The Brookhaven City Council Nov. 10 adopted a $52.5 million budget for 2021 that includes a nearly $30 million general fund, down 4% from the current amount.

The new budget takes effect Jan. 1. It boosts spending on the police department, but also includes some staff cuts and pay freezes. A plan to bring more parks maintenance workers in-house will save money long-term, officials said.

It’s the city’s first new budget in the world of COVID-19, one keyed by cutbacks in staffing and capital projects.

“The city’s commitment to conservative financial management is why we have weathered this COVID-19 crisis as well as we have,” City Councilmember Linley Jones said. “And we have not had major service impacts yet in 2020.”

Brookhaven’s property tax rate remained at 2.74 mills, the same it’s been since the city’s incorporation in 2012. That’s 4.3% above the rolled-back millage rate, which effectively amounts to an increase in property taxes for the average Brookhaven homeowner.

The proposed budget incorporates the first year of a homestead tax exemption that increases the property tax credit from $20,000 to $40,000 over five years and an exemption plan for seniors that rose from $14,000 to $150,000 over a five-year span.

Last year, the city adopted a $27.7 general fund budget for 2020, but actual day-to-day operating expenditures are expected to total more than $31.1 million by the end of the year. City officials proposed $29,898,890 million in general funds for 2021. That’s a $1,249,504 reduction.

COVID-19 was the obvious unknown in next year’s equation. The had to budget for the impact of a pandemic all but certain to spill into 2021. City Manager Christian Sigman told council members he was forced to reduce staff for next year, limit new capital improvements, and freeze pay for employees across the board.

That didn’t sit well with Councilmember Joe Gebbia, who asked Sigman to re-examine the spending plan and come back with options possible salary adjustments for employees at council’s Nov. 24 meeting.

“There’s no question our employees have handled themselves in a stellar way and really have done an exceptional job in this COVID-19 environment,” Gebbia said.

Despite the challenges, the city anticipates increases in Parks and Recreation Department expenditures slated to bring spending to nearly $3.7 million in 2021. The city will create an in-house maintenance team March 21 to begin overseeing the city’s 19 public parks, pools, recreation centers, community buildings and 322 acres of public park lands. That comes with a nearly $1 million price tag for 17 new full-time employees to staff the maintenance team as well as costs for equipment, vehicles and landscaping material.

“At full stabilization in the 2022 budget, the move to bring it in-house actually saves $300,000 a year,” Sigman explained. “However, in the transition year, because we can’t get it all up and running on Jan. 1.”

The police department’s $11.7 million budget is an 11.6% increase over 2020. Much of that comes from staffing a patrol beat in the LaVista Park neighborhood, a neighborhood of about 2,000 residents that the city annexed in December 2019. Construction of the city’s new public safety building for the police headquarters and Municipal Court is expected to be completed in the second half of 2021.

Matt Bruce

Matt Bruce is a writer based in metro Atlanta.