By Maggie Lee

North DeKalb residents think the way to fill a $44 million hole in the county budget is to cut waste, if the attendees at a recent town hall meeting on the budget are any indication.

But the two county commissioners on hand to take suggestions had to make some painful explanations: Even if there’s a will to cut, there’s not always a way.

“When we say we’re going to cut,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, “we don’t actually have a line item to cut.”

When the commission receives a draft budget from DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, there’s a line for every department, such as, say, the $116 million Ellis proposes for police.

“We can cut a department by X amount,” and recommend how the cut ought to be applied, said County Commissioner Kathie Gannon. But, she added, “You don’t have to cut what we say.”

The details of the cuts are made by the executive branch departments, not the commission, she explained to about 40 people gathered on Feb. 15 in a Brookhaven school cafeteria.

In Boyer’s words: “We can’t hire and we can’t fire…I don’t have a stick and that’s the problem.”

The two commissioners, who represent much of west and north DeKalb between them, held the town hall meeting as one of a series before of the panel’s vote on adopting a fiscal year 2012 budget.

The most questions – and clamor – came over pensions for county employees. “Who said a pension is an entitlement?” declared one audience member, to loud cheers from the rest of the cafeteria.

County pension and healthcare obligations will rise from about $71 million in 2010 to nearly $100 million this year, according to data compiled by county staff. The big jump is due in part to the big fall in the stock market. But when its pension portfolio fell by some $400 million in 2008, DeKalb’s obligation to pensioners didn’t. State law obligates DeKalb to keep the pensioners funded, so the county had to top up the fund with cash.

DeKalb may well be out of the new pension business soon. The commissioners expect Ellis to propose something like a 401(k) system for new hires, though state law protects the pensions – Gannon called them dinosaurs – that existing DeKalb employees already have.

As for other cuts, at the meeting, sanitation, parks and libraries all came up. One woman said that a county garbage truck travels her street four times a week. Another man said he’s seen it take five parks staff to empty three garbage cans. A few talked about fully built, yet unstaffed and closed libraries.

But sanitation comes out of sanitation fees; cutting routes tomorrow would only lower that fee, not help plug the county budget. Library and some park builds too, are funded by dedicated bond money.

Small trims, such as cutting hours at recreation centers are not ideal because “that’s a lot of nickel and diming to come up with $44 million,” Gannon explained.