March 27, 2013As a 30-year Fulton resident both in Atlanta and North Fulton, I've shared my neighbors' frustration with an unwieldy county government lacking competence on critical services only it can perform – and that nearby counties perform well.
No wonder residents voted for a government of their own by margins of 85 percent not long ago to create Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills. The result: better service levels at lesser cost.
These stunning, swift changes bear a message for all Georgians – thoughtful but bold change and a strong stomach can fix vexing problems in our communities.
Alas, when it comes to Fulton courts, elections, jails and other county services, citizens continue to have marginalized voices – and marginal services at staggeringly disproportionate costs.
Since Fulton takes the spotlight as the capital county and home to 10 percent of the state's population, its failures also disproportionately affect the entire metro-Atlanta region. In response, multiple pieces of state legislation are in process to improve Fulton through changes that can only be carried out legislatively.
In an effort to rein in out-of-control spending and give homeowners a little tax relief, the Georgia House recently gave a two-thirds approval to a higher homestead exemption. I crafted the legislation after a 2008 Democrat-sponsored bill that the House approved almost unanimously, but was later scaled back in the Senate.
Five of seven county commissioners have protested, with dramatic exclamations that a modest display of fiscal responsibility will lead to drastic cuts in Grady Hospital funding. The facts simply do not support that conclusion.
And those facts are glaring. Fulton spends 121 percent more per capita in its budget than neighboring, similarly sized Gwinnett County and 68 percent more than Cobb. And that's after excluding expenditures on Grady Hospital and MARTA. After the homestead exemption is fully phased in, Fulton would still spend 100 percent more per capita than Gwinnett – once again, excluding Grady's cost.
In other words, the answer isn't to cut Grady's funding. The answer is to cut the waste that has pervaded nearly every other service Fulton offers.
A joint study released in 2009 by the University of Georgia and Georgia State University showed Fulton County grossly exceeded expenditures of comparable counties in almost every service. A few examples:
• Fulton County Commissioners spent an average of $2,211 per Child Protective Service investigation in DFACS. Cobb and Gwinnett spent $148 per investigation.
• The county spent roughly double that of Cobb and Gwinnett administering each parcel in the tax assessor's and tax commissioner's offices.
• Its purchasing department costs were over double that of, once again, Cobb and Gwinnett.
• Not much has changed since that study.
• Today, Fulton spends 66 percent more per capita on library staffing than Gwinnett and 158 percent more than Cobb. In contrast, its circulation of library materials lags behind both counties as well as the statewide average.
• Commissioners enjoy a $400,000 budget for each of their personal offices and staffs, three times that of Cobb and Gwinnett, and display themselves on the county's elaborate GPTV-like television studio.
• Last year, the county spent $840,000 on contract and in-house lobbyists.
And yet, a constitutionally required service, the county jail, has operated without 1,300 secure locks on jail cells for a decade. The locks are finally being replaced, but long after warnings from three consecutive sheriffs. Compliance costs have exceeded $100 million for court-ordered federal oversight on dangerous, overcrowded jail conditions.
Last November, another constitutionally required service, elections, was so mishandled that it led to an investigation by Secretary of State Brian Kemp and an historic number of provisional ballots cast due to elections staff errors.
If approved by voters, the homestead exemption increase would be phased in over three years beginning in 2015. That gives Fulton plenty of time to figure out how the rest of Georgia delivers better services at reasonable costs.
A dozen other bills are winding through the Georgia General Assembly, designed as a package to bring about a new day for Fulton residents. The legislation includes modernizing MARTA, increasing the threshold required to raise property taxes and reforming the courts and elections board. Others would end the tax commissioner's built-in incentive to pad his yearly compensation to $350,000, implement a performance-based employee system and create six commission districts closer to the people and one countywide chairman.
My message to Fulton County Commissioners is this: stop scaremongering, cut the waste and improve the constitutionally required services that residents can't get elsewhere. And quit treating Grady like the proverbial whipping boy.
Speaker Pro Tem