By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.netFulton County officials began 2009 very optimistic about county revenues, County Manager Zachary Williams said recently, but “that optimism was misplaced.”

“We built the 2009 budget based on $40 million to $60 million in taxes based on commercial revaluations that simply did not come to fruition,” Williams told members of the Buckhead Business Association on March 4. “We found out early on in 2009 that we faced a $40 million deficit in our budget. … We reached a point toward the end of 2009 when, frankly, we didn’t know if we could make payroll.”

With about 5,500 employees, he said, “that’s a big deal,” not only for the employees but also for the long-term financial status of the county.

The problem, Williams said, was a cash-flow issue created by a delay in sending out tax bills. “The sheer volume of tax appeals” caused the billing delays, he said. About 80 percent of the county’s revenues come from commercial and residential taxes, he said.

Faced with a shortage of cash, county officials began to find creative ways to reduce costs “without adding to unemployment, which was beginning to climb. We tried to find ways to become more efficient without adversely impacting services. I think we were able to do that,” he stated.

In fact, the county ended the year with greater fund balance than anticipated and a larger one than in 2008.

The county manager, who came to Fulton two years ago from Broward County in Florida, pointed out that this is the tenth consecutive year of county budgets with no millage increase. In fact, he said, the millage has decreased five times since 2001. A property owner’s taxes are determined by multiplying a property’s assessed value by the millage.

“We do not make enough time to get out and talk to the business leaders to give an update on what we are doing,” he said. “Day in and day out, we spend your tax dollars. I have a responsibility to come out and tell you how it is being spent, tell you some of the challenges we are facing and, in many cases, elicit your assistance or support in helping us meet some of the challenges,” he said.

“In these days we are doing more and more with less and less, and we have to find creative ways to create partnerships and achieve goals,” he told the group of about 60 business people.

Williams outlined several county initiatives, including a plan to address health care disparities among county residents while reducing the costs to Grady Hospital of providing health care for low-income families.

He said the county is creating “wrap around” services at its health centers, which include taking a holistic approach to the services offered at the centers. He said this will soon be in place at the county’s health center in Sandy Springs, which “we are particularly proud of,” he added.

He also said the county is focusing its reimbursements to Grady Hospital only on treatment of Fulton indigents, which has not been the case in the past.

Williams told the business group that one area where the county needs help is in making sure there is an accurate 2010 Census count. He said the county receives $1,700 per year for each person counted in the census.

“Fulton County is at a high risk for an undercount,” he said, recounting that the county had a low return rate for the 2000 Census. “Ask everyone you do business with and come in contact with if they have competed a census form.”