Fulton County commissioners Wednesday approved a 2013 budget that trims spending in the sheriff’s and communications departments but spares libraries and some other programs from painful cuts.
By a vote of 5-2, commissioners approved a $571 million general fund budget that preserves library hours and restores funding to criminal justice agencies that feared they would have to furlough employees under the original spending plan.
Commissioners also restored funding for programs benefiting the homeless, seniors and AIDS victims.
To do it, they cut about $700,000 set side to send inmates to jails outside the county and cut another $300,000 from the sheriff’s department budget. Among other things, they also voted to combine the county’s communications and cable broadcast operations, saving $500,000. They also voted to combine some youth programs.
“In good times, I think we can afford far more than we can in lean times,” said Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a comment echoed by several commissioners as they scoured the budget for money.
Like other local counties, Fulton has struggled to balance its budget as the Great Recession has taken a toll on one of its chief sources of revenue: property taxes. Under the budget approved Wednesday, general fund spending — which pay for countywide services like courts, libraries and elections — would decline about 2 percent from last year.
The original 2013 budget included even deeper cuts and would have required the county’s 33 libraries to close the equivalent of one day a week. Among other things, it also would have required employee furloughs of up to 23 days in the district attorney’s office and seven days in the public defender’s office, department heads said.
On Wednesday, commissioners restored money to those departments by trimming elsewhere and by digging deeper into reserves. Fulton expects to use more than $43 million in reserves to balance the 2013 budget, leaving enough money to cover about a month’s worth of expenses.
Commissioner Robb Pitts worries that’s not enough. He asked his colleagues to boost the general fund balance from 8.33 percent of expenses to 10 percent. But his motion failed to get the four votes needed to pass.
Fulton has not raised its countywide tax rate since 1991, but residents of unincorporated South Fulton will see their property tax rate rise about 19 percent to pay for police, fire and other municipal services. Despite the tax increase, county officials say tax bills will be smaller because property values are declining.