Fulton budget crunch means scaling back plans

Fulton County has big issues to address in 2024: dealing with an overcrowded and deteriorating jail, filling the “health care desert” left by the closure of two hospitals, managing a major election cycle and keeping employee pay competitive.

But a tighter-than-expected budget — an initial gap of $325 million between spending requests and revenue projections — means some things will have to be cut back or put off in order to fund essentials.

During a Sept. 20 budget preview, Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts described the situation as “very dire,” saying it will be a challenge next year to pay for many things the county has become accustomed to funding.

The county’s General Fund budget for 2023 was about $850 million. Tentative plans for 2024 were based on expectation of a slightly higher property tax rate, which would bring in tens of millions more. But county commissioners decided to hold the rate steady, meaning those plans are being cut back before county staff presents a proposed budget Nov. 15.

Ensuring the smooth operation of the 2024 elections for local, state and national offices will “consume a significant amount” of money, County Manager Dick Anderson said.

Sheriff Patrick Labat has proposed sending up to 1,000 inmates to private prisons in Mississippi and south Georgia. No decision on that has been made, but budget planners have tentatively allocated $33 million for “outsourcing of detainees,” whether there or elsewhere, Anderson said.

And there are plans to give all active county employees a 5% cost-of-living raise to keep pace with inflation, expected to cost $16 million, Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore said.

“Just when you take those three significant pressure points on expenses, and holding the (property tax) rate flat, that creates quite a bit of additional pressure in the budget to find ways to do anything new or to reduce expenses,” Anderson said.

Those and other requirements add up to a $155 million shortfall from early revenue estimates. In addition, budget increase requests from county departments top $170 million.

Anderson said the county is waiting on Labat’s final proposal for sending inmates out of county, including detailed costs.

“That may be something that we don’t do,” he said. Other possibilities include sending inmates to nearby jails, or increasing the number allowed at the former Atlanta City Detention Center, he said.

Pitts is seeking an agreement with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens to use all 1,300 beds at the Atlanta City Detention Center. The county has a contract to house up to 700 inmates there, but is currently using about 450 beds. The sheriff’s office says no more can be sent due to staffing limitations.

The county is also trying to compensate for the closure of two Wellstar Health System hospitals in the county’s south end. That figures into ongoing negotiations with Grady Memorial Hospital, which the county subsidizes by more than $60 million a year. That funding agreement, and the public service Grady provides in return, is up for renegotiation.

“We’re very encouraged with the negotiations with Grady,” Anderson said. He thinks the final deal won’t include a significant funding hike next year but will match Consumer Price Index increases in the future.

Another piece of the health care puzzle is a soon-to-open clinic in partnership with Morehouse School of Medicine. Whitmore said that will require an annual county subsidy of $1.6 million, which is less than expected.

But the county would like to expand other health services in the area, including perhaps a standalone emergency room, Anderson said.

“We’re not going to be able to do that,” he said.

Plans to build a multifunction health center in south Fulton, matching the one underway in Alpharetta, are still moving forward, according to Pamela Roshell, county chief operating officer for Health, Human Services & Public Works. But only a feasibility study is planned in 2024, with construction of the $44 million facility coming in some future budget.

The first rule of thumb for tightening budgets is not to take on new initiatives or expand existing programs, Anderson said.

“There’s a lot in that request, that $170 million, that I’m sure will be in that vein,” he said.

For starters county finance staff are looking at what spending is required by law, contracts or safety needs, Anderson said.

The county is looking to maintain current service levels, though costs for those are inevitably rising due to inflation, Whitmore said.

One mechanism for decreasing the budget gap is simply upping the conservative expectations for property tax receipts. Budget planners had assumed a 5% growth in property values next year, but now that’s been bumped to 7%, which would bring in another $13 million, Whitmore said. This year valuation grew by 11.8%.

County planners haven’t yet dug as deep as they could into funding for unfilled jobs, she said. Right now money is assigned to those positions. That funding could be taken back into the budget and jobs filled as needed on a staggered basis, Whitmore said.

Although employees are expected to get raises, plans for a study of whether county pay is up to market rates will be delayed until more money is available, she said.

County finance staff expect to give commissioners an update Nov. 1 and formally present the budget at the Nov. 15 meeting. The required public hearing is expected Dec. 6, and adoption at the first or second commission meeting in January.

As the end of the year approaches more exact details on tax receipts and county spending will come into focus, thus adjusting the financial picture, Whitmore said.

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