Burrell Ellis, DeKalb County CEO

DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis says the county must raise taxes in order to keep afloat.

“What we’re going to have to do is adjust DeKalb’s millage rate,” Ellis declared in front of a luncheon meeting for members of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts on June 24.

But County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who represents portions of north DeKalb, said afterwards he remains “unpersuaded.”

The adjustment Ellis is talking about would add as much as another 4.5 mills to county tax rates, or $4.50 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. It would apply countywide, including the city of Dunwoody.

On a $150,000 house, the maximum increase would add roughly $270 per year under standard exemptions.

The total value of DeKalb’s houses, taken together, are worth at least 20 percent less than three years ago, by the county’s assessment. If the tax rate doesn’t change, then DeKalb’s main source of income shrinks.

Ellis said spending has already been cut by $113 million since he became CEO in 2009. He attributed it to outsourcing and consolidating operations. But he acknowledged there’s still a “gap.”

Rader agreed that sinking property values have torpedoed a big hole in county revenues, but countered that “we’ve still got to constrain expenditure as much as possible.”

He also claimed that nobody actually knows if DeKalb’s staffing is “rightsized” or if the county could shed staff. The $113 million fall in spending he attributed in part to leaving vacant county jobs open instead of hiring replacements. Speaking on the margins of the luncheon, he asked rhetorically “Are we halfway to right sizing? Have we hit bottom?”

Rader called on Ellis’ office to be more transparent with its calculations. He also said the county needs to hire an internal auditor, some fresh eyes to look in every county department and advise how things could be run more cheaply or efficiently.

County officials have scheduled three public hearings on the tax proposals. The first two are scheduled at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. July 5. The third is at 10 a.m. July 12. They are to be held at the Maloof Auditorium, 1300 Commerce Drive, Decatur.

The county commission must set the millage rate by July 12.

The proposed millage rise could hit some of Rader’s constituents harder than some other county residents because north DeKalb home values have tended to hold comparatively steady while values elsewhere in the county have declined. Rader predicted that some householders in the worst-hit areas could actually see a smaller overall bill.

The division over the millage reflects a similar divide over a proposed sales tax to pay for transportation projects. The a new sales tax debate won’t be settled until 2012, when voters in the 10-county metro area decide if they will pay an extra penny sales tax for big road, bridge and transit builds.

The idea comes straight from the state Legislature, which agrees that some parts of the state do not have all the money they need for transportation. But also agreed regions like metro Atlanta should look for cash in their own neighborhoods, not in the state vault.

The 10-year tax would raise something a bit less than $8 billion altogether throughout the metro, said Ellis, quoting the latest projections he’s seen.

That kind of money invested in transportation would create a great return on investment, he said, and it needs to pass the voters. But he added that an equitable portion must be spent on public transit and that business and government must work together to convince residents of both Fulton and DeKalb who “don’t want another penny.”

Rader said his support depends on the final project list, where he wants to see funds sent to transit maintenance. And he wants to make sure DeKalb gets its fair share of other projects. DeKalb’s contribution, he said, could look distorted because so many residents shop elsewhere and leave their sales tax pennies in Gwinnett and Fulton coffers.

The final list is scheduled to be published this October.