Cities prepare to sue Fulton over $104M in COVID-19 relief money

Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) co-founder Ann Lee (from left), Edward Leidelmeijer (second from left), Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis (third from left), Community Organized Relief Effort co-founder Sean Penn (third from right), Fulton County Board of Commissioner Natalie Hall (second from right) and Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts (right) stand for a photo following the Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) and Fulton County partnership press conference at the CORE offices, located at 4700 North Point Parkway, in Alpharetta, Friday, August 14, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) co-founder Ann Lee (from left), Edward Leidelmeijer (second from left), Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis (third from left), Community Organized Relief Effort co-founder Sean Penn (third from right), Fulton County Board of Commissioner Natalie Hall (second from right) and Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts (right) stand for a photo following the Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) and Fulton County partnership press conference at the CORE offices, located at 4700 North Point Parkway, in Alpharetta, Friday, August 14, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Almost every city in Fulton County is preparing to sue the county government in an attempt to block it from spending any more of the $104 million received in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The Milton City Council on Monday became the latest to join a growing effort to file an injunction against Fulton’s use of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding.

Sandy Springs, Roswell and Milton have publicly signed on to the challenge, saying cities deserve a bigger share than the county has provided. County officials argue that it shouldn’t matter because city residents are also Fulton residents who benefit from the county’s use of the federal money.

The city of South Fulton discussed the topic last week before the city attorney advised council members to ask their questions in a closed-door executive session.

Mayors across the county have said they expect every city to join except Atlanta and Mountain Park. Atlanta received a direct CARES Act allotment of $88.5 million, and Mountain Park has had no direct COVID-19 expenses for its roughly 550 Northside residents.

“I am prayerfully optimistic that we can come to some sort of resolve to move the county forward and support the cities of Fulton County,” said Union City Mayor Vince Williams, who spoke on behalf of all the mayors regarding the injunction. He said no paperwork been filed with the court.

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County attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker sent a letter Friday telling the city attorneys that there is no legal basis supporting their claim, and city taxpayers could be responsible for paying Fulton’s legal fees in a “clearly frivolous lawsuit.“

“We have taken this obligation seriously and have been open, transparent, and proactive in abating the impacts of COVID-19 on the citizens of Fulton County,” the county attorney wrote. “To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.”

For weeks, leaders throughout Fulton have been trading rhetorical jabs and pointed letters over who gets the money (and credit) for helping residents during a pandemic.

The federal CARES Act law suggests that states and counties share the money on a per capita basis, but does not require it. Gov. Brian Kemp distributed a portion of CARES Act money received by the state to smaller county and city governments based on population, and suggested the four metro counties that received direct allocations do the same for their cities.

But none have.

Fulton officials say they have no legal obligation to share the money.

“Ninety-nine percent of people who live in Fulton County live within one of the cities, so anything that we do benefits the citizens, and the money was intended to benefit the citizens, not the cities,” Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said Monday.

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City officials argue that the county has an ethical obligation to share more of the money, and that cities are better positioned to know how it will best serve their residents. The mayors are united in that view, said South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards.

“It’s not very often that 14 mayors in Fulton County can agree upon anything,” Edwards said.

Some cities have been demanding they get part of the money since April. Six municipalities in southern Fulton wrote Pitts, asking him to save half the money for all eligible cities.

But Pitts has maintained that the cities won’t get that much. Commissioners weeks ago agreed to set aside $2.5 million for the cities on a reimbursement basis for coronavirus expenses. On Wednesday, after word of the lawsuit had circulated, commissioners upped that amount to $15 million.

Commissioner Natalie Hall joined other commissioners in saying that Fulton must do a better job of communicating with the cities.

“If all this was done, they wouldn’t be trying to sue us,” she said.

Four counties get direct funding

Four counties in the state — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — received direct CARES Act funding. Leaders in the 48 municipalities within those counties had expressed confusion over whether they would receive an allocation from the state, or if the county governments would provide them with funding.

In July, Gov. Brian Kemp told those cities they would have to go to their counties for money.

Fulton says it has no more money for the cities because the county has spent or allocated $90 million of its allotment. Earlier this month, county finance staff said that $30 million has been spent, and the other $60 million is tied up in commitments like contracts or invoices.

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City officials argue that there’s still plenty of money to go around. And the $104 million allotted to Fulton, they say, was based on its population so they should receive more of the money because the vast majority of Fulton residents live in cities.

As a result of the 2000s cityhood movement that municipalized much of the county, only a 7.5-mile stretch of Fulton Industrial Boulevard remains in the unincorporated portion of the county. Essentially every Fulton County resident has a city government that in theory is supposed to represent them more accurately than the county.

“There should be a more equitable way of doing this without leaving us to devices of Fulton County,” Roswell Mayor Lori Henry said during a meeting last week.

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