By Ben Smith
Of the 400 people who pleaded with the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners not to cut services or raise taxes, or both, none was as impassioned as Carmen Agra Deedy.
The children’s book author, who attended the Feb. 22 public hearing and board vote on the 2011 budget implored the commissioners not to cut the budget for libraries.
Despite drawing a standing ovation from some in the audience, Deedy didn’t succeed.
Neither did the scores of police, fire, emergency medical services, code enforcement personnel and other county employees who took to microphone before the vote.
After most of them had left the meeting, the commissioners voted 5-2 to adopt a 2011 budget they cut by nearly $34 million to avoid the 2.32 mill tax increase that had been proposed by DeKalb Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis.
Commissioners Jeff Rader and Kathie Gannon cast the dissenting votes.
“We’re cutting fat, muscle and bone with the same knife, and it is irresponsible to do that,” said Rader, who predicted that the board was putting off an inevitable decision to raise taxes.
“I think we’re going to have painful cuts today and a tax increase in June,” said Rader, who was referring to the county’s annual mid-year budget adjustment.
The five commissioners who voted for the budget insisted the cuts are not so draconian.
“The county is not on fire,” said Commissioner Lee May, who is the board’s budget committee chairman. “Services will not be shut down with this budget that we’re approving.”
May was joined by Commissioners Larry Johnson, Sharon Barnes Sutton, Elaine Boyer and Stan Watson in voting for the budget.
The $33.6 million cut from Ellis’ budget is the equivalent of 800 jobs. However, the budget cuts do not target specific jobs or programs.
Instead the commissioners opted for an across-the-board 8.9 percent budget for all county agencies, except police and fire services and the sheriff’s department. Those agency’s budgets were cut by 4.46 percent. That does not include savings from a board decision to privatize emergency medical services.
The board restored funding for all of the county’s recreation centers and its cooperative extension program. Some attending the meeting balked at that decision.
“If Parks and Rec gets their budget and then can’t cut the grass, so be it,” said DeKalb County Fire Department Capt. Brett Langston. “You cut police and fire and you endanger the lives of citizens and firefighters and police officers on the front line.”
Deedy then took to the microphone. Deedy urged firefighters, police officers and other county employees to stand together instead of argue about what service deserves the biggest slice of a dwindling treasury. Some of those public safety officers then stood.
“The public library is the greatest promoter of democracy,” Deedy said. “In the most trying of times, citizens must have access to intellectual materials, to media, to books to a free place to work and study,” Deedy said.
According to a summary chart prepared by staff, the board cut $2.4 million from the $53 million budget for fire and rescue.
Meanwhile, the board cut $1.2 million from the $13.7 million library system budget Ellis had proposed.
Despite the complaints, several commissioners said they could not back down from their opposition to higher taxes.
“The public impressed on me they could not afford higher taxes,” Boyer said.