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Columns Maggie Lee

Fulton approves $800 million budget

Fulton's logo on display in 2019 at the government center. Credit: Maggie Lee Fulton's logo on display in 2019 at the government center. Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

Fulton County expects to spend more than it takes in this year, as it plans to dip into reserves for extraordinary COVID-19 expenses.

The county’s $800 million budget includes typical county services like courts, jail, the library, the public health department and the staff for all of them.

Part of the $800 million budget is a $53 million “emergency response reserve.” That’s what the county is earmarking for things like PPE to run a county during a pandemic, and for helping to roll out COVID-19 vaccines in a county with more than a million residents.

Fulton expects to take in about $706 million this year in taxes and all other revenue for the general fund.

Even if Fulton spends all money as projected in the budget, it’ll still have about $133 million in its general fund reserve.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said he thinks the budget addresses the county’s issues while keeping adequate funds in reserve.

“There are many, many unknowns that we may face,” Pitts said ahead of the budget vote Wednesday. “And from my perspective … we need to be as prudent, as conservative as we can with the cash that we have. I think this is a good effort at doing that.”

It’s possible that the federal government may send more aid to counties in the coming months. The county already received $104 million in federal CARES Act money.

Apart from the general fund, another roughly $400 million passes through Fulton’s books via other funds, like the revenue from water bills that can only be used to pay for the water system.

But COVID and regular expenses aside, Fulton’s new DA and sheriff each reported that they’ve discovered costly problems in the offices they took over this month.

“Our evidence [facility] is in a shambles,” said Fani Willis, the new top prosecutor in Fulton County.

“We are going to be asking for a major enhancement to get this evidence together,” in about April, she told county commissioners.

New Sheriff Pat Labat said that office has been “woefully” underfunded. He’s got cars that are aging out of service, and a jail management system of which he’s not a fan.

“We have less technology than the city jail down the street,” said Labat, who was Atlanta’s corrections chief until leaving to run for county sheriff last year.

Labat said he found no tracking system for the motor pool, and has since elicited help from Georgia Tech’s supply chain and logistics experts to try and get his office off paper and into modern times.

The sheriff’s 9th floor government center office itself is like something from the 1980s, Labat said.

To get started on the most immediate concerns, commissioners added $6.8 million to Labat’s budget at their Wednesday meeting, bringing it to almost $123 million, and drawing down the emergency response reserve.

But Labat also has a bigger spending pitch: he wants Fulton to buy the Downtown Atlanta jail that the city is trying to close.

It’s not clear what the city jail would cost because it’s not for sale right now.

Atlanta City Council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms have endorsed closing the jail and turning the site into a human services “center for equity,” which might include any kind of services from GED classes to affordable housing.

For years, Fulton has run jails that have themselves been in and out of trouble with the law.

A judge has ordered the county to fix up “repulsive” conditions at the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail, after a 2019 lawsuit brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The county’s Rice Street jail spent more than a decade from 2004 under federal supervision, fixing up raw sewage flooding, overcrowding and broken locks, among other things.

Documents:
Fulton’s first proposed 2021 budget, the adopted version and floor amendments

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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