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In the presence of his defense attorneys, Jeffrey Hazelwood enters a plea of “guilty, but mentally ill” when he appeared before Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua in Fulton County Superior Court on May 17, 2017. From left, Emily Clark, Hazelwood, Brad Gardner, LaGrua and Deputy District Attorney Linda Dunikoski.

The $206 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds Fulton County is receiving will provide a boost in many ways, but arguably none more than to its court system, which has a backlog of about 10,000 cases due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It would allow for the current backlog to be worked down over a 36-month time frame while maintaining any new cases that come into the (county) during that same period of time,” Fulton Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore said.

Whitmore was one of several county officials to speak about the federal funds at the Fulton Board of Commissioners’ March 17 recess meeting, where the group voted 4-0 to approve a resolution accepting the monies, which are part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package Congress approved earlier this month.

Commissioners Natalie Hall, Marvin Arrington Jr., Khadijah Abdur-Rahman and Robb Pitts (Districts 4 through 7 and chair), all Democrats, voted yes, and Republican Commissioners Liz Hausmann, Bob Ellis and Lee Morris (Districts 1 through 3) abstained.

Before the vote, the commissioners spent over 30 minutes discussing the different possible uses for the relief funds, and Abdur-Rahman even proposed an amendment to add more categories before the group opted to vote on the resolution as is.

The funds will be split into three categories: health response ($60 million), operational stability ($125 million) and community needs ($100 million). According to a news release, they will pay for mortgage assistance for homeowners, aid for small businesses with less than 30 employees, a “premium” pay raise for all Fulton workers, summer youth and young-adult jobs and arts programs and services.

Operational stability includes the county’s plan to eliminate its justice system’s case backlog, which it plans to do by having District Attorney Fani Willis convene two grand juries at the same time instead of one and doubling its trial capacity.

Since the pandemic began a year ago, courts in Fulton and the state’s 158 other counties have been limited and have had zero jury trials because of health and safety concerns over large in-court gatherings needed to convene juries.

At its Feb. 17 meeting, Fulton COO Anna Roach said the county targeted March 15 as the date when jury trials could resume, as long as conditions allowed. Though the target date was delayed, courts across the state were given the green light to continue jury trials March 9, when Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton lifted his suspension on those proceedings.

Courts statewide also got a literal shot in the arm March 16 when Gov. Brian Kemp announced he’s adding judges and other court employees to Phase 1A+, the group of Georgians eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, starting March 17.

Though the economy has improved as the pandemic declined due to more individuals getting the COVID-19 vaccine, many residents and business owners are struggling. Of the about 30 residents speaking during the meeting’s public comment portion, nine said they supported the county accepting the federal funds and none said they didn’t, with some describing how their businesses have suffered during the pandemic.

Also, Fulton’s $18 million rental/utility assistance program, paid for through the separate federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, had such a high demand for funds that the county had to cut off applications March 15. It’s already received requests for $44 million, though some of those requests have come from residents of Atlanta, which has its own program since it received its own bucket of CARES Act funds.

Unlike that legislation, which called for Fulton to receive $104 million that was to be distributed to its cities, the American Rescue Plan Act is providing $206.3 million to the county and a separate $331.7 million to the cities, including Atlanta, for a total of $538 million.

Fulton’s three entitlement cities – Atlanta ($178.4 million), Roswell ($12.6 million) and Sandy Springs ($16.3 million) – are getting $207 million combined, and the rest of the county’s cities will receive $124.7 million, Whitmore said, adding the county still has $45 million left in CARES Act funds.

In other COVID-related news, Fulton officials announced demographic data of the individuals receiving the vaccine at its sites. About 105,000 have gotten the vaccine at the county’s three mega-sites, and 418,000 shots have been administered overall at all Fulton locations, including pharmacies, doctor’s offices and retirement communities.

According to a presentation document, among a group of 120,129 county residents who have gotten the vaccine at various sites, 70,598 are females and 48,866 are males, with 665 listed as unknown. Also, 61,392 were white, 29,325 were Black, 6,728 were Asian-American, 302 were native Hawaiian/Pacific islanders, 230 were American Indian/Alaska native, 11,405 were listed as unknown race and 10,747 were listed as other.

Though the “unknown” and “other” categories likely include Latinx residents, Roach and Dr. Lynn Paxton, Fulton’s district health director, said the county is reaching out to Hispanic communities to encourage them to get vaccinated. Fulton is also planning to open a bilingual vaccination site in Sandy Springs starting March 18.

Also, Matt Kallmyer, director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, said he’s encouraged by the vaccine’s rollout, including the new Johnson & Johnson one, following delays caused by February snowstorms in Texas and other states. He added 226,000 vaccine dose appointments are being scheduled, the first time they can be set more than one week ahead of time.

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