Fulton County Commissioner Chairman Robb Pitts  has created an advisory committee to consider whether the county should accept federal housing grants. [Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal Constitution]
Photo: Austin Steele / Special/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Jo
Photo: Austin Steele / Special/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Jo

Future of Fulton County’s federal HUD grants up in the air

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners is being reminded that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Commissioners have said they would turn away millions of dollars in federal housing grants over concern that it wouldn’t be spent correctly — or wouldn’t be spent at all.

But county commissioners were told Wednesday that the Georgia Department of Community Affairs is willing to process the grants for the county to help make sure the spending conforms with federal regulations.

That came as a surprise to some commissioners. The Board had been pitched an idea by Chairman Robb Pitts that the county should provide $3 million from its general fund to residents and cities who would have received the federal grants.

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The meeting ended with the issue still unsettled, and Pitts saying he is assessing all the options including having the state handle the money. But if that happens, the money will go into a pool with small cities from across the state competing for it, according to county officials.

Pitts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that he is forming a 12-member advisory committee (see members below) filled with Southside mayors, some of whom spoke against giving back the money, and several civic leaders to help him figure out what to do.

“We’re exploring all of it,” he said.

He said he hopes to have a plan by the Board’s Feb. 19 meeting.

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For decades, Fulton has received money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the county would disperse to cities — mostly on the Southside — that didn’t have large enough populations to apply for the grants on their own. The money goes toward things like home repairs and down payment assistance.

Like others, Fulton has had trouble distributing the money. The county failed to spend more than $5 million over five years, causing HUD in November to threaten to suspend all 2020 awards. The county also had to spend nearly $1 million of its own money repaying grants that went to two cities for projects it thought qualified for the money, but were later rejected by federal officials.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington, an attorney, expressed dismay when the board was told that the state could manage the funds and that HUD had offered “technical assistance.”

“Lord have mercy,” Arrington said. ” … So we’re not even competent enough to let people help us administer these funds?”

Fulton County Commissioner Marvin S. Arrington (Contributed photo)

Deputy Chief Operations Officer Pamela Roshell said the county hasn’t yet notified the federal government about the Board’s decision in December to no longer accept the money. Commissioner Natalie Hall, who is pushing for an audit of the program, said that means there’s still time for the commissioners to change their minds.

The Board on Wednesday rejected Hall’s resolution to reverse the December decision, and accept the grant money. But she had a lot of backing in the gallery.

Fulton County Commissioner Natalie Hall. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Multiple state representatives, Southside mayors, a bus full of seniors from East Point, someone risking a parking ticket on their lunch break and more than 100 residents packed the commission chambers, asking the Board to accept the federal grants.

“We voted you in thinking you knew what to do, now don’t make us out to be liars,” said Fulton resident Ruth Lyles-Bailey.

Several residents and commissioners talked about the North-South divide in Fulton County  the perception that Southside residents don’t get as many resources as those on the Northside.

“We can’t afford to do public policy based on political personality,” said the Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP.

READ | After turning down fed money, Pitts proposes spending Fulton dollars

Hall read a statement from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

“There are always challenges administering federal funding, but we must always keep top of mind the best interest of the communities adversely impacted by the county rejecting its status as a HUD entitlement community,” Young’s letter said.

The votes fell upon geographic lines. The three Southside commissioners voted for the county to accept the federal money and the three Northside commissioners siding with Pitts, who cast the tie-breaking vote.

Pitts’ plan to use county money to replace the federal grants came just as commissioners spent hours arguing over the $1.2 billion county budget.

Pitts said the source of the money is less important than the people it will help — all are Fulton County residents, he said.

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Members of Pitts advisory board:

• College Park Mayor Bianca Motley Broom

• Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman

• Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr- Hurst

• East Point Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham

• Union City Mayor Vince Williams

• Palmetto Mayor Clark Boddie

• Chattahoochee Hills Mayor Tom Reed

• Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose

• Joe Beasley, southern regional director of the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which was founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson

• Rev. Timothy McDonald, First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta

• Rev. Gerald Durley, pastor emeritus at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta

•  Helen Butler, head of Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda

The Georgia Secretary of State’s office said that voters will be using Dominion Voting Systems in the 2020 election.

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