FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Fulton County adopted its 2019 budget Jan. 23 in a 4-3 vote, with North Fulton Commissioners Liz Hausmann, Bob Ellis and Lee Morris opposing.
Against the recommendation of County Manager Dick Anderson, the budget cuts funding for new election equipment, risk management and operation expenses to pay for additional senior services and art programs, which were added at the last minute by commissioners Natalie Hall, Marvin Arrington and Emma Darnel.
Although commissioners shifted priorities around, the budget total stayed at $1.1 billion, as proposed in November. This amount was set assuming a property tax rate of 10.12 mills, a reduction from 2018’s rate of 10.2.
At the beginning of the meeting, commissioners were comparing an early version of the budget prepared by Chief Financial Manager Sharron Whitmore and Anderson and a new version that included commissioners’ requests from previous meetings.
These requests included $4.7 million in personnel costs, more than $2 million for behavioral health services and funding several smaller programs for seniors, arts groups and at-risk youth.
To pay for the changes, the budget team recommended reducing the operating fund by $3.5 million, or 2.5 percent of all operation expenses, reducing risk related expenses by $2.3 million and reducing the election equipment reserve by $2.55 million.
Anderson justified the cut to operation expenses, saying the county usually underruns the budget by 10 percent. In 2018, operational underruns totaled $20 million.
Still, Anderson recommended the commissioners wait to let the underruns build up for half a year and then consider additional programs.
“I think the best approach is to take the Jan. 9 proposal and approve it,” Anderson said. “Then, allow the underruns to accrue, which inevitably they will. We project 10 percent, but we’ll know better as we get into the year. As those underruns have accrued, then bring that as a source of funds back to the board and have the board decide then what priorities those funds should be deployed against.”
Fulton County’s election systems came under heavy scrutiny in 2018, with complaints about long waits and questions about the handling of absentee ballots. On Election Day, one precinct started the day with only three voting machines, and three polling places stayed open past 7 p.m.
Ellis opposed cutting the election contingency and the risk management fund, also expressing concern over reducing the operation budget for the courts and Public Safety departments.
“We, I think conservatively, have set aside a portion of funds to deal with the contingency should we have to go in and expend the funds that are necessary to deliver fair, quality elections that our citizens will be happy with,” he said. “Because we might not get the funding necessary from the state.”
Ellis made a motion to approve the Jan. 9 version of the budget with a promise to consider additional spending for public heath, with an emphasis on HIV; behavioral health, with an emphasis on opioids; the courts and facilities, including the animal shelter.
His motion, which essentially followed the county manager’s recommendation, had the support of Hausmann and Morris, but failed to garner enough votes.
Hall then made a motion to adopt the Jan. 23 version of the budget with additional requests. Arrington and Darnel made their own additions.
These last-minute additions were considered friendly amendments, not requiring a vote and offering little opportunity to scrutinize what they included.
“We now have a host of recommendations in the last minute that I’m not really clear on,” Hausmann said. “We have a situation where they may all be worthy. They may all be great. They may all be needed, but I don’t think our staff can even tell us from a professional perspective if they fit in with our priorities.”
The last-minute requests carried a price tag of $1.3 million. After considering the requests, Whitmore came back with a plan to fund the additions by cutting all funding from the election equipment reserves.
This budget passed with Hall, Arrington, Darnel and Chairman Robb Pitts voting in favor.
Pitts said there were challenges with the process, but he thinks the commissioners came to a compromise.
“I personally am not satisfied with a lot that’s in it, but you have to compromise in this business, and that’s what I think this represents,” he said.
“We balanced our budgets on the backs of our elections and public safety,” he said. “It was wrong and the whole board ought to be ashamed of ourselves for passing it.”