‘Shut up!’ ‘Make me!’ Commissioners squabble during animal control debate

Fulton cut off animal control services to the city of Atlanta April 5
Fulton County Animal Services Field Service Supervisor Ladream Taylor checks an injured stray into the vet Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Fulton County Animal Services Field Service Supervisor Ladream Taylor checks an injured stray into the vet Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Fulton County won’t resume providing animal control services to the city of Atlanta without a signed intergovernmental agreement, county commissioners declared Wednesday while also disputing the city’s claim that the county owes $5.7 million to the city for old water bills.

Along the way, a shouting match between commissioners Marvin Arrington Jr. and Khadijah Abdur-Rahman broke out.

Arrington, who unsuccessfully sought to immediately restore animal control services to Atlanta, said the county had gotten a signed letter of intent from the city — which “is in fact a contract.” Abdur-Rahman said something during Arrington’s speech.

“Shut up! Shut up! I’m talking,” Arrington shouted repeatedly.

“Make me!” Abdur-Rahman called back. Soon afterward, Arrington walked out.

Pitts announced April 5 that the county was cutting off animal control services to Atlanta that day in the absence of an intergovernmental agreement, including city willingness to pay a higher annual rate for that service — $6.8 million a year, or nearly double what the annual fee had been.

A lengthy back-and-forth with Atlanta officials failed to produce a signed agreement, Pitts said. Even now it would take city council until April 15 to approve it as a resolution, or May 6 if it has to be passed as an ordinance, according to Pitts.

Commissioner Bridget Thorne said the city could hold a special meeting sooner if council members wanted. In negotiations, city officials said they didn’t want to pay for services the county already provided from Jan. 1 to April 5, she said.

Commission Chair Robb Pitts asked County Attorney Y. Soo Jo for an opinion on the city’s letter of intent.

“A letter of intent is a promise to enter into a promise. It is not legally binding,” she said.

A spokesperson for Mayor Andre Dickens issued a brief response Thursday morning that did not address the issues brought up by county officials.

“The city continues to encourage residents to call 311 for animal services in the absence of Fulton County providing services, and call 911 for emergency situations,” he said.

The city’s claim that it is owed money for past water bills amounts to a “smokescreen,” in the words of Commissioner Bob Ellis.

Since the April 5 service cutoff, Atlanta residents brought about 40 dogs to the county shelter, according to Joe Barasoane, director of emergency management, which oversees animal services. They weren’t turned away, since staff knew they’d be “tied up on the fence line outside the shelter” if not taken in, he said.

Animal control has received many calls from Atlanta residents requesting service, but has been redirecting them to 311, Barasoane said.

The brand new Fulton County Animal Shelter opens to the public with a celebration on Saturday, Dec. 2 2023. Fulton officials have said the cost of the new shelter is not being passed along to cities. (Olivia Bowdoin for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

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Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Although the county built a new $40 million animal shelter last year, that construction cost is not being passed along to cities, county officials have said. But the shelter’s operating costs are higher due to greater services and more staff. Animal control charges to each city are calculated based on how many service calls come in from each city, according to county staff.

Atlanta is asked to pay the most for services since it accounts for about 55% of calls. Atlanta, East Point, South Fulton and Union City bear 86% of animal control costs, but that’s because they account for the bulk of service calls, Pitts said.

Charges for animal control have not risen in about five years although costs increased steadily, with the county and its nonprofit contractor LifeLine absorbing that increase until this year, Pitts has said.

Commissioner Dana Barrett said cities were told last July that all their animal control charges would go up sharply. The formal intergovernmental agreements went out in October, and all 14 other cities in Fulton County signed. Any argument on how those charges are apportioned should have been made then, she said.

Atlanta was warned by a commission vote March 20 that service would be cut off April 3 without a new agreement, Barrett said.

She read off the state constitution, which says counties cannot provide animal control within a city’s boundaries without a contract.

“What message are we sending mayors of the other cities that did the right thing?” Abdur-Rahman said. She’s a proud lifelong Atlantan, but providing animal services without a contract creates legal liability for the county, she said.

Johns Creek reluctantly approves agreement with Fulton County for animal control services. (Courtesy Fulton County Animal Services)

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

On the city’s claim that the county owes millions for old water bills, Pitts said he talked several times with Mayor Andre Dickens last week, and told him the county will pay any bill it really owes — but he asked for documentation.

“What we received from the city of Atlanta was a one-page spreadsheet,” Pitts said.

County staff said the city’s claim dates back more than 40 years, and previous discussions were always inconclusive. County Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore said her office is trying to reconcile all old bills and seeks to meet with the city and utility.

Answering Commissioner Dana Barrett, Whitmore said the last time the city brought it up was 2019 — and again fell silent when asked for details.

Pitts said he wants to get the water bill claim resolved “in the next couple weeks.”

Commissioner Marvin Arrington said according to state law, bills more than four years old are invalid. Pitts asked County Attorney Y. Soo Jo to check.

“If that applies, we may have nothing to talk about,” he said.