Fulton and mayors continue to negotiate over $104M of COVID-19 money

The Fulton County Government Center was sporadically bustling in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on Monday, June 29, 2020. All visitors and employees entering the Fulton County Government Center were told to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and they had their temperature checked before entering the building in an attempt to decrease the spread of COVID-19. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
The Fulton County Government Center was sporadically bustling in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on Monday, June 29, 2020. All visitors and employees entering the Fulton County Government Center were told to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and they had their temperature checked before entering the building in an attempt to decrease the spread of COVID-19. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

With their legal threat still looming, the mayors of 13 Fulton County cities want more coronavirus relief money from the county government, along with a breakdown of how the county has spent its $104 million allotment of federal funds.

City leaders are skeptical that all the money has been well-spent. They say their cities deserve more than the $15 million the county has promised to them collectively, because Fulton received the money based on population and basically every Fulton resident lives in one of their cities.

County officials argue that their use of COVID-19 relief money helps all Fulton residents.

But the mayors feel so disrespected by being left out of the process they have threatened to file a request for an injunction that would stop Fulton from spending any more Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money.

The injunction, which hasn’t been filed, would include all but two Fulton cities: Atlanta, which received a direct CARES Act allotment of $88.5 million; and Mountain Park, because it has had no direct COVID-19 expenses for its roughly 550 Northside residents.

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The county made an offer to the mayors this week, but it was rejected. It’s unclear how much was offered.

“There is no real trust between the cities and the county right now,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who represents the Northside mayors, said Thursday.

‘It’s itchy’

Four counties in the state — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — had enough residents to receive direct CARES Act allotments. Leaders of the 48 municipalities in those counties worried whether their relief funding would come from the state or the counties.

After months of concern, Gov. Brian Kemp in July told those cities to ask their counties for money.

DeKalb County alone is giving $32.6 million to its cities, but Fulton is different from the other three counties because it is almost entirely made up of municipalities following the cityhood movement of the 2000s.

Now, the only unincorporated part of the county is a 7.5-mile stretch of Fulton Industrial Boulevard, which is home to roughly 500 of Fulton’s 1 million residents.

Cities have been asking for money since Fulton learned about the $104 million in April. But Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts has maintained that he didn’t know he had to reserve so much for cities directly, and Fulton had to spend fast to tamp down the virus.

Fulton’s chief financial officer Sharon Whitmore said Wednesday that, with the $15 million that commissioners have already reserved for the cities, the county has allotted all of its $104 million.

But the numbers aren’t concrete.

Fulton officials met with mayors on a private call Monday in which the county offered to give them an undisclosed amount of previously budgeted CARES money.

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Bodker said the plan didn’t work for the mayors — they didn’t want to be the “bad guy” taking money from vital pandemic line items. He declined to say what the services were. Eventually, he said, the cities will have to make a proposal, but they don’t know enough about the county’s spending yet to do so.

This follows a meeting that Bodker called between the mayors and the Fulton Board of Commissioners on Friday, which turned into a rare public verbal lashing. Mayors told county leaders they had been bad partners who had withheld and possibly misspent some of the federal money, questioning why they have used hundreds of thousands of dollars on things like vehicles.

The mayors added to their list of concerns this week the unknown amount of money spent on residents of Atlanta, which received its own $88.5 million CARES Act allotment. Bodker said Atlanta should use some of its money to reimburse Fulton, claiming anything else would be “double-dipping.”

He said this is not about cities getting money, rather wanting a city-by-city breakdown to make sure the money is spent well. But uncovering how the county has spent the money has only led to new worries for the mayors.

“The more we scratch, the more we learn it’s itchy,” Bodker said.

County officials discuss issue in closed-door session

Both sides agree that better communication could have avoided wasteful duplicated services in the middle of a pandemic. For example, one of the mayors during the fiery Friday call said they don’t need the cache of personal protective equipment that Fulton has spent millions amassing.

It seems like the county took that to heart. During the Wednesday commission meeting, County Manager Dick Anderson said they might stop giving PPE to the cities. Fulton has been using its size as buying power to get better prices.

“I did not want us to get further down a path if cities did not feel like PPE was of interest to them, which was expressed on the Friday conference call,” he said.

When questioned by Commissioner Liz Hausmann about not giving the life-saving gear to cities, Anderson and Pitts said anything regarding the disagreement with the mayors would have to be discussed in a closed-door executive session because of “potential litigation.”

The executive session lasted more than an hour Wednesday.

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County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said the state’s Open Records law protects discussions “in the nature of settlement of a dispute for threatened litigation” even if nothing has been filed.

Adding to the pressure in this fight: The $104 million must be spent by Dec. 30, or the money goes back to Washington.

In Johns Creek, Bodker wants to use the money on small-business grants.

“We’ll be lucky if our hotels survive,” he said. However, Fulton has offered such grants countywide.

Bodker said he wants to figure this out in two weeks to give cities time to help residents.

“Whatever number we get, we have to be able to put it to use or we defeat the purpose of the CARES Act,” he said.

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