Georgia: State Lawmakers Talk Fulton, Dekalb Issues at Townhalls

Original source: The Atlanta Progressive News

(APN) ATLANTA – State lawmakers representing parts of Fulton and DeKalb Counties this week discussed key local issues sure to come before the 2010 Session of the Georgia General Assembly in January.

Lawmakers held open meetings to discuss issues like the Grady Health System, MARTA, the City of Atlanta, and education while residents had a chance to share their thoughts and ask questions during town hall forums.


Grady Health System CEO Michael Young appeared before a joint meeting of the Fulton and DeKalb delegations on Thursday, November 12, 2009, during which he outlined some of the system’s improvements during his 14-month tenure.

Of the $250 million the Woodruff Foundation promised to Grady in May 2008, Young said the hospital has spent $90 million of that on capital improvements like beds, medical equipment, and a computer system for electronic medical records.

Young noted overall admissions, ER visits, and neighborhood clinic usage are all up while length of stay and pharmacy and testing wait times have all dropped significantly.

Despite these improvements, Young warned that Grady is on track to provide $320 million in free care in 2009 and unless the system starts receiving some kind of proper reimbursement, the hospital will have to close its doors.

He suggested State lawmakers go after federal dollars called Upper Payment Limit (UPL) funds, which over a dozen states use to fund safety net and public hospitals like Grady.

Young estimated there is potentially $40 million in UPL funds for Georgia’s hospitals, $16 million of which could go to Grady and would be eligible for a matching grant.

'There is no downside to the state,' he said. 'That would be a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning for Georgia’s hospitals.'

When State Rep. Elly Dobbs (D-Atlanta) asked Young if there is a way to make other counties that utilize Grady’s services reimburse the system, he responded, 'legally, we haven’t found a mandatory way to pay.'

Young said it would take State legislation to force other counties other than Fulton or DeKalb to 'pay to play.' He noted Grady officials are working with an unspecified lawmaker on such legislation for 2010.

The General Assembly passed HB 160 this year, legislation that levies extra fines for so-called 'super-speeders' that is expected to generate $23 million for all of Georgia’s trauma hospitals, including Grady.

But that $23 million is far less than the $80 million HB 148 would have raised through a $10 fee on all car tags.

State Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell) hinted Thursday he would revive the car tag tax idea in 2010.


Dr. Beverly Scott, CEO of MARTA, used her time Thursday to discuss the public transit agency’s importance to the City of Atlanta and the region as a whole.

She noted over 500,000 people ride MARTA everyday, with 46 percent of those considering their trips 'essential lifelines.'

Scott said MARTA removes 185,000 cars from the road everyday, creates jobs, encourages tourism and employers, and represents a $6.4 billion asset for the region and state.

But even though MARTA is the ninth largest public transit agency in the United States, it receives minimal state support and has struggled for the last decade to balance its budget.

Since 1998, Scott noted, MARTA has routinely used its operating reserves to balance its budget. State restrictions on how the agency can use its capital reserve funds make it even more difficult.

The Assembly had a chance to lift this '50/50' restriction in 2009 with SB 120, a bill that easily passed the Senate but stalled late in the House.

State Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta) said Thursday he favors letting MARTA use capital funds to make up operation shortfalls but only on a limited basis, such as when the economy is poor as it is now.

Faced with a deficit in the tens of millions this year, MARTA raised fares from $1.75 to $2.00 per trip, reduced services, increased parking fees, and instituted mandatory furloughs. Without $45 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, including a $25 million 'swap' with the Atlanta Regional Commission, the agency may have been forced to cut service one day a week.

State lawmakers helped future revenue when it passed SB 89, legislation that allows MARTA to sell food and beverages in its rail stations, in 2009.

Scott lamented Thursday that the poor economy will continue to keep sales tax revenue collections in Fulton and DeKalb, a crucial lifeline for the agency, flat at least until 2013.

She urged the State to finally act on some kind of regional transportation funding bill in 2010 after failing to act the last three Sessions.


Representatives from the City of Atlanta presented its massive 2010 legislative package which the City Council’s Finance/Executive Committee approved and the Full Council is expected to vote on Monday, November 16.

The top priority is new revenue through raising the wholesale alcohol excise tax, increasing the alcohol by the drink tax, and allowing local governments to impose a beer and wine by the drink tax, which could raise $11 million.

The City also wants a real estate transfer tax to fund green space.

In order to get the best deal for the city on the private sale of city-owned surplus property, the Council wants a city broker who can negotiate such deals.

The package goes on to highlight other specific bills that are likely to be in play in 2010: HB 641 that would create a gaming authority and allow a gaming excise tax; HB 838 that would suspend drivers’ licenses for failure to pay fines; and HB 287 that would provide speed detection cameras in school zones.


Delegations from Fulton and DeKalb held a series of town hall forums all week across the counties so citizens might share what is on their mind.

At the forum on Wednesday at the State Capitol, John Sherman, President of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, expressed his opposition to legislation that would allow North Fulton County to split off and form Milton County.

Sherman characterized HR 21, sponsored by State Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), as 'a serious problem.'

'HR 21 states that only the residents of North Fulton will be able to vote on this,' Sherman alleged, though an APN examination of the text of the legislation did not find that to be true.

'It would be a clear disadvantage to the remaining residents of Fulton County,' Sherman added.

The loss of North Fulton’s taxes would put South Fulton residents in a bind. Sherman said taxes would have to rise by '30 to 40 percent' to pay for services that remain static such as the county court, the sheriff’s department, and family services.

'I have to represent my District too but I’m not going to do it to the extent that it would destroy the County,' State Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta) said. 'You don’t want to split the county up because what is left would be dismal.'

Burkhalter introduced the bill last year but it never got out of committee. Sherman said Burkhalter’s argument for Milton County is that North Fulton residents are tired of sharing their resources with South Fulton without proper representation on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

Sherman suggested Thursday taking away the two at-large posts on the nine-member board and create two extra districts for North Fulton out of those.

But when Sherman suggested to Fulton Commissioner Tom Lowe recently that he meet with Burkhalter, Lowe allegedly said 'not in a million years.'

If HR 21 passes, then it would be up to the voters next November to decide if they want to amend the State Constitution. Sherman said his group would take legal action to stop it.

Other speakers included the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda member Leonard Tate, who spoke of the need for prison reform; and Former State Rep. Paul Bolster, who spoke of the need for more supportive housing and a reform of Georgia mental health facilities.

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--Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at