Republicans urge raise for Fulton County judges

Republicans in the General Assembly are trying to force Fulton County to give judges a pay raise even as they seek to force spending cuts elsewhere.

The bill would cost Fulton about $230,000 at a time when Republican lawmakers are proposing a property tax change that county officials say will cut revenue by $48 million. The raises would be a rarity for public employees in recent years. Many Fulton County and state employees haven’t had a raise in six years.

Supporters say the raises are needed to attract and retain qualified judges in the busiest judicial circuit in the state.

“I’d hate to see the quality of our judiciary decline because people who are qualified don’t want to serve,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the bill’s sponsor.

Critics say the proposal is the latest effort by Republicans to meddle in the operations of Georgia’s largest county.

“Give (the county) less money and increase their expenses,” said Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta. “What’s the logic in that?”

In any other year the judges’ raises might have passed without much controversy. But a Republican campaign to reshape Fulton County government has ignited a partisan feud at the Capitol.

Among other things, Republicans have proposed making it easier to fire county employees and redrawing County Commission districts in a way that pits two incumbent Democrats against each other.

They also have proposed doubling the county’s property tax homestead exemption to $60,000. Republicans say that would give tax relief to homeowners and force the county to cut a budget they believe is bloated. Democrats say it would endanger popular services like Grady Hospital, libraries and senior programs.

Willard also has sponsored several other measures affecting county courts. They stem from a task force that studied the county court system last year. Those bills would, for example, give county courts more flexibility with their budgets and make the appointed chief magistrate judge an elected office – changes recommended by the task force.

The task force did not recommend raises for judges. But Willard’s House Bill 444 would require Fulton County to increase its local supplement for Superior Court judges from $41,932 to $49,748. That’s in addition to the judges’ state salary of $120,252. State Court judges’ salaries are tied Superior Court judges’ pay, so they also would get a raise.

State law allows counties to supplement judges’ state salaries at their discretion. But Willard said the Legislature occasionally has raised local salary supplements. State lawmakers raised the Fulton County supplement in 2007 with bipartisan support.

But this year local Democrats see the various Republican bills as an effort to undermine Fulton County.

“It requires the county to spend more money and takes money out of their coffers,” said Rep. LaDawn Blackett Jones, D-Atlanta. “I really think the goal is to make Fulton County look completely ineffective to make it easier to get Milton County.” Some Republicans have long wanted to allow north Fulton County to split off into a new Milton County.

Fulton County’s local salary supplement for judges is the 11th-highest in the state. The Augusta Judicial Circuit pays the highest local supplement ($65,100). In metro Atlanta, Cobb ($58,711), DeKalb ($49,711) and Gwinnett ($48,211) also pay more.

The raise would bring Fulton judges’ pay to fifth-highest in the state.

As the state’s largest county, Fulton has the state’s biggest Superior Court caseload. But it also has the most judges, 20. According to report by the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts, Fulton County judges had one of the lowest caseloads, 1,651 cases per judge, in the state in 2011.

Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright said the Fulton courts continue to work on efficiencies outlined in last year’s task force report. She said she hopes those efficiencies will result in enough savings to pay for the proposed pay raises.

Superior Court judges haven’t received a statewide pay hike since a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment in 2008. Wright said judges have asked lawmakers for a statewide raise, but that hasn’t happened. She knows other employees also haven’t had a raise.

“We feel that we’re deserving of a raise,” she said. “We feel that the other employees are also deserving of a raise.”

HB 444 has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.