DeKalb County commissioners struggled to contain government spending Tuesday in a $1.3 billion annual budget that excludes expensive pay raises for police but spends smaller amounts to fix inaccurate water bills, clean streets and reduce unemployment.
The DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to pass the budget, which calls for spending more money this year than the county will collect through taxes and fees. The budget is balanced by drawing down reserve funds.
The spending plan covers a wide variety of government services, including public safety, libaries, courts, jails, parks, trash pickup and water. But most of the debate Tuesday focused on funding new programs.
About 50 disappointed police officers watched as the board delayed consideration of a proposed 20 percent pay increase, which would cost $30 million a year.
Police and firefighters told commissioners they needed a raise, which they said would improve public safety by preventing experienced employees from fleeing DeKalb for higher-paying areas.
“It’s critical. We’re continuing to lose officers,” said Jeff Wiggs, president of the DeKalb Fraternal Order of Police. “Money talks when it comes to any profession.”
Commissioners said they need time to review pay and benefits after approving 4 percent raises for all county employees last year. The board plans to evaluate base pay raises, shift differentials and hazard bonuses in the coming months.
“There’s rarely enough resources to meet the needs of everyone we serve,” said DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond. “We all agree that something must be done.”
The budget includes $1.5 million for short-term efforts to correct extreme water bills.
Thousands of residents are fighting high water bills, which in many cases have jumped by hundreds of dollars without explanation.
Thurmond said he needed the money to help clear a backlog of 37,000 customers whose bills weren’t mailed from October through December. The county withheld those bills after flagging them for potential inaccuracies, but that move exacerbated the problem. The government lacked enough staff to correct all of those bills.
The funding will pay for overtime, staff training, an ongoing billing audit, dispute resolution mediators, mailings, field technicians and pay adjustments.
Long-term solutions, such as replacing the county’s 190,000 water meters and buying a new billing system, will come after the billing audit is completed in May.
In a separate initiative, the budget prioritizes spending $2.6 million in existing money for litter removal and storm drain cleaning efforts. That money will come from a fund dedicated for stormwater infrastructure maintenance.
DeKalb’s drains haven’t been cleaned in at least five years, leading to backups that create potholes and cause flooding, Thurmond said.
In addition, the commission backed Thurmond’s proposal to spend $250,000 to fight unemployment. The money will be used for a six-week summer training program for about 155 people between the ages of 14 and 24. It will subsidize private-sector and public jobs to development employment skills among youths.
Commissioner Nancy Jester voted against the budget because it contains a $25 million deficit in tax-funded operations.
“We’re spending more than we’re taking in,” Jester said. “We’re doing that in a relatively prosperous economic time, so I’m very concerned about any downturns that we might face.”
The commission approved an amendment to the budget to evaluate the county’s spending priorities and services by the end of April, which could lead to cuts.
“Sooner or later we … need to answer some threshold questions,” Commissioner Steve Bradshaw wrote in a Facebook post. “What kind of county will we be going forward? What services will we continue to provide and at what levels? What is the proper level of taxation to adequately fund our service delivery? What services will we disengage from? How will we be fiscally responsible?”
Commissioners Greg Adams, Bradshaw, Kathie Gannon, Larry Johnson and Mereda Davis Johnson voted in favor of the budget, while Commissioners Jester and Jeff Rader were opposed.
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