Police pay raises and new facilities approved in DeKalb

Police officers and other government employees packed the DeKalb County Commission meeting as they urged elected officials to approve pay raises Thursday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Police officers and other government employees packed the DeKalb County Commission meeting as they urged elected officials to approve pay raises Thursday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

DeKalb police officers and firefighters notched a victory Thursday as county commissioners voted to give them a raise in an effort to prevent the loss of more public safety employees to higher-paying departments.

The raises are included in the county's $1.32 billion annual budget, which the DeKalb Board of Commissioners approved on a 4-3 vote.

Other than the pay increases, the budget includes money for a new library, two senior centers, park repairs and other infrastructure.

The commissioners who supported the budget said the government needs to invest in its people and structures now, when it has funding available for projects that have been debated for years.

But those opposed to the spending plan said it was unwise to drain governmental reserve funds and burden taxpayers with future financial obligations. In all, the budget calls for spending $5 million more than it is projected to receive from tax revenue in 2016.

Pay hike

About 2,800 DeKalb government employees — nearly half the county’s workforce — will receive raises of at least 4 percent starting in May. The raises will cost the county $5 million this year. The pay increases will go to police, fire, 911, sanitation and watershed employees.

Dozens of public safety workers packed the county commission meeting before the vote, saying they needed to know their work was valued.

The county's study on pay competitiveness isn't yet completed, but preliminary findings showed that entry-level police and fire employees were paid less than their peers across the metro Atlanta area, with starting salaries in DeKalb averaging $38,626 for police officers and $33,502 for firefighters.

Additional pay adjustments will be considered when the county revisits its 2016 budget in July.

“We did keep public safety first,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson. “This is just a down payment. This is in no way the limit on what we need to do at midyear.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester said the county wasn’t doing enough to compensate public safety employees.

“We are under-policed and have too few firefighters,” she said. “We have to look at our needs versus our wants. That has to be our priority.”

Public facilities

A $28 million windfall to the county government will be spent on a variety of projects.

Commissioners dedicated the money toward construction of the Wade Walker Library south of Stone Mountain, an intergenerational center at Tobie Grant Park in Scottdale and the Lithonia Senior Center. In addition, the budget pays for parks maintenance, library books and sidewalks.

These projects are being funded over the next two years by refinancing park bonds at lower interest rates. As part of the refinancing, the county is restructuring its payment schedule so that it has more funding available in 2016 and 2017.

Political divisions

Four commissioners who represent east and south DeKalb voted to pass the budget, while it was opposed by the three commissioners from the west and north side of the county.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who voted in favor of the budget, said it dedicates funding that’s long overdue.

“It’s very easy for someone to want to deny services and access to a large number of people when it’s not the people they represent,” she said. “To deny that to the rest of the constituents, that’s so hypocritical.”

But Commissioner Jeff Rader said the government’s spending will create financial obligations that will cost taxpayers for years to come. He said more study should be been done to determine the implications of this year’s budget.

“We’re flying blind here,” he said. “We’re being boxed in to do this.”

Other projects

The budget also provides $1 million to start the county's government financial watchdog department, which was created by the Georgia General Assembly last year as a way to improve accountability.

It spends another $1 million on litter abatement and lawn mowing, along with $200,000 to hire additional code enforcement officers and improve response times.

About $5 million will be allocated for road resurfacing and transportation projects, but that isn’t nearly enough to repair all of the county’s crumbling roads.

DeKalb's elected leaders plan to ask voters in November to approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for road repaving, public safety facilities and other infrastructure.

The county’s unincorporated property tax rate will remain unchanged this year after the DeKalb Commission approved a tax cut last year worth roughly $50 a year on a $300,000 house.

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