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The Gold Dome holds the key to saving Fulton arts funding

Wanna prevent further cuts to county programs? Call lawmakers itching to create Milton County



Our anger is often directed at the wrong place. We get pissed at the cops when we should be angry at the officials who crafted the laws. We curse the team when the manager is to blame. We give hell to property developers when it's sometimes the zoning policies that allow them to propose outlandish shopping centers. We shake our fists at what's in front of us rather than the men, women, and systems — long removed from the process — which deserve our ire.

The same goes for Fulton County. Last month, county officials faced pressure from arts advocates and nonprofit organizations over a proposal to cut the amount of grant funding it allocates to programs from around $1.5 million to $1 million — nearly a third. The freed-up cash would be used to lease a detention facility to help ease overcrowding at the county jail, officials said. County commissioners unanimously rejected the proposal.

"If we were living in ancient Greece, we would not want to live in Sparta," Commissioner Joan Garner said during the meeting, according to the AJC. "We would want to live in Athens, because it has a vibrant culture."

But unless county finance officials find an estimated $114 million in the couch cushions on Pryor Street before the year's end, when the commission must pass next year's budget, Sparta it could very well be. County commissioners have been told that the outright elimination of the county's arts and cultural funding — a program they're not required to support — could yield around $5 million in savings.

More protests from arts supporters and artists should be expected. And they should go out in full force. But their anger should also be directed two blocks east at the Gold Dome, where North Fulton Republicans in recent years have made it their mission to assault the county.

As the northern reaches of the county have broken up into new cities such as Sandy Springs, Milton, and Johns Creek, state lawmakers who represent the area have introduced proposals that invariably reduced commissioners' political power and hindered their abilities to raise revenues. These micromanaging measures have included drawing new political maps that give more clout to North Fulton commissioners, stripping the commission of its MARTA board appointments, doubling homestead exemptions, requiring pay raises for judges, and preventing the county from raising property taxes until Jan. 1, 2015.

These lawmakers claim to make these changes under the guise of right-sizing Fulton, which today is 90 percent incorporated. But they could also help fulfill a longtime dream of the affluent northern suburbs: seceding from Fulton and re-creating Milton County. These lawmakers, led by House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton — who in 2012 said her goal was "to end Fulton County and bring government closer to the people" — claim that Fulton is bloated, dysfunctional, and inefficient.

This annual attempt to force additional spending cuts has sapped Fulton of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. According to one estimate, it adds up to more than $60 million each year. So commissioners, who haven't raised millage rates since 1991, have dipped into reserves to help avoid the inevitable. They've passed cutting bone and are now deep in marrow.

During this year's General Assembly session, state lawmakers proposed doubling the county's homestead exemption over two years. That would result in an approximately $50 million revenue decline. That would mean less cash to pay for Grady Memorial Hospital, the Fulton County Jail (which is currently under a federal order to ease overcrowding conditions), homeless programs, dogcatchers, and, you guessed it, arts funding. The measure failed in the state Senate but will likely come back up for consideration in 2014.

This is not to say that Fulton's financial woes are entirely the fault of state lawmakers. Commissioners have made some ridiculous decisions over the years, including building an unnecessary amphitheater in South Fulton. Nor is it meant to paint Fulton officials as innocent, misunderstood angels. The county has had its fair share of stupid decisions and screwups in the past and present. And certain commissioners practice the same turf politics as their northern counterparts.

But come later this year, when commissioners sit down in front of a negative balance sheet to the tune of $114 million, they will be forced to cut. Considering the support that was demonstrated last week, when commissioners rejected the proposal, it'd be hard to imagine saying goodbye to the county's claim as the largest government funder of the arts in the state.

Fulton County's future is in flux. Maybe it's best that its remaining land become incorporated. Or perhaps officials should consider a hybrid, city-county consolidated government similar to Athens-Clarke County. It's also possible that the solution is right in front of them, with the current system, only it's impossible to identify because of political ambition and turf wars.

But what's clear is that the county has very few options regarding its budget woes. If arts advocates, or Grady supporters, or homeless advocates don't want to see more cuts, they should contact the senators and representatives under the Gold Dome. The homestead exemption proposal, which could cause a drop in revenues as high as $50 million, is only expected to return at the start of the next legislative session.

If you think Fulton County should continue providing funding to those programs, letting state lawmakers know is a good start. And if you think Fulton should stick to just funding the jails, courts, and health department, well, you know whom to call.

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