With DeKalb County property tax assessments coming in lower than expected, a pending tax increase could be higher than anticipated.
Tax assessments county-wide are down 13.4 percent, and they may drop even further, said Joel Gottlieb, the county’s finance director. In unincorporated DeKalb County, property values have dropped nearly 18 percent since last year.
The latest numbers mean the county’s budget has a $40 million deficit and may require a 4-mill tax increase.
With tax assessments of personal property such as motor vehicles being updated in the next few weeks, there will be more downward adjustments in the county’s projected revenue, Gottlieb said. The final deficit could be 14-15 percent.
Gottlieb said the effect of possible tax appeals is an unknown factor in the county’s revenue from taxes. Approximately 240,000 notices were scheduled to be mailed to property owners this week.
“The appeals are critical and the settlements of those appeals are critical,” Gottlieb said.
Commissioner Elaine Boyer said a financial plan—other than simply raising taxes—is needed to get DeKalb County out of its financial woes and to show residents what they are getting for their increased taxes.
Boyer said she did not want to have to tell residents, “By the way, you’re getting a 4-mill increase and, by the way, that doesn’t solve the problem for next year.”
Commissioners said CEO Burrell Ellis only has one answer to the county’s financial woes.
“All we’ve been asked to do is raise taxes,” Commissioner Lee May said. “All I keep hearing from the CEO whenever he travels around the county is we’ve got to have a tax increase.”
May said the county’s administration has given the commissioners no financial forecasting, no recommendation on outsourcing and no plan for further staffing reductions.
“If you want a millage increase we need to see a more comprehensive plan,” May said.
In February, the Board of Commissioners rejected Ellis’ proposed $563 million budget containing a property tax increase of 2.32-mill, or 12 percent. Instead, the commissioners passed a zero-tax-increase budget that was $33.64 million less than Ellis’ proposal.
Ellis’ budget would save the county nearly $1 million by closing several recreation centers along with cutting funding to the county’s extension program. Other major cuts include $1.4 million for the Grady Memorial Hospital fund; $872,000 for a satellite tax commission office; and a $500,000 county golf course subsidy.
In the board’s current budget, 8.9 percent was cut from most departmental budgets. The budget of the fire rescue department was cut by 29.41 percent, while the sheriff’s office and police department each were cut by 4.46 percent. The human resource department’s budget was cut by 25 percent.
The board kept the recreation centers open and directed the library system to open libraries constructed with tax bond funds but never opened because of the county’s financial problems.
For many departments, such as public safety, those budget cuts are not sustainable, Ellis said.
Ellis said he has worked under the philosophy that “government should first tighten its belt before asking for more from our citizens.”
Since he took office, the county has reduced spending by $113.9 million through consolidating departments, downsizing government and eliminating non-essential services.
“We’ve cut our spending by over $100 million and at the same time our services are churning at the same rate that they’ve always churned,” Ellis said. “There’s been no appreciable decline in our service delivery.”
As for outsourcing, Ellis said, “It’s completely untrue that we’re not pursuing outsourcing.
“In order to pursue outsourcing, you’ve got to put out an RFP, and you’ve got to have some money to be able to put the proposal together,” Ellis said. “Some of those monies were cut by the board.”
Before last week’s tax assessment estimate, the commissioners were already considering a 3.3-mill tax increase that would bring an additional $51 million in revenue to address the county’s reserves and general budget.
On June 7, the county’s administration will recommend a millage rate to the Board of Commissioners’ finance committee. The Board of Commissioners is expected to set the rate during its June 14 meeting.