Guest Column – Jeff Rader, Dist. 2 commissioner
One of my goals for this year is to call attention to the status quo of DeKalb County’s government. Namely, that government’s operating in the same “business as usual” manner is counterproductive if the county is going to solve its future challenges.
The current economic slump should be a wake-up call to consider government’s funding mechanisms and priorities. It seems safe to assume the county’s needs will always exceed its budget. Therefore, the allocation of county dollars must be handled in the most objective way possible to ensure efficiency and results.
However, there will always be a human element in these funding decisions, which are decided by the county chief executive officer or Board of Commissioners. So it is incumbent upon us to be mindful that the pendulum does not swing too far toward subjectivity in funding allocation.
Past allocations have created long-term consequences for Dist. 2, particularly in its green space and infrastructure. To put it bluntly, our district has not received its fair share of funding, especially in proportion to the district’s population.
In the 2001 parks bond fund, each district got an equal slice of pie, so to speak. But there was also a large slice of pie set aside as countywide funds to be used at the discretion of the CEO or commissioners. In the end, one district received $21 million on the high end while District 2 received zero dollars.
In the 2006 parks bond fund, no specific district breakdown was included in the official referendum. It was left to the county to decide how to divide the funds. As a result, of the money set aside for parks development and acquisition, the other districts received between $10 million and $21 million each while Dist. 2 received $2 million.
The same inequity appears in the allocation of HOST (Homestead Option Sales Tax) dollars. While most of HOST is used for residential property tax relief, a portion is set aside in a countywide fund for infrastructure. Of the latter portion in 2008, the other districts received $2 million to $5 million each while Dist. 2 received $500,000.
That was not a one-year aberration. From the HOST infrastructure dollars in the past six years combined, the other districts, respectively, received $32 million (Dist. 5), $16 million (Dist. 3), $11 million (Dist. 1) and $9 million (Dist. 4). Dist. 2 received a total of $6 million.
That infrastructure money is often used as matching dollars to obtain federal grants for transportation projects through the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC). In such matching programs, $1 of county money typically brings up to $4 of federal money. So in those six years combined, Dist. 5 could have secured roughly $120 million in federal dollars compared with $24 million for Dist. 2.
I’ve asked the ARC to submit applications for federal matching grants only for those DeKalb County projects that have the official endorsement of the county Board of Commissioners. Dist. 2 has as much need for county services as other districts. The 2000 U.S. Census reported more people living in Dist. 2 than in any other district in DeKalb County.
Objective measures also indicate that Dist. 2 is deserving of more funding for green space. The county’s strategic plan for parks and recreation, dated July 2000, reported that Dist. 2 had the least amount of park acreage.
While my fellow commissioners can be excused for seeking the most for their districts, the CEO must be accountable to the entire county. While he cannot undo the decisions of his predecessor, there is an opportunity to mitigate some of the damage.
The 2006 parks bond had about $24 million set aside as a reserve or “uncommitted” pot of money. The CEO can use his authority to direct money to Dist. 2 to compensate for the previous shortfall. He can do the same for the HOST infrastructure dollars this year and in subsequent years.
The CEO and county commissioners have a responsibility to distribute county funds in an equitable manner consistent with the county’s needs and population. The first step is to recognize that inequities exist in the current way of conducting business. The second step is to establish a written policy that spells out objective guidelines for evaluating the county’s needs. The third step is tracking the short-term and long-term distribution of dollars for each district. The last step is to always be accountable to the taxpayers of DeKalb County.
Commissioner Jeff Rader was elected in 2006 to a four-year term representing DeKalb County Dist. 2, which includes the southern half of Brookhaven.