Suspension creating $200,000 tab for DeKalb taxpayers


Suspension creating $200,000 tab for DeKalb taxpayers


January and February 2014

Salary: $25,584

Benefits: $5,522

Supplement: $600

Total Compensation: $31,706


Salary: $153,498

Benefits: 45,693

Supplement: $3,600

Total compensation: $202,791


January and February 2014

Salary: $25,584 (paid at rate of CEO)

Benefits: $7,594

Supplement: $600

Total compensation: $33,778


Salary: $72,809 (6 months at commisison salary)

Benefits: $22,783

Supplement: $1,800

Total compensation: $97,392

What does $200,000 pay for in DeKalb’s budget?

- Year’s salary and benefits for suspended CEO Burrell Ellis.

- Four patrol cars, fully equipped with computers and other gear, for the police department.

- Last year’s spending for all books and materials in 22 libraries countywide.

- Construction of one mile of sidewalks, on each side of a street, on level property.

Source: DeKalb County budget documents.

Since Burrell Ellis was indicted on felony public corruption charges last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been working hard to measure the fallout by focusing on in-depth reporting that explains the impact on taxpayers. Watchdog reporter April Hunt attended several budget meetings to hear DeKalb taxpayers’ concerns and used budget documents to calculate the costs those taxpayers are bearing. The AJC will continue digging deep on this important story.

DeKalb County taxpayers are shelling out nearly $16,000 every month to pay Burrell Ellis while he is suspended from serving in DeKalb County’s top elected job.

The state law that Gov. Nathan Deal used to suspend Ellis last summer requires Ellis remain paid until there is resolution to the public corruption case against him.

That means if Ellis heads to trial as scheduled in June, and has a ruling by July, taxpayers will have paid about $200,000 in salary and benefits for a year’s worth of non-work, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution budget analysis.

But the amount could go up even more if the case drags on for years, as other high-profile public corruption prosecutions in DeKalb have done. And, that amount will be on top of the similar amount they must also pay interim CEO Lee May to run daily operations in Georgia’s third-largest county.

“This is a financial burden on people who, when they lose their job, the best they can hope for is unemployment,” said Joscelyn O’Neil, a retired school media clerk who lives in the Greater Towers neighborhood near Towers High School. “I understand he’s innocent until proven guilty, but how long does this go on for innocent taxpayers?”

The double-payments in DeKalb’s $584 million budget are the latest in a string of unintended consequences that Ellis’ indictment on 14 felony charges such as theft, extortion and perjury have had on the county.

Already, residents and some officials have complained that May’s ascension has created a hole on the seven-member commission.

The resulting six-member board has struggled at times to win the four votes needed for routine items and delayed some zoning issues from May’s southwestern DeKalb district.

But the additional cash outlay began to rile more residents in the last few months as budget season began, largely because it comes at a time when DeKalb is finally gaining better financial footing.

After years of sharp decline in property values and last year’s flat digest, the county expects to see up to 3 percent growth in value this year.

An additional $1.6 billion in taxable values translates into more property tax money, which the budget funnels to popular services such as police ($6.6 million to hire 160 officers) and fire protection ($2.9 million to hire 100 firefighters).

Even with such big-ticket items in the budget, which holds the tax rate steady at 21.21 mills, the $200,000 that Ellis’ salary represents could be used elsewhere.

O’Neil, for instance, has petitioned the county for years to install sidewalks along Glenwood Road. For $200,000, budget records show the county could construct a mile of sidewalks along the level road - on both sides of the street.

“My neighbors walk with their feet below the street, in the mud,” O’Neil said. “There are major issues this money could help take care of.”

The money would also let the county buy, and outfit, four new patrol cars for officers. It’s also the same amount DeKalb spent on buying books and materials for all 22 libraries countywide last year.

“I wish, if the allegations were serious enough that he could be suspended from office, that it made it easier for us to vote on recalling Burrell Ellis,” said Viola Davis, a nurse who leads the DeKalb Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter group. “Where is our voice on how spend our money?”

Recall elections are notoriously difficult, with several hurdles to cross such as tight time limits to gather large numbers of registered voters. The only successful recall in recent years was that of Lithonia’s mayor in 2008, a success effort attributed to the city’s tiny size.

The law also requires cause for a recall, while the law that allowed Ellis be suspended presumes no other action until his day in court.

May, who earns CEO salary and not his $40,000 commissioner salary since taking over in the interim role in July, said he was aware of the need for double payments when preparing the 2014 spending plan.

Because of it, and because of his belief that the county must begin cutting expenses and jobs in the coming year, May said he intentionally restructured the CEO’s office.

Most notable changes include cutting the communications staff from five people to two and using his commission office’s senior advisor as his new chief of staff.

Ellis’ last chief of staff earned $185,000 a year. May’s earns $85,000, and, though a raise is in the works, should not exceed five figures.

The end result: May has lopped between $150,000 and $200,000 from the CEO’s budget.

“It’s just a temporary reality to be paying for two chief executives,” May said. “I think it’s more important we lead by example to show there will be reductions in staff and salaries and we will not miss a beat.”

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