Fulton weighs spending cuts in proposed 2013 budget

Fulton County commissioners Wednesday will consider a proposed 2013 budget that may furlough public defenders and prosecutors and trim spending on libraries and other programs.

Commissioners are scrounging for money to avoid some of the measures. But it’s likely they won’t find enough to avert all of them.

“Everybody says they need more money,” said Commission Chairman John Eaves. “Everybody’s situation won’t be solved.”

Local governments across metro Atlanta have struggled to balance their budgets as the Great Recession has taken a toll on property taxes and other revenues. That’s led to tax increases and spending cuts in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.

Fulton’s countywide property tax rate has declined over the last decade, and most residents won’t see an increase this year. Under the proposed budget, residents of unincorporated South Fulton would see a 19 percent property tax increase to pay for police, fire and other municipal services. That would cost the owner of a $200,000 an extra $100 a year.

Fulton County would trim spending in its general fund – which pays for countywide services like courts, libraries and elections – 2 percent this year under the proposed $569.4 million budget.

Among other things, proposed cuts would lead to reduced library hours and spending for various social service programs. At a public hearing earlier this month, more than 60 people – many of them senior citizens – urged commissioners to restore funding for various programs.

“I’ve been here 12 years, and every year we ask the Board of Commissioners not to take money out of the senior citizens budget,” said Irvin Cox of Atlanta, who teaches computer skills to seniors. He’s confident commissioners won’t cut the funding because “seniors are a good voting bloc.”

At another hearing last week, representatives of Fulton County criminal justice agencies warned commissioners that proposed cuts could slow down the court system.

Circuit Public Defender Vernon Pitts said he’d have to furlough employees for seven days this year because of proposed spending cuts. District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. said he’d have to furlough employees for up to 23 days. They’ve asked commissioners to restore their budgets to last year’s levels.

“I don’t think, at this point in the development of our county, we should be cutting criminal justice (spending),” Howard said.

Eaves said commissioners likely will make changes before approving the final budget Wednesday. He said he’s confident the final version will include “enough resources for the criminal justice system to continue their work in a productive manner.”

Commissioners are dipping into savings to balance the budget – the proposal would use $41.4 million in general fund reserves.

That may work this year. But Commissioner Robb Pitts believes new libraries and other new expenses will make balancing the 2014 budget even harder. He wants the county to increase general fund reserves to 10 percent of budgeted expenditures, up from the current policy of keeping 8.33 percent in reserve. That would mean stashing more money away this year to prepare for next.

But that likely would require more spending cuts this year, and his fellow commissioners so far have rejected his proposal. Pitts said he’ll keep trying to convince them.

“We can’t continue to spend more than we take in and use what reserves we have to balance the budget,” he said. “If I make a hundred dollars, I can’t spend $110 or $120.”

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