Fulton may cut spending to close $114 million deficit

For years, critics of Fulton County have said it spends too much and should cut funding for discretionary programs. They may soon get their wish.

Faced with a $113.6 million budget deficit heading into 2014, Fulton officials are considering cuts to libraries, arts programs and other services. Senior administrators have outlined proposals to shift the cost of some of those services to local cities, which could decide to offer them or not.

Decisions are likely months away. But the proposals already have met with skepticism – both from critics of county spending and from those who doubt Fulton’s financial situation is as dire as administrators say.

“To cry now, when you have not acted” on budget deficits “all these years, to me it rings hollow,” said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker. “I hope Fulton County uses this opportunity to reinvent itself and to come out of it a stronger, better government for all of us.”

Fulton County’s budget has long been debated, with Republicans calling for steep cuts and Democrats defending what they say are vital programs. The Republican-controlled General Assembly this year passed a slew of measures affecting county operations, including bills prohibiting commissioners from raising property taxes and making it easier to fire employees.

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With the General Assembly likely to consider more Fulton County bills next year, the 2014 budget will get more scrutiny than usual. A county budget memo obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests balancing that budget will be especially difficult.

In the July 15 memo, interim County Manager David Ware and Finance Director Patrick O’Connor told commissioners they expect the county will generate $513.5 million in revenue for its general fund, its main account that pays for courts, libraries, elections and other countywide services.

But rising costs and new expenses – including the 2014 elections, debt payments for Grady Hospital and new libraries – mean a projected deficit of $113.6 million, according to the budget memo. That’s a shortfall of about 22 percent of projected revenue.

In recent years Fulton has used reserves to balance its budget - $24.4 million in 2011, $30.9 million last year and a projected $53.8 million this year. But those reserves are dwindling, and Ware and O’Connor urged commissioners to increase revenue and cut spending to balance the budget without using reserves.

They outlined a variety of strategies to address the deficit. Among them:

*Creating a new property tax levy for Grady Hospital instead of paying hospital obligations out of the general fund. That would have raised about $55 million. But commissioners rejected that proposal last month, saying it’s a bad idea to raise property taxes during an economic slump.

*Reducing library hours to save about $1.3 million or, alternatively, leasing libraries to local cities and allowing them to operate the facilities as they see fit. Turning the libraries over to cities would save more than $25 million.

*Eliminating arts funding ($5.1 million) and shifting responsibility for the county’s five arts centers to cities.

*Eliminating other discretionary services, such as juvenile probation and payments for services provided by the public defender’s office (up to $10 million). The administrators say those are state responsibilities.

* Cutting senior services ($3 million), human services grants ($3.7 million), youth programs ($1 million), health and wellness programs ($2.5 million) and behavioral health programs ($2.5 million). The county also could save $7.5 million in health benefits by changing its policy on the use of temporary employees, according to the memo. It might also save money in the general fund by creating a separate fund for animal-control services or eliminating the services altogether, except for state-mandated rabies control.

The administrators say many of those actions could result in layoffs.

It’s unclear exactly how much Fulton officials will have to cut to balance next year’s budget. But because commissioners have already rejected any tax hike, the proposed cuts might not be enough.

“I’m committed to providing as many services as we can and minimizing the impact on our staff,” said Commission Chairman John Eaves. “Obviously, something’s going to be cut.”

Budget cuts for libraries and other popular services likely would generate a public backlash.

Brenda Collins, president of Friends of the Dogwood Library, said cutting hours or turning libraries over to cities would hurt patrons.

The cities “couldn’t provide that type of resource,” Collins said. “I can see the quality of the resources declining.”

Some local mayors say it doesn’t make sense for them to take over services like libraries from the county. Bodker said the county can take advantage of economies of scale that the cities can’t. He thinks Fulton needs to look elsewhere for efficiencies.

“Citizens need to demand once and for all that Fulton County government right-size itself,” Bodker said.

At least one county commissioner is skeptical the county is in financial peril. Commissioner Bill Edwards said he’s heard dire warnings for years, but the budget always winds up balanced.

“I take it seriously. But I’ve been here for 13 years,” Edwards said. “I’ve never known a mid-year budget that wasn’t in deficit.”