of eight new libraries even thoughcounty officials aren’t sure how they’ll pay to operate them when they begin opening next year.
With property tax revenue expected to be flat and county commissioners unable to raise the tax rate thanks to new state legislation, they may be forced to trim library hours or cut spending elsewhere to find the $8 million a year it’s expected to cost to run the new facilities.
Commissioners appear in no hurry to make a decision. “I think we’ve got some time,” said Commissioner Bill Edwards, whose South Fulton district will get two new libraries.
But Commissioner Robb Pitts wants his colleagues to start a serious discussion of the library funding problem immediately.
“Let’s not say we were not aware of this,” Pitts said. “I bring this up at every opportunity.”
Funding for the new libraries is just one financial liability that could cause Fulton County trouble next year. Rising obligations for Grady Hospital and employee pensions and health care also could cost millions of dollars more. Those challenges come as Fulton is still recovering from the Great Recession, which decimated real estate values and sapped property tax revenue.
In addition, the General Assembly recently approved legislation prohibiting commissioners from raising property tax rates for the next two years. And a proposal to be taken up by the state Senate next year would grant Fulton homeowners property tax relief but cost the county about $48 million in revenue.
Despite its challenges, the county has managed to balance its budget by dipping deeply into reserves. But those reserves are not bottomless. Recently Fitch Ratings lowered Fulton’s credit rating, in part because of concerns about its dwindling reserves.
Such concerns were still in the future in 2008 when Fulton voters approved plans to borrow $275 million to build and renovate libraries.
The plans call for spending $167 million initially to build eight new libraries and expand two others. A second phase would involve spending $108 million to renovate 23 existing branches and build a new central library.
Since 2008 the county has been scouting locations and hiring architects and contractors. The May 30 groundbreaking for the Wolf Creek branch near College Park was the first for the new libraries, which are scheduled to begin opening in July 2014 and continue into 2015.
Despite persistent complaints by some residents that Fulton spends too much money, its libraries remain popular. Last year the county’s 33 branches drew 3.9 million visitors – up 5 percent from 2011.
“We have lines of people waiting to get into the library, especially on the weekends,” said Keisha Sawyer, president of Friends of the South Fulton Library. The branch is slated for an expansion in the first phase of library construction.
The voter-approved money will pay for construction and acquiring books and other materials for the libraries. But it won’t cover staffing and other operating costs when they open.
With money tight, the county has several options for covering the costs. It could delay construction to postpone the new costs, cut library hours (which vary by branch) or reduce spending elsewhere in the county budget.
Chairman John Eaves said commissioners are not likely to delay construction of popular libraries. But he said a reduction in hours is possible, as are cuts to other spending.
I think everything is on the table for consideration,” Eaves said.
Edwards said one possibility is to reduce the county’s $50 million commitment to Grady Hospital. But he stopped short of endorsing such a cut, saying he was “using Grady as an example.”
Even Pitts, who is pressing for some decisions, isn’t offering specifics.
“I’m not at a point where I’m going to pit the libraries against health care or human services or the arts or all these things people get upset about,” Pitts said. “But everything is going to be on the table.”
Eaves said a final decision on how to pay for library operations may not come until the commission finalizes its budget next January. But he said the libraries are likely to get their money, one way or another.
“Our citizens wanted (the libraries), and we want to deliver that,” he said.
Fulton County is building eight new libraries. Here’s what’s being built, with the projects’ construction budgets and scheduled grand openings.
Alpharetta — New 25,000-square-foot branch, $8.4 million, October 2014
East Roswell — New 15,000-square-foot branch, $4.9 million, July 2014
Milton — New 25,000-square-foot branch, $7.7 million, October 2014
Northwest Atlanta — New 25,000-square-foot branch, $8 million, to be determined
Palmetto — New 10,000-square-foot branch $3.7 million, July 2014
Southeast Atlanta — New 15,000-square-foot branch, $5.1 million, to be determined
Stewart-Lakewood — New 25,000-square-foot branch, $8.1 million, to be determined
Wolf Creek — New 25,000-square-foot branch, $7.9 million, July 2014