Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens called the Fulton County Commissioners’ negotiating position with its cities on the division of sales tax “irresponsible and reckless” during a Tuesday press conference.
Dickens said the county’s demand for a larger portion of local options sales tax (LOST) funds could force the cities to cut public safety services.
Mayors from 15 cities rejected the county’s latest distribution proposal, which would send $341 million more to Fulton than it gets under the current budget.
Fulton County responded in a press release that the county’s last eight offers would keep the cities’ funding dollars at or above their 2021 level.
Dickens said by law the LOST revenue distribution must be renewed every 10 years after the Census or the tax will expire.
“Following our last mediation session, I remain greatly disturbed that Fulton County continues to treat our cities with too much disrespect,” Dickens said. “More importantly, they are not engaging in this process in a way that we’re reaching an appropriate outcome by the deadline.”
The county said in its statement that the cities have not responded to its request to continue mediation last held on Oct. 7, but instead hired a PR firm and held a press conference.
It also said the county and cities provide different services to residents. The cities latest offer would increase the county’s LOST share by $1.2 million a year, the statement said.
“This increase does not come close to addressing the funding needs that Fulton County is facing, especially to address the dual crises in public health and public safety,” the county’s statement said.
The cities rely on Fulton County for its jail and court system, with the county spending $28 million a year to lease jail beds, the statement said. Two hospitals closing in Fulton County increased demands for indigent health care up to $140 million annually.
LOST revenue makes up nearly 20% of Atlanta’s General Fund revenue, which is higher for some other cities. If LOST expired, public safety and quality of life investments would be at immediate risk, Dickens said.
“There are only two options if LOST were to go away: either higher property taxes or severe cuts in vital services like fire and police,” he said.
Despite service failures in just about every area of responsibility, Fulton County just cut their property tax millage rate “only to turn around and make an attempt to pillage the coffers of cities throughout the county,” Dickens said.
Fulton has demanded the City of Atlanta allow the use of its jail due to overcrowding, which Dickens described as the county’s failure of responsibility that allowed people to languish in a court system backlog.
Dickens asked the Fulton Commissioners to step up and work with the mayors when vital services are on the line. He also asked residents to contact their commissioners and tell them to stop playing chicken in such vital stakes.
“As we continue with these good faith negotiations, we will not stoop to turning citizens against our cities – who are supposed to be our partners in service,” the county said in its statement. “Instead, we call upon the mayors to demonstrate true leadership and continue these difficult conversations.”
If negotiations aren’t successful, higher property taxes might be in store for some cities. But several cities don’t have that option, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said.
“We’re capped in our millage rate in Sandy Springs. We can’t raise property taxes,” Paul said. “So we only have one option, which is to severely cut services and public safety at a time when public safety is the number one challenge that our communities all face. We would have to make severe cuts.”
Fire trucks that represent about a million-dollar investment each are funded with LOST funds, he said. Sandy Springs pays to have an eight-minute response time with ambulance services using LOST. Without the funds, the ambulance response time will go up 50%. When the city formed the likelihood of survival in cardiac arrest was 1%. That has been raised to double digits.
“This is vital. This is about lives being saved in our community. It’s about keeping our community safe,” Paul said.