Fulton considering $758 million budget
Fulton County Government Center by Kelly Jordan
By Maggie Lee
Almost half of $758 million that Fulton County can appropriate next year will probably be spent on public safety and courts.
That’s according to the draft county budget that commissioners are considering, and it’s similar to spending this year.
But there are questions about whether Fulton should spend more, especially on courts. And if so, where to get money for that.
“People expect efficient courts. Every year we underfund them. But we can fund an $32 million animal shelter?” said County Commissioner Joe Carn, during a commission discussion of the budget last week. The commissioners were reviewing the spending plan, as well as discussing possible amendments.
“Like the chairman said, I don’t see anything that’s not a good project [but] there’s only so much money to go around,” he said, echoing comments from earlier in the meeting by Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts.
The roughly $342 million proposed under “justice and safety” from the county’s general fund covers appropriations to courts, the county marshal, the sheriff’s office, the medical examiner, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office and others.
Commissioner Marvin Arrington said the county doesn’t have enough money to provide all the services that it needs to provide — that in fact, the county is doing it backward by taking its revenue and funding what it can.
“What I need to see is what would the total budget be … if everything was funded,” Arrington said during the budget discussion. “That’s what I need to see. Because I want work on how do we get there, I want to work on how do we fund it.”
Arrington mentioned that raising the property tax rate would raise more money.
And Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she didn’t expect there to be a discussion about that.
“We just had a big discussion about folks being taxed out of their houses and not being able to afford to live here,” she said.
She said she thought the commissioners’ job is to prioritize needs, not “go back to the well” of taxpayers.
The discussion last week was a bit short — it’s set to be a topic at the December 18 commission meeting, and a vote is expected in January.
But the budget comes at a time when there’s talk of some overhauls that may change some of the budget fundamentals, without any reference to the millage rate.
For one, Pitts has put together a task force that will review county core services. It’s possible that the county may in the future offer more — or fewer — services.
For another, it’s growing more common to hear complaints from elected leaders about assessments on major commercial buildings that are too low. Reports from Fulton, Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution/WSB-TV and activist Julian Bene suggest that the owners of skyscrapers are unfairly skilled at appealing their property tax assessments.
According to the Fulton report, which only looked at a sample of 175 buildings over the last three years, the appeals process resulted in commercial valuation reductions of about $7 billion cumulatively. Fulton’s tax property rate has been around 10 mills lately, meaning that had those appeals failed, it would have been worth about $28 million more to the county alone over those three years.
In addition to that, the city of Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools would also be due more money if commercial property values were set at market value.
The Fulton County Board of Equalization is “outgunned,” Commissioner Lee Morris has said.
Fulton’s commissioners have made some changes in their own house, like hiring more staff to work on assessments. They may also ask the state Legislature for some legal changes that would require building owners to disclose more about a building’s rents and finances when the owner applies for a lower valuation.
Not included in the $758 million budget are several “funds.” Those are streams of money that are already set aside for a specific thing and cannot be spent elsewhere. For example, the biggest ones by far are the water and sewer fees that can only be spent on water and sewer works. Adding all 10 of Fulton’s funds to the general budget, total spending will come to about $1.2 billion.