By Ellen Fix
Several hundred politicians, campaigners, county officials, and citizens packed the Manuel Maloof Auditorium in Decatur to hear DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis’ first State of the County address.
After an upbeat video presentation that outlined his first-year accomplishments, Ellis reiterated several key achievements and made his case for a safe and just county.
Articulating unfaltering optimism in the face of grave economic challenges, Ellis told the standing-room-only crowd, “This recession will set the stage for economic expansion in our county as long as we are prepared.” The preparedness hinges on making “wise decisions.”
One of those decisions was to cut $52 million from the budget – “just short of essential services,” he said. He also announced his intention to further cut expenses and increase revenue in 2010. In addition, he proposed a 1.86 millage-rate tax increase.
According to District 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader, who represents many Brookhaven residents, this translates to $155 for a $200,000 home. Rader said he would like to know which county positions will be cut, and said, “There are other ways to reduce payroll, such as employee furloughs and unpaid holidays. Admittedly, it’s a hardship, but we have to do what we can to hold the line on the taxpayers.”
Rader thought the speech reflected Ellis’ “inclusive approach,” but failed to address new park space for central DeKalb, the lack of transportation funding and other concerns. “These needs are backlogged,” he said. “Residents of central DeKalb want the basics out of government, like roads and infrastructure and value for their tax dollar.”
So far, Ellis’ close ties with the Obama administration have landed DeKalb $175 million in stimulus funds for infrastructure projects.
Some $2 million of stimulus money, said Ellis, was used to assist police officers to live near their beat. He promised more cops on the street as a result of the top-down restructuring of the police department and the appointment of a new Public Safety Director. And he praised officers for a recent FBI report showing a decrease in area crime. “Public safety is a No. 1 priority, in that all other programs are not sustainable without [it],”Ellis said. He also praised the restoration of integrity in Recorder’s Court, which had been in disarray.
In November, he heralded the creation of the Office of Neighborhood Environment, or ONE, in an effort to unify DeKalb’s communities and encourage citizen participation. Ellis has scheduled an unprecedented 12 neighborhood budget gatherings for 2010. A vociferous proponent of accountability, Ellis proposed the position of “Inspector General” to conduct investigations for the new Board of Transparency and Accountability.
Another of Ellis’ initiatives was the establishment of the DeKalb Emergency Management Agency (DEMA), which came to the fore when parts of the county experienced devastating floods.
Ellis prefaced his address by acknowledging each of the county’s seven commissioners. He thanked Commissioner Rader for “caring for the commission” and dubbed District 6 Commissioner Kathy Gannon the “Green Czar” for her efforts in using natural resources responsibly and working to create the county’s first Green Commission.
Gannon lauded Ellis’ optimistic attitude, observing, “It’s a quality we as leaders need to have. It’s contagious.” And she feels the new ONE organization will give central DeKalb residents the chance to contribute to the county as a whole. “Here in Brookhaven we are a mature, experienced part of the county, and it’s a way for us to share with others how to face problems that we have already had to face.”