CEO: DeKalb’s struggles will breed strength

DeKalb County will continue to struggle with declining revenue and paying for services but will be all the stronger once it pushes through, CEO Burrell Ellis said Tuesday in his annual “State of the County” address.

Ellis did not mention his own struggles with trying to keep both his and others’ focus on operations of metro Atlanta’s third-biggest county just weeks after agents from District Attorney Robert James’ office searched his home and office for evidence of political corruption.

Neither he nor his former campaign manager Kevin Ross, whose home and office were also searched, have been charged with a crime. Both deny wrongdoing. And Ellis, speaking Tuesday, said the investigation was not what people wanted to hear about.

“People want to know what the vision is and how we’re moving forward, and how we are moving forward in this (county) is in a very collaborative fashion,” Ellis said after addressing more than 400 community and business leaders who gave him two standing ovations.

“This is not about Burrell Ellis. This is about the state of the county,” he added.

After several years of worsening financial conditions, Ellis said DeKalb is poised to need both service cuts and a small tax property tax increase to make ends meet.

Ellis has called for a 1.69 mill tax hike – about $44.50 more a year in taxes on a home valued at $200,000 – to pay the bills in 2013. County commissioners, who have long battled with Ellis over spending, are now weighing the proposal and its expenses. Among the costs: giving the lowest paid county workers a 3 percent raise, building a new animal services shelter and improving delays in the county’s permitting and licensing departments.

Ellis and five of the seven commissioners who attended the address agreed that they will tackle budget challenges together. Already, the county has found success in partnering outside its borders, such as using $9 million in federal funds to build a renewable energy facility and fueling station at the county-owned Seminole Road Landfill.

The facility captures methane from landfill gasses and processes it to fuel vehicles and make electricity. The county expects to make $1 million a year selling the fuel, known as compressed natural gas, a clear victory for officials when they put aside their differences.

I don’t want this county to continue with the politics. I want to see a focus on issues, and I think to a degree that is happening,” Earl Walker, a Stone Mountain resident who owns Indigo Signs in Tucker, said before Ellis spoke.

Afterward, Walker and other business leaders who had wanted to hear Ellis address the DA’s probe said they were satisfied with his renewed call for unity over all challenges.

Still, they said they remained concerned with the DA’s probe. Ellis, though, said after his speech that he was “not aware of any scandals in the county” that could distract him.

He would not address the district attorney’s investigation. Ellis also would not comment on three new search warrants filed Friday, seeking wiretaps on two cellular phones identified only by serial number and a log record of all calls in and out to a phone number at a Decatur business.

The warrants on the cell phones, which resulted in two discs of material that has since been sealed, are connected to the special grand jury investigating allegations of corruption in the county, according to Channel 2 Action News.

Investigators did not execute the authorized warrant on the call log on the phone number, which belongs to R.L. Brown & Associates architects in Decatur. The owner, who campaign records show gave $2,000 to Ellis’ re-election campaign in 2011, has a conference room phone that Ellis has used when making campaign-related calls, including soliciting donations, Ellis aides and Robert Brown confirmed.

The special grand jury has yet to file a final report on its findings from that evidence and its year-long investigation. The DA can use that report to ask regular grand juries to weigh possible criminal charges.

Business leaders, like others in the county, have been speculating about the investigation. But after Ellis’ speech, some said they were satisfied the county is in good hands.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about moving forward, no matter if it’s a small business, a larger corporation or a county,” said Monica Maldonado, the president of Interprint Communications marketing firm in south DeKalb. “I think everyone wants to see DeKalb succeed.”

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