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DeKalb CEO, commissioners clash over pay hike for ‘front line’ workers

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and several members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners during a virtual Tuesday morning meeting. SCREENSHOT
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and several members of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners during a virtual Tuesday morning meeting. SCREENSHOT

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond pushed back Tuesday on criticism of his plan to provide extra pay for “front line” employees working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Thurmond called reports that the additional compensation would cost taxpayers $9.3 million per month “grossly inaccurate” and said that, if necessary, the county could sustain the additional pay levels for several months without appropriating any new money.

“The suggestion that somehow all of a sudden I’ve become a spendthrift is inappropriate,” Thurmond said during a contentious presentation to the county’s Board of Commissioners.

Several commission members either questioned the wisdom of the spending or said they had thus far not been provided information about the cost.

In his original March 23 emergency declaration, Thurmond vowed that the county's "front line workers" would get paid time-and-a-half during the pandemic, plus accrue four extra hours of comp time for every eight hours worked.

According to the order, the front-line designation applied to employees in departments where the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is increased. Those departments include public safety as well as watershed; sanitation; the medical examiner's office; roads and drainage; IT; senior center food services; parks; and DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

Those departments account for roughly 3,500 employees. The $9.3 million figure that Commissioner Jeff Rader criticized this week is the estimated maximum monthly cost if all of those employees received higher wages for all hours worked.

Rader suggested that, down the line, such a figure could put the county in the position of “potentially being forced to either draw down fund balance or raise taxes.” He went so far as proposing a resolution reminding Thurmond of the county’s budgetary restrictions.

But the CEO said Tuesday that all 3,500 employees in the designated departments won’t be considered front-line, and that those who are may not carry such a designation during the entirety of their work weeks.

During a one-day test run on March 20, the total increase in compensation was around $186,000, budget director T.J. Sigler said. Figures from the subsequent week-plus that the county has been operating in emergency mode were not yet available, he said.

Rader pointed out that even the $186,000-per-day figure could put the total expense north of $5 million per month.

Thurmond and other members of the administration, though, said wiggle room already built into the budget could cover things for up to seven months. There are also federal and state funds that could come down the pipeline.

Thurmond said he doesn’t anticipate having to tap into the $110 million rainy day fund he’s built up since taking office in 2017. But it’s there if need be.

“From where I sit, I’m gonna fight for my people,” Thurmond said. “Because these are the people that are fighting for DeKalb County. I believe in them, I know the sacrifices they’re making, and I’m gonna support them every step of the way.

“It’s one thing to sit in safe places and pontificate about what other people ought to be making.”

Commissioners Larry Johnson and Mereda Davis Johnson expressed support for Thurmond’s actions, calling the pandemic a fluid situation that shouldn’t be politicized.

Two other colleagues, Nancy Jester and Kathie Gannon, questioned the level of communication between the CEO and the commission. They and Rader asked for the administration to provide more detailed information more often.

“Today is March 31 and it’s the first time the board has had conversations about this issue” with the administration, Gannon said. While Tuesday’s meeting was the commission’s first since Thurmond declared a coronavirus-related emergency in the county, he said he had spoken with commissioners individually.

As of lunchtime Tuesday, the state of Georgia had confirmed 3,817 coronavirus cases, including 108 deaths.

An estimated 325 of those cases — and three deaths — were tied to DeKalb County.

On Friday, Thurmond issued a stay at home order, mandating that residents in unincorporated DeKalb County only leave their homes for "essential activities."

“When lives are on the line, and people’s mothers’ and fathers’ and brothers’ and sisters’ lives are on the line, I’m going to overreact,” Thurmond said Tuesday.