Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

DeKalb CEO Thurmond leaves his mark on county budget process

DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond likes to tell people that he inherited last year’s budget since he only had 15 days to make tweaks before it was submitted to the Board of Commissioners. But he takes full credit for the 2018 proposal now under review.

In this year’s plan, Thurmond eliminates deficit spending. The $603.3 million in general fund expenditures is a $3.2 million decrease from the previous year and roughly $7 million less than the estimated $610.4 million in income. And most homeowners’ county tax bills are going down.

The budget includes a plan to raise the minimum wage for low-level employees, salary boosts for others and aggressive recruitment to fill out the police ranks. DeKalb Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Katerina Taylor described Thurmond’s budget as progressive in its attempts to reward workers without increasing the burden on residents.

“He’s been really thoughtful, not just of DeKalb County citizens but DeKalb County employees,” she said.

DeKalb’s budget has changed as more municipalities are created, reducing the amount of homes and businesses that pay the maximum rate for county services.

The spending plan also factors in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that voters approved in November. It will provide about $106 million annual for public safety and transportation projects through a 1-percent sales tax. Voters also agreed to change the homestead option sales tax so that 100 percent of proceeds are used to reduce homeowners’ property tax bills.

Millage rates were increased this year in most DeKalb cities, where property owners get taxed by their municipalities and the county. However, most will generally pay lower county taxes because the optional sales tax was approved.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson said that she and other members of the Board of Commissioners have been generally supportive of Thurmond’s budget. The board must vote to finalize the spending plan by the end of the month.

The CEO is implementing many of the same principles he used to improve the school system’s finances when he served as interim superintendent from 2013 to 2015, Johnson said. There, he turned a $14 million deficit into an $80 million surplus.

“I hope he can find money in our bank accounts like he found at the school board,” she said.

Homeowners don’t just pay one tax to the county; they are charged different millage rates for the general fund plus other services like police, fire and hospital care. Although the county has attempted to keep the aggregate rate constant, the millage charged for individual funds fluctuates each year as revenues go up and down.

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

This has caused Commissioner Nancy Jester to criticize the budget process, saying the millage rates in various subfunds are increased or decreased just to ensure the math works at the end.

“That tells me we’re not really looking at what each fund needs to be sustainable, efficient and frugal, quite frankly,” she said. “We are just simply trying to get to a number so a statement can be made, ‘well we didn’t raise the aggregate rate.’”

Jester said the county’s finance could be stressed further as Thurmond tries to recruit law enforcement officers, which may require additional spending on salary or benefits to compete with neighboring jurisdictions.

“I have deep concerns about the long-term health of our public safety funds, both police and fire,” she said.

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