DeKalb County department heads are scrambling to determine the effect of the board of commissioners’ vote to slash the county budget to avoid a tax increase.
Chief Communications Officer Burke Brennan said on Feb. 23 that it could take the department heads up to two weeks to find out “how we can live within the confines of the budget.”
The budget cuts 8.9 percent from most departmental budgets. The budget of the fire and rescue department was cut by 29.41 percent, while the sheriff’s office and police department were cut by 4.46 percent. The human resource department’s budget was cut by 25 percent.
The commissioners’ budget also calls for the privatization of most emergency medical services by July 1 and does not provide any money for the general fund contingency.
The board of commissioners voted on Feb. 24 to cut $33.64 million from the budget proposed by DeKalb Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis, which asked for a 12 percent property tax increase.
The new budget takes effect immediately and is retroactive to Jan. 1. However, Ellis does have the authority to veto the budget within eight days of its passing. He also can perform a line-item veto. The board of commissioners, which would need five votes to override a veto, passed the budget 5-2.
Ellis’ budget also would have closed five recreation centers and cut funding to the University of Georgia’s extension program for DeKalb. The commissioners’ budget provides funding for those items.
Ellis’ proposed budget contained a $500 supplement for employees making $35,000 or less to help offset increased pension contributions and health insurance costs. It included a one-time $250 bonus for master police officers who have been at the top of their pay range for a year or more.
The proposal also contained a $500,000 county golf course subsidy.
Jay Vinicki, director of policy research for the board, said the board’s budget does not specifically address the employee bonuses and golf course subsidy.
“It is up to the purview of the CEO to implement his proposals,” Vinicki said.
In the new budget, the position of public safety director, held by William Miller, is unfunded. Miller’s salary is $150,000.
Commissioner Lee May said the budget committee felt that the public safety director position was not needed to maintain public safety in DeKalb.
The position is “an extra level of bureaucracy,” May said.
Brennan said that Ellis’ opinion is that the board of commissioners cannot abolish specific positions. The board of commissioners sets the budget and the chief executive officer runs the government, Brennan said.
In a press conference before the commission’s vote Ellis voiced his support for Miller and the position.
“We’ve already lived through, in public safety here in DeKalb County, [what happens] when police and fire are not communicating and working together,” Ellis said. “The public safety director bring us best practice to ensure that police and fire are working, but also he communicates with the courts, the judicial system, the sheriff, to make sure that comprehensively we’re addressing the public safety needs of our citizens.”
Since the board of commissioners does not have the authority to fire the public safety director, it is unclear what Miller’s fate will be.
Police Chief William O’Brien said the cuts in his budget could mean furlough days and the elimination of 80 police recruits, 40 of which are currently in the academy.
Interim Fire Chief Eddie O’Brien will have to cut $7 million from the fire and rescue budget. Early estimations are that 125 positions will have to be eliminated, he said.
Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who voted against the budget along with Jeff Rader, said public safety is a non-negotiable service.
“I can’t believe we cut them,” Gannon said of the vote to reduce the budgets of the police department and fire and rescue departments.
An 8.9 percent cut to the county’s department of the human development would be catastrophic to DeKalb’s seniors, said Dale Phillips, the department’s director.
“It’s important that DeKalb, which is now recognized as being a leader in providing senior services, not go back to the condition years ago…where we’re simply warehousing our seniors.”
Ellis said he believes government must first tighten its belt, but DeKalb County needs to raise its taxes just as many other Atlanta metropolitan municipalities have.
“We know that these are tough time and we know that we are asking our citizens to make sacrifices,” Ellis said. “We’ve reached a critical point where we have to ask the question of how much we can continue to cut and still deliver quality services that our people tell us that they expect.”