Tax hike or service cuts? DeKalb to unveil plan this week

By the end of the week, DeKalb County residents should find out what services the county’s chief executive officer wants to cut and whether he will ask for a second tax hike in three years.

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis has until Saturday to unveil his recommended 2013 budget, though his recommendation is expected Friday. The proposal then heads to the County Commission, which will give final approval to a budget in February.

That divided setup has created friction for years, especially as the county’s property values have plunged by 25 percent since 2008.

This year, facing a $35 million shortfall from the ongoing property slide and a hit from the creation of Brookhaven, Ellis and the commissioners put aside their differences and tried to jointly hash out a proposal.

While they remain mum about the final recommendation, one thing has been clear: Major changes are coming.

“We’ve had to provide various options and alternatives, but they all come down to a mix of some cuts and potential for a tax increase,” said Richard Stogner, who helps develop the budget as the county’s chief operating officer.

One alternative that appears to have political support is the closing of DeKalb’s north police precinct and cutting the size of the Police Department.

The loss of Brookhaven alone will cost DeKalb about $25 million in lost property taxes, business fees and other taxes. At the same time, 70 of the 101 officers in the north precinct will no longer be needed to patrol Brookhaven streets.

“We have to continually look at areas where we can minimize expenses, and this is one area where we can cut because there is not the same need as we had before,” said Commissioner Jeff Rader, who first proposed the police cuts and restructuring.

Early drafts had called for eliminating about 50 of those positions — all of which could be done by cutting vacant openings in the 1,120-officer department.

Existing officers would be moved to the central and southern parts of the county, boosting the police presence while still reducing the county’s expenses.

Still, those cuts might not be enough to stave off higher taxes. Ellis has said a tax increase is “on the table,” and many residents appear resigned that one will at least be proposed.

“You never get better services for less money in my experience,” said Brian Tisher, a health care administrator from Brookhaven. “DeKalb is going to have to raise their rate.”

There may be no other way to lop off 6 percent from this year’s $557 million budget to make ends meet, though an increase as high as the 26 percent jump in the tax rate two years ago remains unlikely.

But, for the first time in three years, commissioners who had pledged to vote against any tax hike have signaled they are at least open to public debate about the need.

“I’m still not sold on a tax increase, but that’s why communication has been critical this year,” said Commissioner Lee May, the head of the budget committee who voted against this and last year’s budgets over complaints they didn’t include enough reductions.

“”It’s going to be a tough year,” he added, “but we are cooperating to find the answers.”

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