A property tax increase in DeKalb County is inevitable. Nothing much else can be done. It should have been done when CEO Ellis suggested it at the beginning of the budget process. Instead, we have the cries of “no tax increase” from individuals who in this writer’s view had their own personal agendas at worst and political grandstanding at the least.
This budget wrangling is more of the power struggle between the board of commissioners and the administration. Nearly every one of the commissioners who were so vocally opposed to a tax increase are now saying one is inevitable. There simply is not enough money, and we can ill afford to have more cuts in essential services. So far we have been penny wise and pound foolish particularly when it comes to the early-out packages many employees found to be offers they could not refuse.
Some 1,500 employees were eligible for the early out. Some pocketed as much as $100,000 considering unused sick leave, vacation time and other compensation. Not to mention the fact that they will get monthly retirement checks for the rest of their lives. Who wouldn’t take it? Early retirement was offered to employees with 25 years service and any age or 50 or older with 10 years of service.
Cutting the positions was expected to save almost $5 million going forward. But what about the immediate cost of the early retirement packages? What we’re looking at is a couple million here and there, but not much of a dent in the huge deficit. Penny wise and pound foolish.
The other thing of colossal concern is the brain drain. Millions of hours of knowledge went out the door. Commissioners did not anticipate how many people would take advantage of the early out. One would have to be very feeble minded in this economy not to take it especially when you’re going to get a nice monthly check for life. But all the money in the world cannot replace the knowledge bank that has been bankrupted. The administration knows the consequences and has asked that scores of employees be rehired or serve as consultants.
The commission does not have the responsibility of the day-to-day operation of the county. Theirs is a fiduciary responsibility to pass the budget offered by the more knowledgeable administration. This commission second guesses and tries to micro-manage the administration. Sometimes I wonder whether it was the right thing to allow the commission to set its own agenda and run its own meetings. It seemed such a good idea at the time.
Commissioners, after all, are intelligent reasonable people, we in the legislature thought at the time. Perhaps we made a bad situation worse. I won’t engage in name calling, but suffice it to say, we’ve got a fiscal mess on our hands, exacerbated by a commission bent on flexing its muscle without a clue as to the long-term effects of their posturing.
Granted, neither the commission nor the CEO created this budget crisis. We all know it’s the economy. But the CEO had the best plan to fix it. The commission has done nothing but delay the inevitable and cost us millions in the process. It is not the responsibility of the commission to balance the budget. It is the responsibility of the CEO to present a balanced budget to the commission. He did it. They blew it.
We should not cut money from the jail, police, courts or basic services. Cuts should only come in the numbers of people who push paper in non-essential areas. The first duty of government is to protect its citizens. We can’t do that when we have skeletal staffs at the jail, too few police officers on the street and court dockets backlogged. Perhaps realizing the error of their ways some commissioners are now backing away from their “read my lips, no new taxes” stance and admitting that new taxes are inevitable. The real winners in all our budget woes are county employees who have taken their very lucrative early retirement packages and are able to find great jobs in other jurisdictions or consult with the county. What a windfall. Yes, penny wise, pound foolish.
Steen Miles, The Newslady, is a retired journalist and former Georgia state senator. Contact Steen Milies at Steen@dekalbchamp.com.