Fulton leaders pass $1.1 billion budget with last-minute additions

Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis voted against the county’s 2019 budget. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO
Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis voted against the county’s 2019 budget. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

Fulton County commissioners Wednesday added more than a million dollars to fund the National Black Arts Festival, to help staff the Hammonds House Museum, and for a slew of other pet proposals, before lawmakers finally approved the county’s $1.11 billion budget.

It’s a funding package that’s more than 10 percent higher than last year’s county budget.

Three of the board’s four Democrats led the requests for additional spending during Wednesday’s meeting, and the budget was approved by a 4-3 vote along party lines.

“It’s an outright embarrassment and insult to the taxpayers and citizens of Fulton County what took place here today,” said Commissioner Bob Ellis, a Republican. “We adjusted the budget to put politics and commissioners’ pet interests above the priorities of our citizens.”

The addition of $1.3 million in new projects during the meeting sent the proposed budget higher than what the county expected to have available in revenue.

The county manager had already proposed an across-the-board 2.5-percent reduction in budgets for all departments to pay for a series of commissioners’ pet projects, including $250,000 to encourage more investment by the film industry and $100,000 for an aquaponics program. That set of requests totaled $15.9 million.

County Manager Dick Anderson suggested the county could reduce its risk fund and its contingency to buy new voting machines by several million dollars to pay for what commissioners wanted.

Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore had to leave the meeting for more than an hour to try to figure out everything that commissioners were asking for and where that money would come from.

When she came returned, she recommended gutting the remaining $1 million set aside for new voting machines, and spending an additional $341,500 that’s meant to pay for special elections.

County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, a Democrat, said he was “personally not satisfied” with a lot that was in the budget, though he voted in favor of it. He was the only Democrat not to ask for additional funding.

“Everything has a price tag,” Pitts said at the beginning of the meeting. “You may not get everything you want.”

Anderson, the county manager, said the county was still able to prioritize senior services, homelessness, mental health and addiction services and HIV and AIDS funding, among other areas. He said county departments typically spend less money than is allocated to them, and the reduction simply accounts for that.

“It really shouldn’t have any significant impact,” he said of the last-minute adjustments. “It shouldn’t be seen as something that’s problematic to accomplish.”

Commissioners also in their budget decided to use $3.5 million earmarked as a living wage increase for the county’s 2,300 lowest-paid workers to give a 3 percent cost of living increase to all 4,600 employees this summer.