Fulton may hire lobbyist as lawmakers eye big changes

Fulton County this week will revive an old debate about how to influence the General Assembly as state lawmakers consider a new round of laws aimed at remaking the county government.

On Wednesday the Fulton Board of Commissioners will discuss hiring a lobbyist to represent the county on state and federal issues. It could cost $200,000 to $300,000, according to County Commission Chairman John Eaves.

Supporters of the proposal say Fulton needs an expert to lobby the General Assembly as it considers new laws that could have a dramatic effect on the county budget. And they say Fulton is missing out on federal money for various programs because it doesn’t have a lobbyist in Washington.

“The potential return, in terms of grant dollars on the federal level, will justify the additional investment,” Eaves told members of the Fulton County legislative delegation last week.

Critics say Fulton shouldn’t spend money on lobbying, given the county’s tight budget and a recent property tax increase.

“It certainly didn’t take the Fulton commission long to find innovative ways to spend their new-found pot of money after this year’s 17 percent property tax increase,” said Michael Fitzgerald, co-founder of the North Fulton & Friends Tea Party.

Government spending to lobby other governments is nothing new. In May Cobb County officials approved a $168,000 contract for state and federal lobbying. Gwinnett spends $85,500 a year on federal lobbying, plus another $107,000 for the salary of an in-house lobbyist who handles state issues.

But the outcry has sometimes been louder in Fulton, where many residents think the county spends too much money. Fitzgerald said county commissioners should walk the few blocks from the county government center to the state capitol and talk to lawmakers themselves.

That’s exactly what commissioners decided to do last year. In 2013, just before the legislative session began, they rejected plans to pay an outside lobbying firm about $260,000. They also eliminated their in-house lobbying division, saying they couldn’t justify the expense.

Now the only lobbyist Fulton has is an employee who monitors legislation part-time in addition to his regular duties as a grants procurement officer. The idea was commissioners could lobby the General Assembly and federal lawmakers themselves.

But their efforts didn’t stop state lawmakers from approving 10 bills reshaping Fulton County government in 2013. Among other things, lawmakers redrew County Commission districts to give north Fulton another seat, made it easier to fire county employees and prohibited commissioners from raising property tax rates until 2015.

That last measure sparked a court battle when Fulton commissioners approved the 17 percent tax increase last month. They said the General Assembly overstepped its authority by capping tax rates. Six Republican lawmakers disagreed and filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the tax hike. The lawsuit is still pending.

Last week the Fulton legislative delegation discussed more legislation affecting the county that will be considered next year. The most significant: a proposal to double Fulton’s property tax homestead exemption to $60,000.

That would mean the owners of homes worth up to $150,000 would pay no county property taxes. It would also cost Fulton tens of millions of dollars in revenue, which county officials say would prompt cuts to Grady Memorial Hospital, libraries and other popular services.

With significant state legislation affecting the county under discussion, and with federal dollars for a variety of programs to be had, some Fulton officials say it makes sense to contract with a professional lobbying firm.

“Considering our needs, we should hire someone to represent us at the state and on the federal levels,” said Commissioner Joan Garner.

Others are skeptical. Commissioner Bill Edwards, a south Fulton Democrat, thinks it’s pointless to try to lobby Republicans in the General Assembly. He thinks they’ve already made up their minds on key issues, and he’d rather spend money challenging their legislation in court.

“We’re beyond dancing with someone who doesn’t want to dance with us,” Edwards said. “I don’t want a lobbyist. I want a lawyer.”

Fulton recently solicited proposals from lobbying firms, and seven have expressed interest. The county staff is evaluating the proposals.

Though he told lawmakers a state and federal lobbying contract could cost $200,000 to $300,000, Eaves said the contract could be downsized if a majority of commissioners wants federal but not state representation.

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