Moderated by Tom Sabulis
A political war is being waged for control of Fulton County. Republicans in the General Assembly have filed bills aimed, they say, at getting the county to rein in spending and improve services. The county argues the proposed legislation will force traumatic cuts to libraries and Grady Memorial Hospital. Today, a House leader writes that the county is trying to scare citizens in order to avoid sound fiscal management. The county commission chairman counters that the bills are more divisive than helpful.
Commenting is open below.
By Jan Jones
As a 30-year Fulton County resident, 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 overwhelmingly to create the cities of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills. The result: better service levels at lesser cost.
These changes bear a message for all Georgians: Bold, thoughtful change and a strong stomach can fix vexing problems in our communities.
Alas, Fulton elections, jails and other services marginalize citizens’ voices – and provide marginal services at staggeringly disproportionate costs.
Since Fulton is our capital county and home to 10 percent of Georgia’s population, its failures also disproportionately affect the entire metro Atlanta region.
To rein in out-of-control spending and give homeowners tax relief, the Georgia House recently gave two-thirds approval to a higher homestead exemption, legislation I crafted. This is not a new idea. The legislation I authored would essentially have the same effect as a 2008 bill introduced and widely supported by House Democrats.
Five of seven county commissioners have protested that a modest display of fiscal responsibility will necessitate cuts in Grady Memorial Hospital funding. The facts simply don’t support that conclusion.
Fulton spends 121 percent more per capita than neighboring, similarly sized Gwinnett County and 68 percent more than Cobb County, excluding expenditures on Grady and MARTA. After the homestead exemption is fully phased in, Fulton would still spend 100 percent more per capita than Gwinnett — again, excluding Grady’s cost.
The answer isn’t to cut Grady’s funding. The answer is to cut the waste that has pervaded nearly every other Fulton service.
A 2009 joint study by University of Georgia and Georgia State University showed Fulton grossly exceeded expenditures of comparable counties in almost every service. Some examples:
• Fulton commissioners spent $2,211 per Child Protective Service investigation in DFACS, on average. Cobb and Gwinnett spent $148 per investigation.
• Fulton 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 more than double those of Cobb and Gwinnett.
Little has changed since then. Today, Fulton spends 66 and 158 percent more per capita on library staffing than Gwinnett and Cobb, respectively, despite lower library materials circulation than both counties. Each commissioner enjoys a $400,000 budget for his personal office and staff, three times that of Cobb and Gwinnett. And last year, Fulton spent $840,000 on contract and in-house lobbyists.
Yet a constitutionally required service, the county jail, lacked 1,300 secure cell door locks for a decade. The locks are finally being replaced, but long after warnings from three consecutive sheriffs. Compliance costs exceeded $100 million for court-ordered federal oversight of dangerous jail conditions.
Last November, mishandled elections 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, giving Fulton plenty of time to figure out how the rest of Georgia delivers better services at reasonable costs.
A dozen other reform bills are in process to improve Fulton through changes that can only be accomplished legislatively, such as 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 commissioners: 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.
Jan Jones, R-Milton, is House Speaker Pro Tem.
By John Eaves
The charges against Fulton County by North Fulton legislators are that the county is bloated, unresponsive and unrepresented. Let me first set the record straight on a few things.
Fact: A considerable percentage of Fulton’s budget goes to constitutionally mandated services such as the jail, courts and Board of Registration and Elections. You, the people of Fulton County, elect or appoint through your local political parties who you think are the best people to lead those services. If you feel those services are lacking or poorly managed, you, the voter, have the power to enact change, whereas the Board of Commissioners does not and the Legislature should not.
Fact: Fulton has the second-lowest overall government expenditures per capita of the major metro Atlanta counties — lower than both Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, despite having twice the number of service facilities such as libraries.
Fact: Fulton has managed within its budget by reducing spending by $61,076,505 from 2007 to 2012. The Board of Commissioners reduced spending by $8.7 million from 2012 to 2013.
And most important:
Fact: Fulton is the only large county in metro Atlanta that has not increased its millage rate since the beginning of the Great Recession. In fact, Fulton hasn’t raised its property tax rate since 1991.
HB 541 proposes to double the homestead exemption from $30,000 to $60,000 over three years. HB 604 would suspend the board’s ability to increase the millage rate beyond the roll-back rate until Jan. 1, 2015. After that date, any increase in the millage rate would require the affirmative votes of five of the members of the Board of Commissioners.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t appreciate what amounts to an ongoing tax cut? But this legislation comes with a hefty price tag. Passage of these bills would mean a loss in county revenue of almost $50 million dollars. That would mean drastic cuts in county services, most importantly those provided by Grady Memorial Hospital.
Here are the facts regarding HBs 541 and 604:
Fact: Fulton already has the highest homestead exemption rate in the state of Georgia.
Fact: Approximately 80 percent of Fulton’s revenue comes from property taxes.
Fact: Doubling the homestead exemption would shift the burden of property taxes to commercial property owners and homeowners with more valuable homes. If the county is forced to do a revenue-neutral millage-rate adjustment, businesses and many homeowners in North Fulton will shoulder the tax burden.
The loss of almost $50 million dollars would, without doubt, mean a reduction in funding to Grady, which provides trauma and health care services to Georgians throughout the state. We will all suffer greatly if Grady is adversely impacted. The question will be, who will step up to fill the void if funds are lost?
There is more at stake here than money. Georgia is a “home rule” state, embracing the conservative principle of local control. The state constitution grants cities, municipalities and counties the ability to pass laws to govern themselves. I believe this legislation violates that rule, and I don’t think we want to set that precedent.
I acknowledge we have challenges within Fulton County. I am ready and willing to negotiate county parity in services and equal representation as long as we tackle these issues in the spirit of togetherness. Divisive and overreaching legislation is not the way to solve our differences and will only hurt the very residents we are here to serve.
John Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Commission.