North gets fewer Fulton services

For years, many north Fulton taxpayers have said they don’t get their money’s worth from county government.

In some ways, it appears they’re right.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found that north Fulton residents don’t have as many libraries, senior centers and other services as their counterparts in Atlanta and south Fulton. The disparity persists even though property owners from north Fulton down to Buckhead pay a majority of the taxes that fund county operations.

» MAP: Where the county services are

Fulton officials say they’ve made progress in expanding services in the county’s north end. The newspaper’s analysis found a new library construction program will go a long way toward a more equitable distribution of branches. A new Milton senior center is set to open this month, and the county has opened other north Fulton facilities in recent years.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves said north Fulton residents probably aren’t getting a dollar-for-dollar return on the taxes they pay. But he said that return is improving.

“We can do a little bit better at allocating resources,” Eaves said. “But it’s not nearly as bad as the perception.”

Some north Fulton residents think the county needs to do more than a little better. It’s a sentiment that sparked the creation of cities and fueled a recent spate of legislation that could force the county to cut spending and change the way it operates. They hope one of those pieces of a legislation, a County Commission redistricting plan, will give them greater voice in Fulton government — and a fair share of services.

“If you asked citizens in north Fulton, they wouldn’t even know the county had services besides libraries up here,” Johns Creek resident Kim Poole said.

Facilities, funding lacking

The debate over the distribution of government services in Fulton is an old one. Many south Fulton residents say they get shortchanged when it comes to quality schools; some north Fulton residents say they shouldn’t have to drive to Atlanta to get county services.

Pamela Wall, a retired teacher, enjoys the county’s senior center in Sandy Springs. But she’d like to see more aquatic and performing arts facilities in north Fulton. And she’d like to see more libraries.

“The Sandy Springs library is used constantly,” Wall said.

To determine whether Fulton services are distributed equally across the county, the newspaper analyzed several commonly used services: libraries, senior centers, tax commissioner offices, health centers and arts centers. It determined the number of facilities in each County Commission district and took into account the districts’ population.

Among its findings:

  • The two northernmost commission districts have fewer libraries than other districts. For example, District 3, which includes much of north Fulton, has roughly one library branch for every 70,000 residents, while District 6, which includes east Atlanta, has one branch for every 14,000 residents. That means more north Fulton residents are crowding into fewer branches.
  • The two northernmost commission districts have two senior centers each, while the two most southern districts have six each. That means District 3 has about one center for every 19,000 senior citizens, while District 7 — which covers south Fulton — has one for every 7,000 seniors.
  • The newspaper also found disparities in the distribution of the other services. For example, District 7 has two arts centers, while Districts 3, 4 and 6 each have one and District 5 — which includes west Atlanta — has none.

The analysis does not offer a definitive look at the distribution of Fulton County services. It doesn’t account for a host of services, such as courts, water treatment and mental health care. It also doesn’t take into account millions of dollars in subsidies for private agencies that offer services to Fulton residents.

For the services the newspaper examined there can be valid explanations for the distribution of services. For example, some services at county health centers are available only to low-income residents. That would help explain why health centers are clustered in Atlanta, where a higher portion of residents live in poverty than in north Fulton.

Other factors also affect the caliber of services. For example, while Atlanta has more library branches, the north Fulton branches are generally bigger and have more resources. When the size of each branch is taken into account, the disparities aren’t as stark, the newspaper found.

Still, north Fulton advocates say they’re being shortchanged. State Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said the size of library branches doesn’t matter because a resident can walk into any branch — no matter how small — and order materials from anywhere in the system.

North Fulton advocates also cite a disparity in the financial resources devoted to some facilities. The county’s Southwest Arts Center in District 7 has a $607,645 annual budget. But the lone District 3 arts center in Johns Creek is run by a nonprofit and supported with $30,456 in county funds.

County officials say some of the disparities are vestiges of a time when Atlanta was the county’s main population center and it made sense to focus services there. In recent decades much of Fulton’s population has shifted north, but the older facilities remain in Atlanta.

Dr. Patrice Harris, director of the county’s Health and Wellness Department, said some health facilities are up to 50 years old. But she said the department has reviewed and refocused the way it delivers services since 2009.

It has closed small health centers but opened a new one in Sandy Springs in 2010 and another in Atlanta’s Adamsville neighborhood last year. She said the department’s resources are more focused on where diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes are most prevalent, not on population per se.

Still, Harris said she could open more facilities if resources allowed.

“I’m a doctor,” she said. “If I had more money, I’d put a health center on every corner.”

Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has eight offices scattered across the county where residents can pay taxes and renew their car tags. He said he shifts resources among the offices by monitoring the flow of customers, not the surrounding population. Based on customer demand, he recently asked the County Commission for money to expand his Greenbriar and Alpharetta offices.

Minimizing politics

Eaves said the county has made progress in recent years in distributing services more equitably. He cited the $275 million library construction program voters approved in 2008. The county just broke ground on the first of eight new libraries to be built during the first phase of construction.

The county library board set out to address underserved areas when it drafted a master plan in 2006. Those areas included south as well as north Fulton, and five of the new libraries will be built in those areas, including three in north Fulton. The board hosted scores of community meetings about its plan and revised in light of public comments. 

“I think we’re probably doing reasonably well” at distributing library services under the new plan, said Roger Rupnow of Sandy Springs, a library board member.

County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents District 3, said different parts of the county have different needs, and that affects the distribution of some services. But she said the recession and foreclosures have taken a toll, and her constituents need county services, too.

“It is frustrating to north Fulton to know that our needs are pretty much at the bottom of the list in most services,” she said.

One thing that might help: a County Commission redistricting plan approved by the General Assembly and awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Critics say the plan — which would convert one of two at-large commission seats into a new north Fulton district — illegally dilutes the power of minority voters. Supporters say it will give north Fulton residents a greater say in county politics.

“We are underrepresented, and it shows in the delivery of services,” Hausmann said.

Eaves opposes the redistricting plan. He said politics plays a role in the distribution of services. But he said north Fulton commissioners have successfully lobbied for new facilities like the new Milton senior center.

Eaves would like to see the county develop a less political way of addressing the problem — perhaps a process similar to the one the library board adopted.

“From my vantage point, there can be a better distribution of resources,” he said. “Even if we’re doing the best we can politically, there can be a better way, a more objective way.”

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