DeKalb CEO sees reason for hope, still faces uncertainty

DeKalb County’s financial situation remains somewhat shaky but several upcoming projects are reason for optimism, CEO Burrell Ellis announced in a “State of the County” address Thursday morning.

Speaking before 400 business leaders and politicians, Ellis said the county battled to restore its credit rating last year and is now poised to begin a massive $1.35 billion overhaul of its water and sewer system that is projected to create thousands of jobs.

He also touted $60 million of planned transportation upgrades such as streetscape projects on Memorial Drive and Buford Highway and $11 million saved through more than 500,000 hours of volunteer service since 2009.

“The State of DeKalb is good,” Ellis said. “There is so much good news.”

Ellis, who is up for re-election this fall, also acknowledged challenges to DeKalb’s future, such as encouraging voters to support a 1-cent transportation sales tax later this year and the trend of unincorporated areas becoming cities, pulling money out of county coffers.

The likely vote for a city of Brookhaven, expected to be taken up by the Legislature when it convenes next week, has prompted a rare unity between Ellis and the county commission.

Ellis said he and Commissioner Stan Watson, a former state representative, will jointly lobby for a change in state laws on cityhood, to prevent “cherry picking” of prime land to make cities financially viable. County officials, and some residents, have complained about that being the case to with proposed boundaries for Brookhaven.

“Under current law, cityhood not only drives up the cost to those citizens who embrace this option, but it also places an undue tax burden on those who are drawn outside of arbitrarily created boundaries and have no say in the process,” Ellis said.

The prospect of losing at least $20 million dollars next year if Brookhaven becomes a city would be the latest blow to county finances. The county raised the tax rate to historic levels last year to battle the free fall in the housing market. As foreclosures soared and prices bottomed, the county lost 20 percent of its tax revenue in three years.

The tax hike is expected to put the county in the black when the 2011 numbers are in, a first in two years. Final figures will be available later this month.

Carolyn Rehling, a vice president of sales at Sprint who lives in Decatur, said she was pleased to see the county making progress but cautioned that tough work still lies ahead.

“I think we need to continue to look for ways to trim the bottom line,” Rehling said. “We did a nice job of getting our finances in order, but that’s not going to solve our problems long-term.”

Despite holding taxes steady, the 2012 budget appears to be headed for a battle between the commission and Ellis, who did not mention the struggle in his speech.

Under the county’s system, the CEO proposes a budget but the commission has final say on spending. The commission must approve a budget by the end of February.

Watson said his priority would be to stop new cities from forming and taking tax money from the county but said he was also focused on keeping the county’s budget “sustainable.” That likely means change.

“We have to look at duplication of services and outsourcing as a possibility,” Watson said. “I will work with the commission first, and then the administration, to make that happen.”

Todd McKinney, a Cisco sales operator from central DeKalb, said he pleased to hear talk of improving services but with no new taxes. He wants to see a renewed focus on police services and road projects in the coming year, not just talk, though.

“It’s good to look at what he’s accomplished,” McKinney said. “Now we’re in an election year. Let’s see what happens.”

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