Fulton commissioners looks for outcomes in deciding where to spend

For years, Fulton County leaders decided how much to spend on parks, roads or public safety by looking first at one thing: how much they had spent the year before.

Now, Fulton is taking a different tack. Instead of funding programs or departments just because they always have, the county has asked those departments to make service offers that link to county goals, and explain how they will help fulfill them.

The changes are meant to encourage more spending that has an impact on county residents, like road paving and building repairs, with less money wasted on programs that do not succeed.

It’s part of a philosophical shift, promoted by County Manager Dick Anderson, toward basing work on outcomes.

“We focus not on the cost of the program, but on what we get out of the program,” said Sharon Whitmore, Fulton’s chief financial officer. “You begin to see which programs aren’t very closely aligned with the strategic plan.”

The new way of looking at Fulton’s available resources hasn’t yet led to huge changes in spending, but there have been some small ones. Money that was having minimal effect in reducing instances of teen pregnancy can be more useful if put toward preventing and containing tuberculosis outbreaks, Anderson said. So the county cut half the funds used for teen pregnancy prevention and some other areas to add $469,000 for tuberculosis.

The county has started to look at what tradeoffs departments can make in order to do more of what succeeds, chief strategy officer Anna Roach said. That means fewer requests for money will be based on wishlists of what departments would like to do, without examining where they’re spending money in less effective ways.

“For the first go at this, we needed them to embrace the process,” she said. “It was less the actual cutting and more the process by which we allocate resources.”

Fulton county commissioners are scheduled to approve their new budget Wednesday. The county’s general fund spending is $651.4 million, up 3.6 percent from the 2015 projections and 10.3 percent from what was actually spent.When its various funds are added (including a South Fulton service district, a 911 fund, water and sewer and the county airport fund) the total nears $1 billion.

It includes $20 million to upgrade problematic facilities, $3 million to add sidewalks and repave roads and $6 million to upgrade the IT network.

The county is dropping its millage rate in Fulton’s incorporated areas, though it will still be higher than it was before a 2014 increase. Despite the decrease, Fulton is improving security at arts centers and restoring the money available for nonprofit grants to earlier levels.

And the spending plan includes $10 million, carved out of the justice budget, to develop a plan to reduce the number of people in jail, particularly those with mental health issues.

“We want to invest in things that have the most impact,” Anderson said.

The changes, Roach said, help everyone keep Fulton’s big-picture strategies in mind as they consider where money can be best-used.

“It really helped to change the way we think about the budget,” Whitmore said. “Conversations tended to focus on what we didn’t have, what we wouldn’t be doing, rather than what we would do. We steered the discussions toward expected outcomes.”