UPDATE: Fulton mulls spending cuts, not tax increases

Budget vote slated for Jan. 18

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FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — The Fulton County Board of Commissioners’ Jan. 9 budget hearing featured possible spending cuts, but the expected presentation on a possible 0.6 mill property tax increase suggested by Commissioner Tom Lowe never materialized.

The county department heads came before the board to give presentations on their share of the proposed 2012 budget, which features expenses of $597.5 million, revenues of $519.8 million and a $77.7 million deficit.

The commissioners listened to presentations but took no action on any cuts. The purpose of the meeting was to provide guidance for County Manager Zachary Williams and Finance Director Patrick O’Connor to refine the budget and close the deficit before the board votes on it Jan. 18.

Director of Health Services Patrice Harris offered cost savings that featured:

• 950 fewer basins treated for the West Nile Virus to cut $110,000.

• Spending on STD and HIV prevention programs cut to $4.8 million from $5.01 million.

• $383,746 in cuts to the Neighborhood Union primary care and screening clinics despite projected increases in clients.

Commissioner Emma Darnell objected saying people in her district want to know what steps the county is taking to fight disease. She said cutting funding for these programs will prove costly in the long run. She wanted “shared sacrifice” in all areas and not to balance the budget on the backs of the “most vulnerable populations” — the poor, ill and elderly.

Superior Court Judge Cynthia Wright said the court’s 2012 target is to cut the jail population via alternative programs and reduction in recidivism.

Commissioner Robb Pitts asked Wright about how to reduce the prison population. One of his ideas was to cite most misdemeanor offenders rather than arrest them, while another was to use electronic monitoring.

Pitts said if there were 100 inmates in the jail who could be monitored electronically rather than confined, this would be a no-brainer.

Fulton County Sheriff Theodore Jackson agreed that the jail population needs to be reduced. However, 88 percent of the county’s inmates are violent offenders. Forty percent of inmates have mental-health issues and the county has a model medical clinic within the jail.

He wanted court cases to move more quickly. Nobody should spend two years in jail awaiting trial, Jackson said.

At the Jan. 4 meeting, Finance Director O’Connor had recommended a slight millage rate increase to compensate for collapsing property values in the county. O’Connor said 0.6 mill increase could generate $22 million to $24 million in revenue for the county.

Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she assumed due to the lack of support for the tax increase, “cooler heads had prevailed.” However, she preferred that the board come out and say there will be no tax increase.

Hausmann had earlier stated she opposed any tax increases, instead supporting spending cuts. The District 3 advisory budget committee that Hausmann created examined ways to make spending reductions and recommended outsourcing as one means to save money. Hausmann also suggested looking for overlaps in health services between Fulton County and Grady Memorial Hospital.

“We’ve suggested to the county manager that the spending levels for 2012 be at the maximum what they were in the 2010 budget year,” she said.

Fulton County Chairman Eaves in a later statement objected to any tax increase.

“In these tough economic times, now is not the time for the county to increase the burden on the hard working families of Fulton County,” he said. “We must look hard to realize efficiencies in our budget.”

Pitts said serious changes were needed in the way the county spends money.

“We are facing a crisis – possibly as soon as 2013 and certainly by 2014 – unless we radically cut our expenses,” he said. “We can’t continue to balance our budget with smoke and mirrors.”

He said the board should focus on health and human services, libraries and the criminal justice system and cut back in other areas.