Why public safety spending is part of DeKalb’s COVID-19 relief plans

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during his state of the county address, held virtually on Feb,. 25, 2021. SCREENSHOT

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during his state of the county address, held virtually on Feb,. 25, 2021. SCREENSHOT

As Michael Thurmond sees it, the COVID-19 pandemic is a slowly evolving, three-pronged crisis.

There’s the medical side of things, of course, and the economic calamity that continues to be wrought. Then there’s the surge in violent, usually gun-based crime that’s swept across American communities big and small.

“Public safety is part of the pandemic. It’s one of the pathologies associated with COVID-19,” Thurmond, the DeKalb County CEO, said this week. “Once you put it in context, then you must consider funding and how we could leverage this and advance our agenda.”

Thurmond recently unveiled his proposal for spending much of the nearly $74 million DeKalb received in its first allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act, the economic stimulus program that President Joe Biden signed into law in March.

It’s a plan that will pour millions of dollars into DeKalb’s criminal justice system at a time when the national conversation about reimagining law enforcement is at a fever pitch — and one that highlights the competing priorities local government leaders must consider while distributing an influx of federal cash.

John Jackson, chair of the DeKalb Democrats, said he trusts that Thurmond and other county officials are committed to addressing violent crime but hopes they “reach beyond typical law-and-order responses” to address underlying issues as well.

Thurmond said the county is indeed doing so.

Under the CEO’s plan, which could be tweaked as county commissioners consider its many components, more than $11 million would go toward public safety initiatives.

That includes about $6.7 million to cover one-time $3,000 bonuses for county employees ranging from police and fire personnel to E-911 workers, sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, along with investigators with the medical examiner’s and district attorney’s offices.

The goal is to keep those folks happy — and keep them employed with the county.

Other planned expenditures include more than $2 million to help the local court system address its pandemic-fueled backlog; about $50,000 to purchase 25 new Flock security cameras to be placed in high-crime areas; and about a quarter-million dollars for training initiatives that include expanding the county’s participation in a group violence intervention program guided by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Thurmond’s proposal also calls for spending around $278,000 on a “mobile precinct” that could be deployed anywhere in the county to “provide high visibility, deterrence, and personal service to those communities in need.” There’s about $500,000 earmarked to build, furnish and staff a new facility for the local Police Athletic League, which is aimed at providing a safe space for at-risk youths.

Another $1 million or so would be allocated for violence interruption initiatives within the court system. Those include Project Pinnacle, an in-court program for first time non-violent offenders between 17 and 25 years old, as well as another intervention program in juvenile court.

“One does not simply arrest their way to a safe community,” Zach Williams, the county’s chief operating officer, said during a recent meeting. “It’s not that simple.”

The plan also offers money to hire three new “mobile crisis nurses” to aid police during mental health calls. The county currently only staffs one such nurse each day.

“Any response to the spike in violence had to take into account much-needed reforms that needed to take place, in terms of police and particularly policing in communities of color,” Thurmond said. “If you look at our plan, it is really a balanced approach.”

Other plans

There are, of course, many others things in DeKalb County’s initial spending proposal. Some mirror efforts funded with previous rounds of federal relief dollars; others are new angles, thanks to the relative flexibility provided by the American Rescue Plan.

The county’s non-public safety employees would receive a one-time bonus of $2,000, which would cost about $9.3 million. Another $10.5 million would be split among the county’s seven commission districts, where commissioners will be able to dedicate money to more local-level initiatives.

About $3 million would help continue the county’s monthly food distributions, an attempt to fight food insecurity caused by job loss and other factors during the pandemic. Two million dollars would help fund career academies focused on youths and people who lost work. More than $9 million would be allocated for various sewer, infrastructure and sanitation projects, including a grant program to help low-income seniors and disabled homeowners pay for “critical plumbing repairs.”

The plan does not currently include new money for rental and utility assistance; the county is still working to distribute funds from the $21 million program it launched earlier this year.

Thanks to a cyberattack reported in April, only about $700,000 had been distributed as of earlier this week, Thurmond said.

The county’s plan for American Rescue Plan funds also does not include funding to expand vaccination efforts; a separate, nearly $10 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is covering those operations.

The decisions weren’t easy, Thurmond said, and there’s already been some debate among county commissioners. In a recent meeting, for instance, Commissioner Ted Terry and others suggested more money be dedicated to helping residents as the county prepares to end its years-long water disconnection moratorium.

“We should be looking at programs that are going to last for the next two to three, upwards of five years, even,” Terry said. “We’re never going to really get this amount of money in one big swoop ever again.”

Thurmond’s proposal leaves about $20 million in reserve for future initiatives. The county will also receive the second half of its American Rescue Plan funds next year.

“You have to recognize where you are in the continuum,” Thurmond said. “What is important at this point in time, what needs to be done, and what responses need to be put in place.”