By Maggie Lee

DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis and DeKalb County County Commissioner Jeff Rader say the cuts they want to see in this year’s county budget will be painful. With DeKalb’s bond rating sinking, the bank account empty and house prices falling, they’re not kidding.

In a Feb. 8 town hall meeting, Ellis touted his own draft budget complete with a 2.32 mill property tax increase that he thinks is the best way to plug an expected $34 million budget shortfall. At a separate Feb. 1 meeting, Rader presented data that show DeKalb might stay or dive further into the red for years if property taxes don’t rise.

“We’ve now depleted our reserves down to zero … because the Board of Commissioners, in order to avoid tax increases in the past, took money from the reserve account and used it to fund county operations,” said Ellis, speaking at a new mixed-use development in Brookhaven.

The commission can amend Ellis’ proposed budget. Commissioners are expected to vote on it in March and officially decide on the county millage in June.

Ellis said DeKalb’s tax take is diving, the state was slow at sending expected funds and the snow and ice emergency burned through money, but overall blamed the commission for the depleted reserve fund balance.

When the money was all spent, in the middle of January, the county received its latest bond rating downgrade when Standard and Poor’s dropped DeKalb to AA- on its rating scale. That’s similar to an individual getting hit with a lower credit score.

Rader said that the three-year slide in house prices is like “lightning striking three times” for the county budget. When property prices fall, so does property tax income and that’s DeKalb’s biggest source of revenue.

Ellis’ draft budget recommends closing five county recreation centers, including Briarwood in Brookhaven, as well as the area’s car tag office and county extension services.

Rader is looking forward to more money-saving consolidations to come out of Ellis’ executive branch, though the commissioner noted that may have to lead to layoffs. The citizens at his meeting at a church on Clairmont Road complained about the county’s customer service — like an extra fee to pay bills online, or the slow pace of property tax appeals.

“Why do we do it like that? Because we’ve always done it like that,” and that’s the problem, he said of the pokey services. He gave the example of water billing. It’s a tiny department that cannot afford the best databases or leverage numbers for a price break with their online billing provider.

Ellis noted that some consolidation has already improved public safety. Now the county runs a public safety department, joining separate police and fire departments that used to fail to cooperate on policy and grants, he said.

As for possible layoffs, Ellis noted that laid-off county employees can and do sue, which means DeKalb officials must calculate the risk of a lawsuit every time they consider downsizing. But he said attrition has recently brought the county below 7,000 employees and “it’s going to be true pay-for-performance now.”

Ellis said he will propose a rewrite of county retirement benefits before the end of March. He said it’s still under study, but he will propose new employees get something that’s more common in the private sector: a so-called defined contribution plan, where the employee simply puts money in investments. Often the employer matches part of the employee’s input.

Current employees cannot be cut out of the existing system, by state law.

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Budget discussion

DeKalb residents will have an opportunity to discuss and ask questions about the proposed county budget on Feb. 15, when DeKalb Commissioners Elaine Boyer and Kathie Gannon host a forum at Montgomery Elementary School, 3995 Ashford-Dunwoody Road. The forum is scheduled from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.