Divided DeKalb Commission strikes budget deal

DeKalb County commissioners compromised Friday on spending priorities, agreeing to add funding for 51 police officers and pass a $1.3 billion budget.

The 2015 budget, approved by the DeKalb Commission with a 4-2 vote, raises property tax rates on city residents and provides money to hire additional law enforcement officers and water billing customer service representatives.

The spending plan also funds 3 percent pay raises, initially approved last year, for full-time county employees, and it provides $5 million for road resurfacing.

The commissioners who voted against passing the budget said the county would be spending more money even though new cities are forming and taking over services.

The budget increases spending from property and sales taxes by 1 percent compared to last year.

Money showdown

Before the vote, it wasn’t certain that the budget would pass, but commissioners resolved their differences by drawing $3.5 million from reserve funds to pay for police and several other desires.

That last-minute money sweetened the pot and made the spending plan palatable for the county’s elected officials.

About $2.4 million of those funds will go toward hiring more police officers. The rest pays for items such as teen mental health services, small business development classes, infant mortality prevention, hiring of five code enforcement officers and youth development science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.

Public safety accounts for nearly one-third of DeKalb’s spending from tax sources.

“We’ve got to send a message: If public safety is a priority, let’s continue to fund it,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson, the board’s presiding officer. “If you want to continue to turn the tide, I couldn’t consciously say I could pass a budget with no hiring of officers in our budget.”

The spending enables DeKalb police to launch a police academy next month that will train about 25 officers, said Chief James Conroy.

“The money they added today helps us because we weren’t going to be able to hire officers,” said Conroy, whose department has 859 sworn officers. “You have to keep the pump primed.”

Opposition

Commissioners Kathie Gannon and Nancy Jester said the budget spends money at an unsustainable level.

Four DeKalb communities are seeking to become cities this year. If they succeed, they would take over some services currently provided by DeKalb. Georgia lawmakers are deciding whether to approve the cities of Greenhaven, LaVista Hills, Stonecrest and Tucker.

“We have a county that’s in total flux. We probably will have to downsize,” Gannon said. “We spend like we’re growing, and to me that’s just sort of absurd. … It’s like little kids in a candy shop: ‘I’ve got money in my pocket and I’ve got to spend it.’”

Jester said it’s unfair to raise property taxes on city residents while maintaining tax rates steady for homeowners in unincorporated parts of DeKalb. The county lowered city taxes last year but is raising them this year, resulting in a combined two-year median increase of about 1 percent.

“The budget acts like we’re growing when in fact we’re shrinking with the municipalization we’re seeing,” Jester said. “The general budget is full of bloat and a lot of things I don’t think we should be doing.”

Bargaining

The most significant aspect of the budget may be that the commission passed it at all.

At several points since Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May proposed the budget in December, the commission’s disagreements appeared insurmountable.

“It’s part of politics — you give and you take. It’s not always pretty,” May said. “There’s not a lot of flash in this budget, but it’s preserving the priorities we set.”

One of those priorities is improved customer service in the water billing department, where 41 people are being hired to work with the public.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said the budget is financially responsible.

“You can’t just cut, cut, cut your way to balancing a budget,” said Sutton, the chairwoman of the Budget Committee. “We have a budget so that we can take care of the people in this county and provide for their needs.”

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