Fulton County’s critics often assail how it spends public money, saying the government should cut, cut, cut and focus on essential, core services.
But that can be tough to do, proved Wednesday by an attempt to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in arts grants toward a solution for female inmates sleeping on cell floors.
Facing the ire of Atlanta’s arts community, county commissioners opted to do no such thing. The decision highlighted the difficulty they face in the months ahead as they try to close a $114 million shortfall in an expected $514 million budget, while reeling in spending to appease state lawmakers threatening to gut their tax revenues in next year’s legislative session.
North Fulton Republican leaders say the county is bloated and dysfunctional, but even what some would consider nonessential spending has become immensely popular with residents. Fulton is the state’s biggest supporter of the arts, viewed as a quality of life investment that assures Atlanta remains the cultural center of the state.
“If we’re going to reduce arts funding in any way,” Commissioner Robb Pitts said, “every other group, organization or department that receives county money should bear part of that as well.”
The county budgeted more than $5 million on the arts this year, including funding its Arts and Culture Department and the Wolf Creek Amphitheater in south Fulton. By comparison, the state has been allocating less than $600,000 per year to the arts and ranks last in the nation in spending per capita.
Each year, Fulton County awards grants that help scores of nonprofits balance their books, including theater, dance and music groups and museums. The Arts Council, an advisory panel, proposed giving a total of $1.48 million to 92 organizations, but interim County Manager David Ware suggested scaling that back to $1 million and putting the difference toward renting space at the Union City jail.
Dozens of women inmates have been sleeping on floors at the Rice Street jail ever since the commission eliminated funding for renting space in other lockups. Since that violates a federal court order to fix conditions for inmates, the commission voted last month to spend about $112,000 per month to rent beds in Union City’s shuttered jail. Ware, charged with finding the money, looked to the arts.
That would have meant smaller grant awards for each group. The Center for Puppetry Arts, for example, would have seen its share drop from $124,000 to $84,500. Though the center has a $3.4 million budget, Development Director Rainie Jueschke said the cut would likely affect free programs for low-income schoolchildren.
“Just look at this as an erosion of some of the things that Fulton County residents have in their community,” Executive Director Vincent Anthony said.
A procession of more than 30 artists, directors, dancers, musicians and nonprofit board members took the podium and told commissioners that arts offerings generate tax dollars, support retailers and restaurants and help steer youths away from drugs and crime. Many said spending more on incarceration and less on educating children would be bad policy.
“Perhaps there is a belief that in better times, you’ll be able to fund the arts,” said Tom Key, an actor and executive artistic director of Theatrical Outfit in downtown Atlanta. “The problem with that thinking is that it is through the arts that we come to better times.”
Commissioners agreed and unanimously shot down Ware’s plan, telling him that if he wants to find money to pay for jail space, take it out of the sheriff’s budget or the criminal justice system.
In a memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ware also suggested cutting all arts funding next year to reduce spending by $5.1 million, letting the county’s 14 cities pay for arts and operate the five county-owned arts centers. That appears very unlikely.
“If we were living in ancient Greece,” Commissioner Joan Garner, a former Fulton County Arts Council member, said, “we would not want to live in Sparta. We would want to live in Athens, because it has a vibrant culture.”
House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, a Republican from Buckhead, said he still plans to force the county to make tough decisions, and arts funding could be taken over by cities if residents truly want it. Atlanta already gives grants to arts groups, with $1.25 million going to 60 organizations this year.
“My long-term goal for the county government is to reduce its footprint,” Lindsey said, “so it looks at those true countywide services, and focuses on them, and looks to turn other nonessential services over to local governments.”