No tax increase and no employee furloughs.
Those were two of the highlights of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis’ proposed 2012 budget, presented to the county’s Board of Commissioners on Dec. 15.
“There’s not a whole lot of fat here,” said Ellis while highlighting public safety, library services, criminal justice and watershed management as essential services of the government. “There’s just not a whole lot of fat left in this budget, so I think we have done a good job in eliminating anything that is truly not essential.”
The proposed $547.3 million budget, which is 1.2 percent higher than the 2011 budget, also includes funding for all county holidays, a lower-cost health care option for county employees and implementation of a recently announced home-buying initiative and jobs stimulus program tied to a billion-dollar water-sewer improvement plan.
Ellis said the budget also anticipates a 5 percent decline in property values, the main source of tax revenues which declined 18 percent in unincorporated DeKalb County last year.
“We’ve been hard hit over the past three years,” Ellis said. “We’re not anticipating yet that the market is going to come back. We’re looking at a further decline and we made our budget accordingly.”
The proposed budget contains $22.5 million for the county’s budgetary reserve, after a “tough lesson” was learned when the county’s credit rating was lowered earlier this year, before being restored.
Ellis would not predict whether the proposed budget would have smoother sailing through the Board of Commissioners than last year.
“I think we’ve done a good job responding to the board’s concerns,” Ellis said. “I’m hoping that the board will see that this is a conservative budget that allows us to both live within our means but at the same time meet the essential service needs of our citizens.
“We haven’t polled the board, but what we did do is we’ve changed our process in putting the budget together,” Ellis said. “We solicited input from [board members] at the outset. We’ve continued to engage them as the departmental request came in.”
Commissioner Jeff Rader, one of two commissioners who attended the CEO’s budget presentation to the board, said that the county still lacks “a zero-base budgeting process where each dollar of a budget has to be justified every year.”
“When you are in a stagnant or declining revenue situation, as we are now and will be for some time, it’s something that has to be done,” Rader said.
Rader said Ellis’ administration has had difficulty in deprioritizing certain services because the Board of Commissioners has countermanded his actions.
“I can’t claim that the commission has exercised a whole lot of leadership when it comes to priority setting in the budgetary process,” Rader said.
In his presentation, Ellis said the county needs to “move away from the merit-increment program of the past and toward a pay-for-performance system in the future in order to boost morale, reward those employees who perform best and to incentivize innovation.”
Commissioner Kathie Gannon said “that might be a move in the right direction because we want to really be able to say that the folks we are paying are doing the work.”
Over the next few months, the budget will be vetted by commissioners and will be the subject of various public hearings before the official millage rate is set by the board sometime next year.