Critics have claimed for decades that Fulton County is bloated, inefficient and irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.
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What’s wrong with Fulton County — and what’s not
Frustrations with the Fulton County government have sparked a movement to re-form old Milton County and led four communities to form new cities. Fulton’s supporters, however, say the state’s largest county gets a bad rap.
During the past two years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has truth-tested some of the most pervasive accusations and preconceptions about Fulton County’s government.
Accustation: Fulton has failed to rein in spending since new cities formed and took on many services themselves.
AJC’s findings: False. Spending has fallen significantly in the special tax district that serves the county’s unincorporated area that once included Chattachoochee Hills, Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs. In fact, if the district were a city, it would be among the most tightly run in the state for its population.
Accusation: Fulton provides more jobs to blacks than whites.
AJC findings: True. Census figures put the population at 48 percent white and 45 percent black, but 83 percent of the county government’s 5,500 employees are black and 14 percent are white. No other core metro county, nor the city of Atlanta, has workforce demographics so divergent from the people it serves. There are indications that the imbalance is exacerbating resentments and leading to discriminatory employment practices that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuit payouts.
Accusation: North Fulton residents get less for their tax dollars than their Atlanta and Southside counterparts
AJC’s findings: True. North Fulton doesn’t have as many libraries, senior centers and other services per resident as other areas of the county. The disparity persists even though property owners from north Fulton down to Buckhead pay a majority of the taxes that fund county operations.
Accusation: Fulton is fiscally bloated, spending more money on services than other county governments.
AJC’s findings: Half true. Fulton does spend far more than its suburban neighbors on services that reflect the challenges of poverty, unemployment, disadvantaged youth and crime in a concentrated urban area. But what Fulton spends on other services is in line with some of its large urban counterparts in other states.
How we got the story
Earlier this year the General Assembly passed or considered several bills designed to force Fulton County to cut spending. The rationale: Critics say the county spends far more than nearby counties on a host of services.
With the word “bloated” being tossed about nonchalantly at the state Capitol, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution set out to determine whether that was true. It compared Fulton County’s 2012 spending on five departments and services with spending in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. It also compared Fulton’s spending with similar urban counties nationwide.
For the local comparisons, the newspaper closely followed budget comparison methods that Georgia State University researchers used for a 2009 study of the same counties’ budgets. The GSU study went to great lengths to conduct apples-to-apples budget comparisons. In addition to performing the calculations used by GSU, the AJC employed a series of calculations to compare staffing levels among the departments. Though not definitive, the staffing calculations provide a rough guide to relative efficiency of the county departments.
For the national comparison, the AJC performed similar calculations, interviewing officials at other counties across the country to determine whether they provided similar services to the comparable Fulton County departments. The newspaper requested data from 14 counties with roughly 1 million people, with comparable poverty rates and encompassing large cities. The AJC compared Fulton only to those counties that offer comparable services.
The AJC also reviewed budgets, audits, court workload reports and other documents. And it interviewed budget experts, county officials, legislators and county residents.
By the numbers
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used a variety of measures to compare Fulton County spending to other counties’ spending on five key services. Below is a summary of the newspaper’s findings, along with charts showing some of our work. For a look at our full analysis, visit myajc.com.
Fulton oversees registration and elections for more than half a million voters. Its permanent elections staffing per 100,000 voters is similar to or less than most local and national counties examined. It’s per-capita and per-voter spending on elections also is comparable or less than many other counties.
That may not be a good thing, given the county’s recent history of polling place fiascos. New Elections Director Richard Barron stopped short of blaming those problems on underfunding. But he said the department could spend more to improve technology and expand early voting, which can reduce Election Day costs and hassles.
“This county is bending over backwards to avoid spending money wastefully,” Barron said. “I think there is some investment that needs to be made.”
Fulton spends substantially more per capita than other local counties on libraries, but it also has far more branches. Fulton has a library for every 30,496 residents – fewer residents per library than DeKalb and far fewer than Cobb or Gwinnett.
But the county spends less – sometimes far less – than comparable urban counties across the country. And its staffing per 100,000 library cardholders is in the middle of the pack among counties examined.
Fulton could spend less on libraries and still be in line with funding in other local counties. But county voters seem to want more; in they approved a $275 million library building and renovation program in 2008. Fulton officials are still figuring out how they’ll pay for the new libraries when they begin opening next year.
Fulton spends far more than any other local county on senior services ranging from adult day care to art classes. Fulton provides 19 senior centers; the other counties have six each. It also spends substantially more than most of the comparable urban counties examined.
One measure of its investment: Fulton could cut spending in half and still have a substantially higher level of service than many other counties. But that’s not likely to happen. Whenever talk of budget cuts surfaces, seniors pack County Commission meetings, pleading for those services to be spared.
If anything, there’s pressure on the county to provide more services. Fulton opened a new center in Milton last summer.
Fulton spending and staffing for Superior Court far outpaces other local counties, but is lower than some comparable urban counties in other states.
The court’s defenders say there are good reasons Fulton Superior Court costs so much. They say it gets far more complex litigation than other superior courts, including lawsuits against the state. They say a greater number felony crimes also contributes to higher costs.
Still, a task force last year made a host of suggestions for improving the court’s operations. And even its defenders say it can operate more efficiently.
“I think you need to demonstrate to county government that you’re good stewards as to what’s given to you,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.
Fulton spends more to appraise property for tax purposes than any local or national county examined. It’s staffing per 100,000 parcels is also the highest among the counties – twice as high as Cobb and more than three times as high as Gwinnett.
One reason: Cobb and Gwinnett contract with private companies to do some of their work, while Fulton does its own assessments. Fulton Chief Appraiser David Fitzgibbon said he might consider contracting some work in the future.
But Fitzgibbon said there are other reasons Fulton spends more than other counties. A big one: Fulton has more high rises and major shopping centers than many counties. Those properties are more difficult and costly to appraise, Fitzgibbon and other appraisers said.