DeKalb looks for savings through early retirements

DeKalb County is counting on hundreds of employees to retire early to offset a drastic drop in revenue.

If not, county workers will likely face layoffs.

On Tuesday, county commissioners gave the first approval for an early retirement program -- one of several cost-saving measures proposed to help offset a loss of about $50 million in revenue.

The county is planning to allow employees who are 50 years or older the option to retire early without a penalty. Employees with 25 years of service who are not 50 will also be able to leave early.

In exchange for their retirement, two extra years of service will be added to their retirement package.

As of Tuesday, about 1,200 of the county’s 8,000 employees were eligible for the package.

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis proposed the early retirement program last month as part of his $583 million budget for fiscal year 2010. The proposal calls for 400 employees to retire early, 360 vacant jobs to be cut and a 1.86-mill increase in property taxes.

The county is hoping to have about 460 employees sign up for the early retirement program, which would save the county about $35 million, county finance director Mike Bell said.

“The reason we’re doing this is to reduce the size of the work force,” Bell said Tuesday. “We are too large and our revenue cannot support all these employees.”

Early retirement is more cost-effective than layoffs, Bell said. For every worker laid off, the county will have to pay about $8,300 toward unemployment.

Commissioner Connie Stokes, who heads the commission’s budget committee, said she supports the early retirement program but is concerned that the numbers are too up in the air.

“I feel we are really going to pass the budget blindly,” she said.

Stokes said she would like to see a focus group to gauge employees’ interest, but it is too late. She said she is also concerned that there are no plans to handle the potential “brain drain” or loss of knowledge in some county departments.

“There are so many variables and assumptions,” she said. “But at this point we want to move ahead and move ahead quickly to maximize the number of people who will take it.”

County staff said they do not expect to see large numbers of public safety employees retire early, but that it is a concern.

Commissioners have vowed to find additional cuts -- including possible layoffs -- to eliminate a tax increase.

Cobb County is also proposing an early retirement program to help with its budget.