DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis backed off his recent quest for a tax increase after commissioners shot down the effort, county officials said.
Now, as the county works to fill critical job positions that will be vacated in June due to more than 800 employees who took early retirement, Ellis’ office will simply have to find other places to cut, commissioners said.
Commissioner Jeff Rader, head of the commission’s Audit Committee, called the shift “a useful evolution” of Ellis’ approach to budgeting late last year. Commissioners and Ellis butted heads in December after he proposed an 11 percent tax increase. The board voted against that and cut an additional $20 million, finally approving a $565 million budget.
Ellis realizes he must work with the board of commissioners and residents to create budgets in the future, Chief Operating Officer Keith Barker said at the May 20 meeting.
“We can’t do that in a vacuum,” he said.
Barker and Ellis were advocating a tax increase to refill nearly 400 soon-to-be-vacated positions that Barker said were crucial to providing good county services. A staffing report from Barker listed slower turnaround times on building repairs, fewer inspectors for quality insurance at construction sites and, more seriously, “unsafe streets and communities” and slower response to emergency calls.
Nearly 200 public safety employees, including 95 police officers took early retirement, and commissioners said they were committed to restoring those ranks. Sheriff Thomas Brown said his office was already training a new class of about 30 recruits earlier this month with more on the way.
Those who took early retirement remain in their jobs until June 1.
Committee members said they expected the county will have to refill some key positions but will have to cut elsewhere to find the money. Refills still provide a significant savings because the county will likely hire people at salaries lower than those of their predecessors who took early retirement after long careers with the county.
Barker said he could have adjusted numbers to the committee by May 27.
The county is also struggling with a drop in its property tax digest, which has caused a $10 million erosion in revenue expected next year, officials said. Some of that loss could be made up in early retirement savings, but as county officials seek to refill more positions, the saving is lessened and deeper cuts are required elsewhere.
Barker also suggested the commission allow Ellis’ office to make its own cuts and hirings while letting the commissioners handle the larger purse strings. But Rader said it was necessary for the board to make sure the county workforce headcount did not increase because if the county hired back the number of employees it plans to cut, those savings would be lost in the future as those employees’ salaries rose over time.
“We’ve pulled back from the brink a little bit, but that doesn’t mean we’re not right at it,” Rader said.
“Workforce has to be reduced,” Commissioner Elaine Boyer said. “This is where our money is.”
The debate over staffing continues a month after the county received a report it commissioned from Georgia State University that recommended the county slash more than 900 jobs. The report revealed comparable counties served residents with far fewer employees, and the report has divided commissioners and county officials.
Commissioner Kathie Gannon said cost-cutting will shock the system to some degree, and there will be service interruptions, but they’re necessary.
“I don’t think it’s going to be smooth service delivery, and I don’t think we should give that expectation to the public,” she said.