Members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners posed for a group photo after a meeting on Jan. 15, 2019. (L to R) Nancy Jester, Larry Johnson, Steve Bradshaw, presiding officer Jeff Rader, Mereda Davis Johnson, Kathie Gannon, and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson. Photo by the DeKalb County government.

DeKalb commissioners approve $1.3 billion operating budget for 2019

DeKalb County commissioners have approved a 2019 budget that includes raises for employees, a cost-of-living increase for county retirees and scores of new hiring in public safety and criminal justice roles.

CEO Michael Thurmond said the $1.3 billion budget reflects improvements to county finances during his two years in office, resulting in elimination of budget deficits, increases to the county’s rainy day fund and improving financial ratings.

“This budget represents evidence that cannot be refuted by anyone that a new day has dawned in DeKalb County, Ga.,” Thurmond said. “And we did it as a governing body and a team.”

The budget approved is 2 percent higher than last year. However, the county’s property tax rate will remain unchanged for unincorporated DeKalb and the city of Stonecrest. Twelve other DeKalb cities will see a decrease in their county tax rate, which is one component of how property taxes are calculated along with city and school tax rates. Still, property owners could see tax increases if their property values increase.

The county commission approved the budget on Tuesday in a 6-1 vote. Commissioner Nancy Jester said she decided to stick to her tradition of voting “no” on the budget even though she praised Thurmond’s staff for a collaborative process and stated there were many things she liked in the spending plan.

Other commissioners praised Thurmond for being open to their input as they suggested changes to his December budget proposal after hearing testimony from department heads and feedback from the public. For example, the CEO proposed a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for pension retirees starting in July but agreed to make it retroactive to Jan. 1 after commissioners’ feedback.

Some of the loudest critics of county government also praised the budget during a public hearing ahead of Tuesday’s vote, eliciting jokes and laughter from Thurmond and commissioners.

“Get ready to faint again because I find many bright spots in the budget,” resident Jerry Jackson said. “I certainly appreciate CEO Thurmond’s efforts to make our police and fire departments better.”

Here are the DeKalb 2019 budget highlights:

  • 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for retirees in the county pension system, the first in 14 years and a cost of $2 million;
  • 3 percent pay raise for 3,933 county employees who did not receive public safety raises in October;
  • boosting the minimum wage for county employees to $15 an hour, up from $14;
  • Funding of 60 new firefighter positions and 104 new police positions;
  • $575,000 to renovate the lobby of the Maloof Building in downtown Decatur that houses the top levels of county government;
  • $105,458 to fund two contract compliance officers in response to a recent audit of the county’s Purchasing and Contracting Department;
  • $100,000 in funding for a Charter Review Commission and another $84,000 to fund an incorporation and annexation study by the Carl Vinson Institute;
  • $103,000 to fund an Interstate 285 East bus rapid transit study;
  • $1.3 million to find new positions in DeKalb County state, probate and juvenile courts and the district attorney and public defender offices;
  • $174,000 for a Memorial Drive revitalization study.

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