Fulton budget plan improves somewhat

The $518 million tentative budget county leaders unveiled last month proposed cutting $150 million in spending and eliminating more than 500 jobs. The prospect of a tax hike was also floated.

This month, the County Commission approved a $555 million spending plan that doesn’t slash spending as much and calls for fewer job cuts. Tax hikes are no longer on the table.

“We still will experience some belt tightening. There will be some people without a job,” said Commission Chairman John Eaves. “But we are doing our best so that these changes will have the least amount of impact on residents.”

Changes could still be made, and are likely when County Manager Zachary Williams presents details about the cuts at the commission’s Jan. 6 meeting.

The current proposal compares with a $666 million budget this year, though the county lopped about $70 million in spending from the plan throughout the year.

The county projects a nearly 15 percent drop in property tax collections next year, from both residential and commercial property.

Williams said he was able to slightly increase the proposed spending plan for next year by restructuring the debt on Grady Memorial Hospital and reamortizing the county’s pension from 15 to 20 years.

Other savings will come from a 4 percent pay cut for all employees and requiring workers to take 10 furlough days.

“It has been an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Williams said.

Commissioner Lynne Riley was critical of the Grady refinancing and changes to the pension system, saying both extended costs for the county in the long run.

Riley, who along with Commissioner Robb Pitts voted against the tentative budget, also was opposed to taking $18 million from the county’s fund balance, or rainy day account, to cushion the cuts. Williams said the county will have about $30 million in reserve if it takes the $18 million from the account for 2010.

“We are dipping into reserves without telling our taxpayers what they are not going to get, what services will not be provided, under this proposal,” Riley said.

Some changes will be noticeable. The current proposal, for instance, calls for eliminating Sunday hours at those county libraries that now operate all week.

Officials say such cuts to nonessential services are necessary to find money to pay for more critical services.

Still, the commission has not yet set its priorities beyond state-mandated spending. The board is expected to lay out its preferences at the January meeting.

“If we have to cut [staff], and we do, I don’t want to cut anyone who is providing direct services to our residents,” said Commissioner Bill Edwards. “A retooling of this government is happening.”

What’s next: The commission meets at 10 a.m. Jan. 6 to further discuss the budget. It is slated to adopt the budget Jan. 20.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.