DeKalb CEO Thurmond’s 2019 budget focused on paying down debts

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during a DeKalb County Board of Commissioners meeting in March. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond speaks during a DeKalb County Board of Commissioners meeting in March. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

After spending the first two years of his administration balancing the budget and boosting reserves, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said his 2019 proposal focuses on paying down debts.

The spending plan, presented to the Board of Commissioners last week, includes a $59.1 million payment to the chronically underfunded pension fund, an 8-percent increase from last year's $54.5 million. And for the first time in several years, the county is now required to pay the principal and not just interest on the $230 million parks bond program. That amounted to an extra $5 million in that line item, boosting it from $10.3 million to $15.4 million.

“The chickens came home to roost; that is something we had to do,” Thurmond said.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of DeKalb government

Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher has the story.

County commissioners in 2016 narrowly approved a budget that included refinancing park bonds to free up money for a new library near Stone Mountain, a senior center in Lithonia and a community center in Scottdale. That plan was approved by four commissioners who represented east and south DeKalb and opposed by the three who represented the north and west.

That decision restructured the bond payment schedule for three years, saving $25 million. But those savings end in 2019, and now the payments required for the parks bond have jumped by 50 percent.

The increased pension payments are Thurmond’s effort to reduce the county’s unfunded pension liability. An audit at the end of 2017 reported that 62 percent of the pension was funded. the industry standard is 80 percent.

“This has been a long-standing problem for DeKalb and most other jurisdictions,” he said.

County commissioners are expected to approve a budget in February that would apply to the entire calendar year; Thurmond’s proposal is the launching point for a two-month review process. Other highlights of his spending plan include:

  • Total operational spending is $644.5 million, a 4 percent increase from last year's total of $621 million.
  • A 3-percent pay increase for 3,933 employees who were not among the public safety works who received 4 percent wage hike in October. If approved, this would be the second consecutive year that county employees received raises.
  • Boosting the minimum wage for county employees to $15 an hour. That would affect 678 full-time and 98 part-time employees. Last year, Thurmond led the push to boost the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
  • An "insurance holiday" when all county employees will not have to pay their health insurance premiums for one pay period.
  • Funding for an additional 60 firefighters and 104 police officers.
  • Launching a partnership with the DeKalb County Board of Health and other organizations to study juvenile delinquency and interventions for at-risk youth.
  • Spending $575,000 on renovations and security improvements at the Manuel Maloof Building, which serves as the main office for the county government.
  • Most municipalities would see a decrease in their county millage rates, which is the part of the formula that determines property taxes. The millage rate for unincorporated DeKalb and Stonecrest would remain unchanged.

Presiding officer Jeff Rader said he liked Thurmond’s idea of an “insurance holiday” for county employees although the financial impact will vary based on which plan an employee has selected and how many members of their family are covered.

“I think that that is a good way of being able to provide a benefit to the employees that has a real pocketbook impact to them that doesn’t constitute necessarily an ongoing obligation in the budget,” Rader said.

That same reasoning is why he is not yet convinced the county can afford another across-the-board pay hike. Rader said he wants to learn more about Thurmond’s proposal and the long-term impact on the budget and the pension, where employees’ salaries impact their payouts in retirement.

Rader also wants the county to consider whether raises based on a merit system should be considered instead of awarding every employee a 3-percent raise.

“I think across-the-board is the most expensive way to go,” he said.

Although commissioners have praised many of Thurmond's spending proposals, they continue to criticize his administration's handling of projects funded by the one-percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The county expects to receive $388 million in SPLOST revenue over six years, but a majority of commissioners have refused to sign off on projects because they say they haven't received enough details from Thurmond's staff about how the money will be spent and what the priorities are.

“You are holding up the ball, not us,” Commissioner Kathie Gannon told Thurmond’s staff during a Dec. 4 meeting when a vote was deferred on yet another SPLOST project. “It’s our job to ask questions.”

ORIGINAL DOCUMENT: The proposed DeKalb County budget for fiscal year 2019