Robb Pitts (left), the new chair of the Fulton County commission, and Natalie Hall a new commissioner, will play a role in ensuring Fulton succeeds in improving in three key areas. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Property assessments, jail and elections are Fulton County priorities

Reducing the population at the county jail. Fixing the property assessment system, so residents aren’t taken by surprise by rising values. Speeding up the elections reporting process.

They’re the three main goals for Fulton County government this year, and county commissioners spent much of Tuesday talking about how to turn those desires into results.

For the third year, the county will invest millions of dollars of budget surplus from the court system into drug and DUI courts, pre-arrest diversion programs and efforts to reduce a backlog of cases that, in some cases, have kept people in jail awaiting trial for more than a year.

The $5.5 million investment in 2018 seeks to reduce the number of people in the jail, as well as bring down its operating costs and the costs of the clerks and other court administration.

But with years of investment — and a jail population that remains stubbornly high, around 2,500 people in November — County Manager Dick Anderson said it was time for more progress to be made.

Of the three priorities, the justice piece is furthest along, said Anna Roach, the county’s chief strategy officer. Commissioners discussed the best way to succeed in keeping people out of the jail. Was it drug and DUI courts, or programs to divert people before they entered the system at all?

“To reduce the jail population, if that’s our goal, pre-arrest diversion is the only real, true way to do that,” Commissioner Marvin Arrington said.

When it comes to property assessments, the county wants to be more accurate and more transparent. Last year, residents complaining about rising values convinced commissioners to keep most residential values at 2016 levels. The state subsequently rejected Fulton’s tax digest, and it still has not been approved.

The county has plans for a new website for the tax assessor with the ability to file appeals or for homestead exemptions online. Sharon Whitmore, Fulton’s chief financial officer, said an aggressive communication plan will ensure residents know their values are likely to go up.

County leaders said they were frustrated that the company whose mass appraisal and other software they use during the assessment proces isn’t always responsive.

They said it might behoove them to look at other businesses or to strengthen service level agreements, so the county can ensure it is getting what it asks for. There is a tight timeline to get assessments right, or the county will face state penalties.

“We are at a critical phase,” Vice Chairman Bob Ellis said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

In terms of elections, Chief Operating Officer Todd Long said the county’s goal is to have 90 percent of precincts reporting by 11 p.m. — Fulton election tallies sometimes go until the wee hours of the morning.

Long said if more county employees worked at polling places on election day, it could speed up the process. He also suggested the county find a way to upload election results directly from voting locations, instead of requiring them to drive ballot information to central locations. Those that still must drive, he said, could be motivated not to dally with a bonus, or other incentive.

Anderson said he expected election results to come in more quickly beginning in May.

“We really want to show improvement in 2018,” he said.

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In other Fulton news:

Mayor Kasim Reed showed renderings of what Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry could look like. First phase: Gateway entrance with lighting, signage and graphics on the north side. The restoration includes resurfacing the road and improving the greenway along the corridor. The park will also have trails and a pedestrian connection to and from Proctor Creek Greenway. The site will become a 2-billion-gallon water reservoir. At 280 acres, Westside Park will be larger than Piedmont Park (185 acres).

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