The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners is considering a series of significant pay reductions and operational changes to plug a possible $80 million hole in next year’s budget while avoiding a tax increase that CEO Burrell Ellis proposed in December.
Details about the savings and consequences of nearly 20 cost-cutting measures were not available at a Feb. 2 finance committee meeting, but the lengthy list includes cutting all holiday pay for county employees and shifting all operations to a four-day work week for all non-public safety employees.
“These are not recommendations,” Commissioner Connie Stokes said. “These are items that we want to look at. … We are going to stand firm and stand tall in terms of balancing the budget.”
Among other items under consideration:
• Additional furlough days
• Reduced work weeks
• Cut all unfilled positions if opened for 90 days
• Eliminate merit raise
• Progressive pay reductions
• Reduce funding to Grady Memorial Hospital
• Shift pension/benefit cost to employees
• Privatization of some administrative departments
The committee is also considering tighter overtime pay control, granting the board of commissioners sole oversight over out-of-state travel and prohibiting county vehicles from leaving the county except for work-related matters.
The suggested measures came during the committee’s meetings with several county departments that faced tough question about cutting costs and finding new revenue streams. A number of department heads asked to be spared serious cuts.
The Board of Health’s county funding dropped from $5.1 million to $4.4 million so far this year, a cut that’s already lead to more revenue losses, said Elizabeth Ford, the health director. A significant portion of the department’s revenue comes from inspection fees and other charges.
“We are also losing fees because we are lacking manpower,” she said. “We are just having a difficult time adjusting.”
Commissioners also questioned the Parks and Recreation Department for running the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center in south DeKalb County at a financial loss. Stokes said she didn’t believe it was attracting enough events and that county officials didn’t have a plan to improve that.
“We’re planning on making some major cuts, and if it’s not revenue generating, that’s unacceptable,” Commissioner Elaine Boyer said.
Parks and recreation officials pointed to the hit they’ve already taken this year. The department’s budget has fallen from about $20.3 million to about $17.8 million.
“I don’t see this as a facility that’s going to generate a–quote–profit (under its current organization as a community arts center),” a county official said.
The county has also proposed merging the community and human development departments that will result in three vacant positions being removed. Commissioner Larry Johnson protested the proposal, saying the reduction could hurt the department as it works to handle an increase in refugees coming to DeKalb County, including Haitians displaced from last month’s catastrophic earthquake.
“You don’t reduce in a time of increase,” he said. “There is a human as well as a dollar cost.”
Under a budget proposed by Ellis in December, the county would have to raise taxes and eliminate more than 700 jobs to balance a $582.7 million budget in 2010 – a $23 million cut from this year’s budget. He proposed an 11 percent property tax increase and the elimination of about 760 jobs, many of which have been empty for months. At least 400 other employees will be offered early retirement.
Commissioners learned last month, however, that the county’s budget deficit is about $84 million.
There are several reasons for the tax increase and cutbacks, all related to a recessionary economy. The county expects a decrease in property tax digest values, sales tax revenue and hotel/motel taxes, fines and forfeitures. The county could lose up to $18 million per year after the city of Dunwoody incorporated last year, taking taxes and fee dollars with it.
Without the tax increase, the county would have a $552.3 million budget, a total that would have resulted in far more serious cuts, Ellis said – about $83 million in total cuts. The budget will require a 1.86 mill increase. (One mill is equal to one dollar taxed on every $1,000 of assessed property value.) The increase brings the total millage rate to 18.72.
But commissioners have opposed the tax hike, saying they don’t want to burden taxpayers suffering through the economy. They also said they have encountered bristling taxpayers at budget forums, and a group of them attending a public hearing at the Feb. 9 meeting. The board ultimately chose to defer voting on the proposed budget until its Feb. 23 meeting.
“I understand that a lot of the employees are up in arms right now because they don’t know what we’re going to do,” Commissioner Lee May said.
May and other commissioners pointed the finger back at Ellis and his administration, which they said have not been eager to work with commissioners to find an alternative to a tax raise. Ellis isn’t properly committed to reducing the county government’s size, which has been bloated for years, May said.
“The tax increase that’s proposed this year is not a fix,” he said. “It’s a Band-Aid.”
If the county passed a tax increase this year, it would likely have to pass another next year, May said.
Ellis responded during a quickly assembled Feb. 9 press conference, defending his budget.
“If there is no millage increase, then we’ll have to cut 151 police officers, 143 sheriff’s deputies, 83 firefighters, 40 in the district attorney’s office. The courts would be hit by 60, including State and Superior courts,” he said. “Without the millage increase there would be a severe decline in the quality of life for residents in this county. We won’t have the same level of service.”
DeKalb County employs around 7,500 workers while Cobb County employs about 5,000 for about the same number of residents, Ellis said. He said he wants a leaner county workforce that does more work.
When asked what he’ll do if the commission votes the tax increase down, Ellis responded: “How? I’ll be listening,” he said. “I’ll have to work with what I have. If we won’t increase the millage rate, then we will see those reductions.”
The board of commissioners must vote on a budget by March 1. County Commissioner Jeff Rader said he was certain budget talks would go well past that date.
Folks, that’s what we’re left with at this point. We don’t think it’s good for employee morale. … We don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “Make no mistake: I don’t think this budget process will be over March 1.”