Fulton 2015 budget faces uncertainty

Buoyed by revenue from a recent tax increase, Fulton County officials hope to expand library hours and boost spending on other programs when they unveil their 2015 budget this month.

But questions about the legality of the tax increase and Fulton’s changing political dynamics could make that difficult.

Two pending lawsuits seek to declare the 17 percent tax increase illegal. If successful, they could force dramatic spending cuts.

Complicating matters even more is turnover on the county Board of Commissioners. The board that approves the budget in January may have different priorities than the one that has governed Fulton for the last four years. Some new members are already looking for ways to cut spending.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves and the county staff will kick off the debate when they unveil their proposed budget as soon as this week. Documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and interviews with Fulton officials offer clues as to what that budget will contain:

  • In a move that would cost about $3 million, the proposed budget may restore library hours to 2013 levels. Commissioners cut total library hours from 1,562 a week in 2013 to 996 this year to help balance the budget.

Several current and newly elected commissioners told the AJC restoring library ours will be a top priority. Eaves signaled his intent when talking to library officials at a recent budget hearing.

“We learned when we cut back how popular our libraries are,” Eaves told the library officials. “I think our public will expect restoration.”

  • Fulton's operating subsidy for Grady Memorial Hospital likely will remain unchanged at $45 million, preliminary budget documents show. The subsidy has declined in each of the last seven years. The money is used to provide health care to low-income Fulton residents.
  • Preliminary budget documents show general fund spending – which pays for countywide services like courts, libraries and social services – would rise more than 5 percent to nearly $659 million next year. That includes a host of requests by department heads to increase spending on everything from new employees to new vehicles and other equipment.

Many of those requests likely will be denied. Eaves said the proposed budget probably will include cuts, as well as some additional spending.

County commissioners likely will make substantial changes to the proposed budget before they approve a final spending plan in January. And the commission that makes those decisions will be substantially different than the one that has governed Fulton County for the last four years.

Three of seven commissioners who will vote on the budget in January were just elected last week – the biggest turnover in a generation. Thanks to redistricting, Republicans will gain a third commission seat and north Fulton – where many residents feel they don’t enough for their county tax dollars – will have a greater say in county affairs.

Newly elected Republicans Bob Ellis of Milton and Lee Morris of Atlanta are already are looking for savings.

“I do think there are still opportunities for savings in the way we administer and run the county,” Ellis said. “I think there are inefficiencies there and a lack of collaboration.”

Any budget commissioners approve could be thrown into disarray if a judge declares this year’s 17 percent tax increase illegal. The tax hike will generate an estimated $60 million in revenue for the county – revenue that might disappear or have to be refunded if either of the lawsuits is successful.

Fulton officials have expressed confidence the tax hike is legal. And, while the lawsuits are still pending, a judge recently gave the county a preliminary victory in one of them.

Even if the tax increase is legal, Republicans on the commission may press to repeal it. Though they may not have the votes to do it initially, Ellis said they might convince their colleagues to roll back the rate somewhat next year to offset rising property values.

“I think we’ll see values go up,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to roll that millage rate back as well.”