The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners managed June 22 to save two recreation centers scheduled for closure while restoring some money to the county’s panicked justice system as it considers midyear reductions to its 2010 budget.
And the board did it without raising taxes.
“Governments all over the country are going through the same thing,” Commissioner Kathie Gannon said. “The good news is we agree: No tax increase this year.”
About $10.2 million was slashed from the $564.9 million budget the board passed in February. The cuts were necessary to balance a 3 percent decrease in the county’s tax digest since the budget was approved.
But a proposal to cut the Mason Mill recreation center in Decatur and Lucious Sanders Recreation Center in Lithonia sparked a furor among many residents this month who protested the shutdowns at a meeting. The board placed $94,900 back into the budget before it voted on the midyear reductions to keep the centers open and restored about $400,000 to the county board of health, which has warned over the last several months that cuts could severely infringe on its ability to operate.
The board cut into its contingency fund by about $800,000 and killed a proposed $1.2 million increase to the county reserve to save those cuts. The board also passed an amendment from Commissioner Jeff Rader that will spare county employees who earn $35,000 and less the two unpaid holidays fellow employees will suffer this year.
Departments within the county’s justice system were also given an idea of jobs they’ll be able to refill after more than 800 employees countywide took early retirement last month, a significant number from the court and law enforcement system.
When CEO Burrell Ellis released proposed cuts from the courts and law enforcement that totaled in the millions of dollars, law enforcement officials descended on the board and its committees, angrily claiming the cuts would create a backlog that would lead to court cases being thrown out, prisoners being released and other dramatic reversals. Superior Court Judge Cynthia J. Becker threatened to sue Ellis to make sure law enforcement and court budgets were kept whole.
Sheriff Thomas Brown, whose department was facing a cut of more than $2 million, was given $1.7 million to refill vacant constitutional officer positions. Several departmental heads said they weren’t sure if the money the board allocated will be enough to meet needs. District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming said after the meeting she was taking the new information back to her staff to see if it will be sufficient. The board gave her about $326,000 to refill open staff positions.
“I’m not in a position to state any conclusions,” she said. “We have homework to do.”
The board and its audit committee have battled with Ellis’ officials for weeks regarding his efforts to refill positions with the county’s executive branch. Of 412 positions, the board is allowing the county to rehire 193 positions deemed critical. The majority of those positions are in public safety. Thirteen of those positions are in the finance department, and 27 are administrative.
The county’s mill rate will remain at 16.86.
But county officials expressed dissatisfaction with the budgetary process leading up to their vote. Commissioner Lee May said county departments and Ellis had been combative through the budgetary process, which began in December, and he expected to see improvement next year.
The budgetary situation is not expected to improve, and Lee said he remained committed to restructuring the county government, including the continued reduction of employees after a recent report by Georgia State University showed the county was bloated and could lose more than 800 employees.
“We are a broken record up here,” he said. “We are suffering from a lack of vision and leadership.”
Rader supported May’s challenge.
“We will continue to have to make very difficult decisions,” he said. “We’ve got to be nimble and we’ve got to be very creative as it relates to getting the most of the taxpayers’ dollar.”
The board spent too little time settling on its vote, Commissioner Larry Johnson said. County department heads and board members were rushing behind closed doors right up to the vote, discussing changes.
A $556 million budget “is not something you can spend a week on,” he said.
The board voted 6-1 for the new budget. Elaine Boyer was the only commissioner to vote against it.