By a 4-3 vote along party lines, Fulton County commissioners approved their $1 billion budget Wednesday, after a debate about more than $1 million in last-minute add-ons for seniors nearly derailed the process.
“I think if those additions had not been there, it would have been a unanimous vote,” said Fulton County Vice Chairman Bob Ellis, a Republican, who voted against the budget.
The total budget is $1.007 billion, up 1.6 percent over 2017 and $42.3 million higher than was first proposed. Most of that difference — $34.1 million — will be spent on water and sewer projects, including work to expand the Big Creek water treatment plant, that had been underestimated in the initial budget proposal. The additional money will come from an increase in water rates.
The general fund budget of $672.1 million is 1.5 percent higher than last year and $5.2 million higher than commissioners first discussed. In addition to the added money for senior services, commissioners agreed to spend more for a marketing campaign for the county’s economic development arm, a summer internship program for at-risk youth and raises for some employees whose salaries had been artificially low, among other expenditures.
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The focus of the 2018 budget is fixing three processes that have given the county trouble in recent years: the property tax system, the elections system and the jail. The county has come under fire for not keeping up with rising property values, for long delays in providing election results and for a high number of inmates at the Fulton County jail.
The county is also spending millions of dollars on projects that are already in the works to upgrade libraries and fix buildings with leaky roofs, slow elevators or malfunctioning heating and cooling systems.
With so many projects in the works, Ellis said there were a number of proposals that he thought deserved to be funded in the budget, but were not because of a lack of revenue. For that reason, Ellis said though he was in favor of spending more money for senior services, he was not pleased that other commissioners bypassed the budget process to do so. Commissioners were “just pulling this out of the air,” he said of the new proposals.
Additional money included $12,000 for adult day care services, $208,240 to enhance senior transportation services, $200,000 for meals at senior centers, $150,000 for improved security at senior centers, $200,000 for home repair services and $800,000 for Meals on Wheels.
Commissioners also requested, and got, $150,000 for support in food deserts and $75,000 for at-risk youth in Atlanta.
The additional expenses came out of a reserve that was meant to pay for special elections, which the county has had a number of in recent years. At least one commissioner, Emma Darnell, was willing to reduce the county’s reserves below the required minimum to fund the programs.
“My job is to put amendments out here and let you know what’s needed for constituents in your district,” said Darnell, who voted in favor of the budget.
Robb Pitts, the new Fulton County chairman who voted for the budget, said it’s only important that the budget passed — it doesn’t matter how it happened. In recent years, commissioners had been working toward more support of the final document.
But Pitts said he wanted to make sure seniors, who felt like they weren’t getting attention from the county, were supported in the budget.
The debate got heated, with Commissioner Liz Hausmann saying she’d like $500,000 for an arts center in north Fulton, where they are sparse.
“I really feel like the whole process has broken down here,” she said before voting against the budget. “I’m just at a loss how we got here. I feel like we made a mockery of the whole process.”
It’s not unusual for last-minute additions to the budget, said Pitts and County Manager Dick Anderson. Anderson said the dollar figure for senior and other services represented just a small portion of the total budget, and he expected the commission, with two new members, to have growing pains. The end result — that the county is making big investments in areas it needs to improve — is the most important part, he said.
The improvements include $3.4 million to map the property tax process; add customer service employees, more assessors and other workers; and upgrade technology, including the tax appraiser’s website. Conducting elections will cost $7 million, with some of that money going toward reviewing the system to see where it can be improved. About $300,000 will pay for new equipment to handle mailed-in paper ballots.
And $5.5 million 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.
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 plan to make up some of the lost money 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.
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