Georgia counties watch state budget process warily for shifting expenses

Feb. 4 was 4-H day at the Capitol. Proposed state funding cuts for community-level services like 4-H have local officials worried their taxpayers will get stuck with a bigger share of the tab. Photo contributed by UGA Cooperative Extension

The state of Georgia and its counties split the cost for all kinds of things, from 4-H clubs, to health department dentistry to public defense lawyers.

That’s why county leaders these days are watching the action at the Capitol in Atlanta carefully as lawmakers consider trimming the state’s share of some community-based programs. The House, where the budget currently sits, is already making moves to soften some of Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed cuts after taking last week off to crunch the numbers.

Lamar Paris, who is sole commissioner of Union County, heard about the possibility taxpayers in his north Georgia community might be forced to take a larger share of costs for a variety of programs early from the local 4-H Club. 

Besides the green jackets, 4-H offers young people summer camps, conferences, junior livestock shows and more. In rural communities, it’s about the only affordable activity for children besides sports, and some schools rely on it for fifth- and sixth-grade science education.

Georgia’s 4-H is managed by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension with costs shared by the county, the state and the federal governments. And Kemp’s order for all departments to cut spending could mean about $4 million less for extension services coming from the state, which figures to mean more costs to counties or fewer services.

If proposed cuts to the extension services, public defenders office, public health departments and other shared responsibilities occur, Paris and his counterparts in 158 other counties can expect to dig for more local money to provide programs their communities rely on. 

“I’m not trying to blame anybody that they’re doing the wrong thing. I just want them to see it from the county viewpoint and what it’s going to mean to us,” Paris said.

About one-third of Union County’s public health bill is covered by fees from people who get health care for their children, cervical cancer screenings, dentistry or other services. The state and county each pay roughly another third.

Last spring, state lawmakers approved $127 million in grants to county public health departments for the budget year that started July 1. Kemp’s proposed midyear belt-tightening trims that to $119 million.

“We don’t know yet what that impact is going to be,” Paris said. “But we know … it could be a significant impact.”

The chairman of the Dougherty County Commission is also keeping a close eye on how budget negotiations unfold. Chris Cohilas is also a member of the Georgia Public Defender Council, the state agency that organizes and arranges pay for lawyers to represent indigent Georgians in court.

“We know that there isn’t much fat on this pork chop,” Cohilas said.

The council’s interim director, Jimmonique Rodgers, said in this year’s budget hearings that she could not guarantee the constitutional rights of defendants under the cuts proposed in Kemp’s draft budget.

Fees are already low when the Council needs to contract with private attorneys. A flat $450, typically. It would drop to $360 under the draft budget.

Never mind that the flat fee for defending a murder case is $2,000.

“It’s very difficult to get someone to agree to go to these more rural areas where you have, at times, very complicated heinous crimes have to be defended,” Cohilas said.

Shortchanging proper representation for defendants who can’t afford a lawyer can cost more in the long run  due to increased lawsuits, overcrowded jails and overturned convictions.

Dougherty County will spend about $833,000 this year for public defenders to take felony cases. 

County officials are concerned about possible cuts to behavioral health and accountability courts, said Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director at the Association County Commissioners Georgia. 

And behavioral health services can help people with mental illness avoid landing in jail or wind up homeless on the streets. Accountability courts are a type of tight judicial supervision that channels people with substance abuse and other mental health illnesses into services and treatment rather than jail. 

But the Kemp administration’s priority is to shrink state spending after state tax revenues were unstable much of last year, despite a robust economy.

The governor’s Office of Planning and Budget Director Kelly Farr said that because of changes to tax collections on car sales and tags that started last July, Georgia counties are collectively better off by about $170 million this year. And he hopes they’d spend that on the increases to public health, public defenders and other new costs that trickle down from reduced state spending.

Union County’s Paris said he respects the ideal of conservative budgeting. He also says Georgia’s recent governors and legislatures have adhered to that principle and built up a healthy rainy-day fund. The state’s nearly $3 billion in reserves can help out if need be, he said.

If there’s a state department with more money than it needs to provide services the public relies on, sure, cut it, Paris said.

“But we’re not aware of any of those.”