Commissioners chop budgets, but not their own

As county commissioners have voted to cut programs and services — and occasionally raise taxes — during recent lean budget years, one area has remained flush with cash: their own spending.

Call it big government on the local level. Commissioners in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year running and staffing their own offices and, in some cases, paying for travel and training that takes them across the state and country.

Fulton has the highest costs, with annual budgets of at least $500,000 in taxpayer dollars set aside for three of its seven commissioners, according to an analysis of budgets provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

To determine each commissioner’s office spending, the newspaper filed open records requests and analyzed budget documents and salary data provided by all five counties. While Fulton commissioners’ budgets are autonomous and easily separated from other expenses, other counties where officials share more resources required breaking down staff salaries, benefits and administrative costs to find office-by-office totals.

The data show that even Cobb, with its reputation for austerity, spends about $180,000 a year for each of its five commissioners. Gwinnett commissioners spend about $190,000, while the chairman’s budget is about $296,000. In DeKalb, each commissioner spends about $387,000. Clayton spends $240,000 per commissioner, or $1.2 million. But the actual money that Clayton spends on commissioners is much less. The County Commission’s budget includes the county manager and clerk and those employees. Additionally, Clayton commissioners, who earn $22,000 annually, do not have individual staffs and discretionary budgets.

By comparison, each state senator in Georgia cost taxpayers $200,000 annually to run his office. State senators serve about the same amount of constituents as commissioners and are likewise tasked with one specific job: to plan and approve an annual budget.

Commissioners, though, say they also must handle far more constituent services and are fairly consistent in defending their budgets.

Even as lower revenue has tightened county finances, many commissioners say residents expect as much if not more from government. Complaints routinely go directly to commissioners’ offices to be solved. Commissioners say they need staffers to help manage it all.

“Our phones ring off the hook,” said Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, whose $398,000 budget is the county’s smallest. “The majority of it is constituent issues, problems dealing with county departments.”

And with that, commission budgets have remained fairly steady or grown slightly in recent years, even as Cobb and DeKalb raised taxes to make ends meet and they and other counties reduced spending elsewhere.

DeKalb, for instance, saw its commission budget tick up about 3 percent this year, to $2.7 million. At the same time, it held spending on books and materials for its 22 library branches to $100,000. Budgeted spending for Fulton commissioners also rose 3 percent this year, to $3.3 million.

Local control

Georgia’s 159 counties are set up by charter to provide state-level services locally. Because of that, spending on jails, sheriff’s deputies and the courts gobbles up much of every county’s budget.

But the sheer size of metro Atlanta’s counties, and a 1970 change to state law, allows them to take on municipal services. Cobb’s libraries, DeKalb’s trash pickup and Gwinnett’s parks are all products of the gradual move into providing citylike services.

Three out of every four residents in those three counties still rely on county government for those and most other services.

“Constituents stop me at Kroger to talk about paving,” DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson said. “I get home at night and there are notes on my door about zoning problems. This is a bustling county that has people demanding services.”

That doesn’t explain Fulton, where budgets are the least uniform because commissioners set their own spending.

Dissatisfaction with Fulton led Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs to vote to become cities during the past decade. They now deal with most of the day-to-day government work of police protection, planning and road work. That left the county with about 100 square miles to manage, providing services to 87,500 people in south Fulton.

“It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for Fulton County commissioners, who have far fewer duties since they are not the primary local government for their residents, to have such a bloated budget,” said state House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta.

Commission Chairman John Eaves said the changes have not lessened his workload and that comparing Fulton with other metro Atlanta counties isn’t fair. Commissioners serve a population of 950,000 and deal with big-city problems of poverty, homelessness, health disparities and HIV, he said.

Fulton Commissioner Tom Lowe has an office budget of about $607,000, the highest of any commissioner in the core metro area. Two longtime staffers in Lowe’s office account for much of that, costing a combined $140,000 in pension expenses under the old, more generous program. Other commissioners set aside between $17,000 and $23,000 in retirement contributions.

“You can’t find one person on the board of commissioners of any county who has been more frugal about not loading up the wagon,” Lowe said. “I don’t know where we can cut.”

County manager

All counties could work with less staff if they relied more on other professionals in government, former state Rep. Tom Bordeaux said. Now a Savannah alderman, Bordeaux said he must send constituent complaints to a city manager to handle.

That structure — used by Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Clayton counties — is designed to make delivering services as nonpolitical as possible.

Cobb appears to have perfected the system for its taxpayers.

There, commissioner spending is spread out across departments. For instance, about $39,000 for supplies is covered in the county manager’s budget. Aside from one office aide for each commissioner, no staff supports commissioner duties.

Combined, those two factors shift the money to daily government operations, Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said. Though that may make it harder for the public to track commissioner spending, it helps keep costs down.

Cobb’s County Commission has cut its budget by the same 10 percent that it has asked of other departments in recent years.

“While as commissioners we focus directly on serving our residents, the actual service delivery and effort to address typical daily issues is primarily handled by staff in county departments,” Lee said. “If we had to address and solve all the issues raised by our constituents within each commissioner’s office, we would have to add staff to handle that, which of course, would require bigger budgets.”

DeKalb is roughly the same size as Cobb but spends nearly twice as much per commissioner, in part because of its divided CEO style of government. Counted in each commissioner’s budget is the share of $441,000 for six staffers who help run committee meetings and offer budget and policy analysis solely for the commission.

Those jobs would go away if the county switched to a county manager model, though the move would still leave DeKalb commissioner budgets at $100,000 more than their Cobb counterparts.

“In our system, you need that staff for checks and balances,” said Commissioner Elaine Boyer, a longtime proponent of switching government structures. “I’ve pushed to change because we have that duplication. That’s the only way we can really cut without hurting constituent services.”

True cost

While it may be true that commissioners won’t get as much done with smaller budgets, Bordeaux said it may be just as true that they just need to work harder the way they are asking other county employees to do.

Many taxpayers, too, are dealing with the “more with less” mantra in their own jobs and expect to see it applied to their tax dollars as well.

Cost isn’t as big a concern for those who feel they are getting their money’s worth. One of Lowe’s defenders is Tom Christner, who had written assurance from a county contractor that damage to his Sandy Springs property from a sewer project last year would be repaired.

Then when the county’s Public Works Department told him the project was overbudget and the county would not pay, Christner called Lowe’s chief of staff, who made sure the driveway got repaved.

“It was handled, like, the next minute,” he said. “Who knows if the office was playing mind games, or if I really needed the politician’s help or not, but Tom Lowe was definitely helpful.”

If residents don’t see those results, the money matters. Per person, DeKalb residents pay between $1.10 and $2.75 a year for their commissioners.

But even that is too much to David George, a retired bus driver who worries the overgrown sidewalks and pockmarked streets scare away the development that will help fund services.

“Some of our roads haven’t been paved in 15 years because they say they don’t have the money,” George said. “To be blunt, sometimes you just wonder why those people are there if we’re not getting the services.”

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Staff writer Tammy Joyner contributed to this article.

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