Mayors mull Fulton’s $30M offer of COVID relief

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

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 Board of Commissioners on Wednesday agreed to give cities a total of $30 million to fight COVID-19 after months of public fighting and legal threats over who gets federal coronavirus relief money.

But the mayors aren’t happy with the offer, said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, who has been representing his fellow city leaders in this matter, on Thursday.

Bodker said the mayors have met about the deal and came away with one message: “Fulton County screws all citizens equally."

The county will reimburse the cities after mayors prove the money was properly used. Mayors haven’t detailed how they plan to use the funds — some have suggested small business loans for businesses crippled by the pandemic.

After the vote, Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts sent a letter to the mayors giving them a Friday deadline. But Bodker said negotiations are ongoing, and a Friday deadline won’t be possible because the mayors need to meet with their councils to approve the deal.

“This was our best and final offer and we’ll see what happens,” Pitts said.

Fulton received $104 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money. Mayors have felt excluded from the county’s response to COVID-19 and are unhappy they did not receive commensurate direct allocations, unlike essentially every other city in Georgia.

Four counties — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — received direct CARES Act funding. Leaders of the 48 municipalities within those counties were confused about where they should ask for a cut of the money. In July, Gov. Brian Kemp told those cities they would have to go to their counties for money.

Mayor of Johns Creek Mike Bodker speaks during a May 2019 meeting. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

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In a rare moment of unity, the cities of Fulton in mid-August began threatening to file legal action that would stop Fulton from spending any more of the federal funds.

Commissioners upped the amount from $2.5 million to $15 million after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported about the legal threat from the cities.

Mayors from every city had agreed to sign on 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.

Bodker said Thursday it is now too late for legal action. And if the mayors can get their councils to accept the deal, “it is simply because the cities are willing to hold their nose and accept what Fulton dealt them.”

The $30 million will be split into $25 million for the cities and $5 million for personal protective equipment countywide.

Bodker said the cities deserve more money because Fulton is almost entirely comprised of cities. That’s why mayors had asked Fulton for $70 million.

No matter whether they accept this deal from the county or not, Bodker said Fulton’s mayors will ask the state to get what they view as their fair share. But any money they get must be spent by Dec. 30 or it goes back to Washington, D.C.

County officials for weeks have been saying they have allocated and spent all of the CARES Act money. But the county freed up the money by stopping the expansion of COVID-19 testing sites and cancelling orders for more PPE.

The demand on testing has fluctuated from nearly 7,000 being tested a day down to 3,000 per day now.

“It’s been quite unpredictable all year long,” said County Manager Dick Anderson.

Pitts said they are ready for the uptick that is predicted once flu season begins.

Through all this tension with the mayors, Pitts said he has tried to stay focused on how to help residents.

“The intent of this Act was that the money be used to help people, not cities,” he said.

But mayors accused Fulton of misusing the money and not communicating with cities — which are close to the people — throughout the process.

Fulton County Board Chairman Robb Pitts speaks on Aug. 14, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

“I will admit, in hindsight, Monday morning quarterbacking, maybe we should have talked to them about how we were going to use the money, which we didn’t ask for, by the way,” said Pitts, adding he doesn’t like the characterization of Fulton and its cities fighting.

But Bodker said the county and cities are about to enter negotiations, including a delicate county transit deal, and the mayors have left this CARES Act situation feeling slighted by Fulton.

“They won a battle, but they may not like the results of the war," Bodker said.

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