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Commission to adopt contentious budget

By Justin Boron

The threat of a lawsuit against the Clayton County government sits on the table beside $3 million worth of proposed amendments as the Board of Commissioners meet today to adopt next year's budget.

Sheriff Victor Hill said Monday that his promise to sue if the county doesn't give him what he needs to handle crime was still real.

The county commission's decision on whether to amend the budget to include the requests of the chief magistrate, district attorney, solicitor general, and sheriff could affect the tax rollback currently planned in the budget.

But one commissioner said the budget this year extends beyond taxes.

In the aftermath of a political turnover that saw contention between the county commission and the sheriff, the budget choice pits the possibility of a more cohesive government against further instability fueled by a legal fight, said Commissioner Wole Ralph.

If the county commission concedes to the elected officials requests, the budget could be a stepping stone, Ralph said, toward unity in the county government, which has been characterized by frequent infighting.

"It's important that the leadership of the county is able to work together," he said.

Ralph also said a lawsuit would send a poor message.

"Elected officials suing each other speaks to the erosion of good will and inability to come together on issues important to the public," he said.

Hill, who has maintained that the county jail is understaffed, said he held little hope in getting the 40 correctional officers.

But he said he would do all that he could to remedy the jail issue, pointing to the deteriorated and insecure conditions experienced in the Fulton County jail during the tenure of Sheriff Jackie Barrett.

"I'm going to fight for what I need . . . We learned an important lesson from Sheriff Barrett in what happens when you don't fight for what you need. I'm not going to have that mistake repeated in Clayton County," Hill said.

The road leading up to the budget's adoption has turned more than one tenuous corner as it wound its way through numerous meetings between the county administration and its various departments.

Early in the budget's preparation, Ralph was denied access to documents that contained department requests and finance officials' recommendations. He later obtained the budget reports through a formal open records request.

The conflict raised questions about what budget documents were official and how much of a hand the commissioners should have in the budget's preparation.

The three court officials and the sheriff heated up the budget talks again when they confronted the county commission with several demands two weeks ago, using a recent spike in crime as the linchpin for their argument.

The officials later narrowed their demands to the "bare minimum."

Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer then proposed to amend the budget to include the $2.9 million worth of requests.

But County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell has asked the commissioners to hold the line on the budget, which would allow him to make good on his pledge not to raise taxes.