Fulton County plans to increase spending in 2020

Sharon Whitmore, Fulton County chief financial officer, speaks during a press conference. Christina Matacotta/AJC FILE PHOTO
Sharon Whitmore, Fulton County chief financial officer, speaks during a press conference. Christina Matacotta/AJC FILE PHOTO

Fulton County leaders in 2020 will focus on the routine.

They need to buy new voting machines and prepare for elections. They intend to spend millions of dollars on infrastructure and buildings, including a planned animal shelter. They'll conduct studies like the best way to offer mental health services to residents countywide, including inmates at the jail.

And they'll pay for the mundane requirements of government, like better technology in courtrooms, raises for employees, new computers and cyber security.

After years of big investments to fix decrepit buildings and broken systems, like those for the property tax system or mental health services, county leaders in 2020 will focus on making those fixes stick.

The plans aren’t transformational, said Anna Roach, Fulton’s chief operating officer. But that’s because the county has spent the past several years on a number of pilot programs and new ideas. It’s time to make sure they work.

“I think this is the new normal,” Roach said. “We’ve stabilized a lot of things. …You’ll see more routine things happen.”

The routine is still expensive, though, and Fulton commissioners will vote in January on a proposed $1.18 billion budget that will pay for everything from a complex court system to more digital books for the libraries. The proposed expenses are 6.2% higher than they were in 2019 and the $758 million proposed in the general fund budget is up 5.5%.

The funding proposals that commissioners will hear in January include advertising campaigns for the 2020 Census and to destigmatize mental health treatment as well as repairs to senior centers. There are no plans to raise taxes.

Sharon Whitmore, Fulton's chief financial officer, said a lot of the money is going to the criminal justice system and efforts to improve case management. Over the years, she said, the county has greenlit a lot of efforts to make sure the government is functioning properly, including the legal system. In 2020, she said, those existing programs will be the focus.

“We’re driving down to the nuts and bolts of seeing these initiatives through to fruition,” Whitmore said.

County commissioners will still have a chance to put their mark on the budget, including by redirecting dollars to the offices or programs that they care most about. Roach said she could make a case for more spending on technology, including both upgrades and security fixes to minimize the likelihood of hacks, like those that have taken down computer systems in Atlanta and other local governments. The county recently paid nearly $800,000 in penalties and for additional support because it has out-of-date versions of Microsoft software on its computers.

The business-as-usual approach may change in 2021, after Fulton commissioners adopt a new strategic plan and a group that is studying what services the county should be providing has completed its report. But for now, Roach said, the county has stopped the buildings from falling apart and has created a new system for delivering mental health services. It's largely fixed a broken property tax system. It's time, then, to make sure everything is functioning as it should.

“How do we do this better? is sort of the posture we’re in now,” Roach said. “How do we do this best?”

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