DeKalb has more money than expected -- and more spending needs

First, the good news for DeKalb County taxpayers: The county ended 2011 on better financial footing than expected when CEO Burrell Ellis first submitted his $547 million spending plan in December.

The bad news: While that gives the chief executive a chance to bump up spending in his proposed budget, county commissioners continue to talk about making cuts to his original proposal, amidst fears the county won’t have enough money to fund the entire year without a tax increase.

Rejecting a tax increase is about the only thing that Ellis and commissioners agree on, especially after last year’s 26 percent hike to the tax rate.

“From my perspective, we have to take additional due diligence on this year’s budget so there is not another tax increase,” Commissioner Lee May, head of the budget committee, said Tuesday. “We have to pay very close attention to where we are.”

Ellis is expected to make an announcement on additional funding later this week, when he also issues a revised budget proposal.

Finance director Joel Gottlieb wouldn’t comment on how much more money has been freed up, but county financial records show DeKalb ended the year with about $6 million more than projected.

“The CEO will find funding for those critical positions,” Gottlieb said. “There are a lot of items on the list.”

There still won’t be enough money for full funding for every department and some of the extra money is destined to build the county’s reserves. But commissioners have pushed for spending boosts after some needs were brought up during budget hearings. Among them:

  • $485,000 to pay for nine positions in the court system and marshal's office. Workers currently hold those jobs but Ellis' December proposal did not fund them due to a computer glitch;
  • $186,000 for the District Attorney's Office to investigate possible corruption at the county Department of Watershed Management and allegations of test cheating in county schools;
  • The first payment for a possible phase-in of $2.4 million for airpack breathing apparatus to replace the fire department's critical-response gear.

“It sounds like they are all going to work real hard for us and help get this done,” said Fire Chief Ed O’Brien, who first described safety concerns over existing airpacks during a budget hearing last week.

Police Chief William O’Brien, the fire chief’s brother, is among department heads scheduled for the final round of hearings Thursday. Following those sessions, the budget committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to hash out its recommendations.

The budget committee is expected to have its counter proposal, including cuts, on Feb. 23. The full board votes on the 2012 budget on Feb. 28.