Commission increases budget but disses justice system

Adopting a $588.7 million budget on Wednesday, Fulton County commissioners  increased  spending for favored programs  and ignored warnings that court- system cuts would mean costly jail overcrowding.

By the end of the give and take, the Fulton County Superior Court decided it could live with most of the reductions.

Commissioner Nancy Boxill was vocal in her opposition to restoring funding for the district attorney, solicitor, Fulton County state and superior court administrations and superior court clerk to 2009 levels while mental-health, recreation and literacy programs were cut.

"I cannot say what is most important to government is criminal justice," she said.,

The commission recommended a budget of $573 million, a drop from $602 million spent by the county in 2009, and then restored more than $15 million in proposed cuts. .

The money returned to the budget was broken down in this manner: $8 million to avoid  a 4-percent cut in staff salaries, $900,000 for absentee-ballot system upgrades, $3.4 million for Grady Memorial Hospital,  $400,000 for senior home repair,  $750,000 in human service grants and $750,000 in other grants.

Commissioner Robb Pitts argued the commission should restore $4.2 million in court-system cuts after  judges and  administrators warned their ability to process cases expediently would be compromised. Chief superior court judge Dee Downs said jail backlog would increase substantially, undoing county progress made in reducing its criminal-case backlog by 44 percent in recent years.

County commissioners increased spending for a few justice programs. They added $426,000 to the county public defenders' $11 million budget and restored $150,000 to the county drug court. The drug court oversees defendants with long criminal histories through a treatment program rather than jail.

The commission also approved $800,000 for pre-trial supervision services in state and superior courts. The services monitor people awaiting trial who otherwise might be in jail at a cost of $72 a day The commission made the money contingent on the two courts working out ways to consolidate their pre-trial programs.

Superior court administrator Judy Cramer and Downs were in agreement that the commissioners had restored the vital parts of the system, according to court spokesman Don Plummer."We believe we are going to be able to do what we need to do now," Plummer said.

However,superior court clerk Tina Robinson warned that $952,000 cut from her budget meant layoffs for employees who helped expedite hearings at the county jail, which would lead to jail overcrowding, and those who currently record real-estate deeds and transactions, which could hamper upgrades to the county tax digest.

Robinson said she couldn't move personnel from other departments to pick up the slack. Some areas were untouchable.The 19 judges have at least two clerks each to keep up with caseloads. Robinson acknowledgedthe team system was unusual but defended it as helpful inhandling the workload of the state's busiest courthouse.