Fulton County court workers lose good time because of bad math

Trials were delayed and employee morale took a dive when about 200 people in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office were forced to take unpaid leave to help close a budget gap.

The attorneys, legal assistants and others were slated to take 17 furlough days this calendar year, and had already suffered two unpaid days off — a half day every two weeks, beginning in January.

DA Paul Howard said the hit to morale was “significant” and that multiple people resigned.

There was just one problem.

“We didn’t need to furlough,” said Howard, who ordered the furloughs.

Howard took responsibility for the unnecessary furloughs of full-time employees, saying that he misunderstood his department’s budget. He had been trying to close an $846,000 budget gap when he ordered his employees to work less. It turns out, there was no gap.

“What I found is the county had already removed that money,” he said. “We did not need to furlough employees. Right now, we’re operating under budget.”

In addition to the DA, the public defender’s office also instituted furloughs. Unlike Howard, Public Defender Vernon Pitts said he is not sure he has enough money in his budget, and is continuing with his plan to furlough 130 people for eight days apiece. He said he hopes they can be lessened.

“Our only option was furloughs,” Pitts said.

The move cost him two senior attorneys, he said.

The impact was on more than paychecks. Gail Tusan, chief judge of the Superior Court, said several judges told her they were experiencing delays in the movement of their criminal cases because an attorney was not available. Cases were unresolved because of insufficient staffing, she said.

The county manager, Dick Anderson, was incredulous. Furloughs weren’t at all warranted, he said.

“You do it when there’s an extreme situation,” he said. “(Pitts’) budget exceeds what his budget was last year. How does that necessitate a furlough? I can’t explain that action.”

Anderson said he suspected the moves were an over-reaction to a dispute the DA’s office, public defender’s office and others were having with the county over who should pay for planned justice reforms.

Fulton County had held back some money from judicial and other budgets as an incentive to get those parties to the table. The department budgets were created separately.

The error was discovered last week, as the DA, judges and others were negotiating with the county over the justice reform funds.

“I don’t know how, but I’m glad we got it resolved,” Howard said. “On my way back over, one of the employees ran down the hall and leaped into my arms. A couple of hundred dollars means a lot to people.”

Whether the workers will be paid for the furlough days they took is unclear. Howard said he is asking the county to pay workers for the unpaid time they took off, reasoning that most of the workers would not have taken the time off if they weren’t required to. But Anderson said the DA’s office has the money in its own budget — just as it had the money to pay employees in the first place.

Anderson said Howard’s office has chosen to hold funds for eventual hires instead of paying the employees it already has.

“I don’t think it’s a sustainable long-term strategy,” he said.

The furloughs have already had an impact. A legal assistant, who resigned to take a higher-paying job, mentioned the furloughs in her resignation letter.

Two other employees wrote letters to Howard, saying the furloughs were causing a financial burden.

“It has been very difficult for me making ends meet since the furlough,” wrote an unidentified legal assistant who had worked in Fulton for five years. “I am not able to maintain my household needs, and it has caused health issues for me…”

A 15-year employee wrote that “just the smallest decrease in pay” caused concerns about “how I buy my groceries and even pay my bills.”

“I don’t like wondering if I will keep my job, how many hours will I be furloughed?” the worker wrote. “Will I be able to pay my mortgage, pay for gas and feed my family?”

Anderson said while the county controls the budget process and how much money each department receives, it’s up to them how they spend it. Personally, he said, he finds furloughs to be disruptive, and most useful in extreme circumstances. The circumstances in the DA’s office weren’t extreme, he said.

“These were self-inflicted wounds,” he said.