I attended a public meeting on DeKalbs budget held by commissioners Elaine Boyer and Kathy Gannon on Tuesday. It was an eye opening experince as to why the taxpayers in DeKalb should be concerned in the next week or so. The county commission is scheduled to vote February 22nd on whether or not to approve or amend a 12% increase in property taxes that CEO Burrell Ellis has proposed. The CEO and others feel that a tax increase is the only way to balance a budget that started the year off 7 million in the hole.
At the meeting, a financial consultant laid out what is at stake when the commision votes. In his estimation, the county cannot continue down the path it is currently on. The worst case scenario showed the property tax digest falling once again in 2011 and personnel costs continuing to increase. In that scenario, the county would not be able to maintain services at the the present tax rate. Something will have to give. Either a tax hike, which many in the audience were against, more service cuts or massive overhaul of the benefits and pensions of county employees. when looking at the numbers, it is obvious that the pension system is killing the budget, along with the bloated payroll. I have posted in the past how the county has ignored the recommendations of a Georgia State University audit that said the county should eliminate or consolidate positions within the county government to reduce costs. That will address some of the short term pain, but a closer look at the pension system shows it is the 800 pound gorilla that no one wants to tackle. Because of state law, the county has to maintain a certain level of funds to pay out pesions to county employees. In 2011, the county is on the hook for nearly 50 million dollars so that the pension remains viable. But lets take alook at this pension. Way back in the day, government employees were compensated less than their private sector counterparts. To address this governments around the country gave their employees very gracious health and pension benefits to hire and keep good employees. Today, that system is bankrupting local governments, who have to continue to pay out benefits to retirees and help cover employees healthcare. Add to that the downturn in the stock and bond markets, and local goverments are finding it hard to keep pace with the required minimums set by law. So what is the solution?
In the private sector, when your 401k tanked in the last couple of years, you were on the hook for the losses. That is not the case for government funded pensions and healthcare. We the taxpayers have to foot the bill to ensure that DeKalb’s pension system does not go into default. So the 50 or so million dollar tab that the pension system needs to remain viable is passed on to us, the taxpayers. Raising taxes today will not solve the pension and benefits problem that will continue for years to come. If the county wanted to fix this, they could force employees into a private system such as plans similar to 401k where employees determine how much of their pay goes towards their retirement. Any future employee would be directed into this new pension formula thereby taking the responsibility off the taxpayer a placing it on the shoulder of the employee. The county could also ask employees to pay higher deductibles for their healthcare. High deductible plans are the path that many government and private sector employees are going to help balance their budgets.
Let me go on the record as saying I am not totally against a tax increase to help balance the budget. What I am against is the county asking me to send them more of my income to balance their budget when they have not trimmed as much fat as possible. Public safety should be their primary concern. Quality of life issues like libraries and parks may have to take a temporary cut, but if the county would address benefits and pensions, the cuts to quality of life programs would not be hit nearly as hard.
I encourage all DeKalb residents to contact their commissioners and tell them that they must act on health and benefits before they pass a tax increase. In this economy, few people should have to pass more of their hard earned dollars to the county, when the county has not put forth an effort to curb its spending.
Another budget town hall will be held at the Tucker Library, 5234 LaVista RoadTucker, GA 30084 on Thursday February 17th at 7 pm.
Want more info on the DeKalb budget? Check out these links
I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Cory Ruth recently about issues that affect DeKalb County, and our little chat shed some insight on the man who once sought to replace Hank Johnson as the 4th distict representative from Georgia. We discussed several issues including his possible plans to seek elected office in 2012. He did not rule out a possible run for Congress again, but said he wanted to wait to see how the Legislature would handle redistricting of congressional lines. We both were in agreement that DeKalb should be consolidated into one or two congressional districts instead of the four districts we presently have. When asked if there was a local office he would run for, specifically CEO of DeKalb, he would only state that he had not decided, and would have to take a serious look at the numbers before he would even consider such a move. He reiterated that he would seek no office where he did not have a reasonable chance of winning. As a Republican, Ruth would have a hard time trying to get DeKalb’s top job.
We also talked developement opportunities in South DeKalb. He saw opportunity for South DeKalb to have economic growth in the near future. His pro-buisness approach was refreshing. He said he would love to talk to businesses who have located in counties outside of DeKalb to help determine what was it about DeKalb that turned them away. He also said he would talk with businesses in DeKalb and ask them why they are in DeKalb. He would use that info to try and lure more businesses to DeKalb. Given it’s proximity to the airport and access to several major interstates, Ruth found it hard to believe that Dekalb could not attract more businesses especially outside of the perimeter area. He also talked about how more businesses in DeKalb would put less strain on families who now spend up to two hours daily traveling to and from their places of employment. This, he believes would have a positive impact on parents who find it hard to be more active in their kids education and social lives.
When I asked if a Republican could win an elected office in DeKalb, he said yes, but would have to make some serious progress in convincing the African-American vote in South DeKalb that Republicans have a plan that will bring jobs and economic growth to the area. He pointed out me a project in New York where faith based and business organizations are reviving communities by providing educational opportunities, housing, and business support to local communities all without government intervention. Ruth believes that government intervention is not the complete answer to the ills that affect DeKalb, but he also said the old “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” adage is a not the only answer either.
Ruth strikes me as a common sense person who would definitely abandon the old ways of doing business. He is young, intelligent and very deliberate in his thoughts and ideas. Could he win a seat in Congress from DeKalb? Probably not. Could he be the next CEO of DeKalb? I would not bet my paycheck on it. If he were to decide to run for office again, he would have a mighty hill to climb to overcome entrenched Democrat loyalty in DeKalb. He says that he made some mistakes in his run for Congress in 2010, but that he learned from those mistakes and would do things differently a second time around. I for one would like to see him run for CEO of DeKalb. If the citizens of DeKalb truly want to see this county rise again, electing a fresh face and inserting some new ideas into the conversation will go a long way in making that rise possible. DeKalb needs a new direction and a new mindset. If we continue to go down the path we are presently on we will never return to the days when DeKalb was a place people actually wanted to live and play in.
CEO Ellis gave his annual State of County address on Thursday morning. It was an address to business and political leaders. Two biggies at the address were sewer upgrades and property tax increase. According to the AJC, Ellis says that the EPA mandated sewer upgrades will bring about 1300 jobs and bring a 5 billion dollar economic impact to the region. We will have to wait and see on that one. The CEO is also pushing for a tax increase. The county commission says no, but I wonder how long they can hold out. Something has to give. A tax increase, more service cuts or more layoffs. It is a lose lose scenario for everyone.
This is the proposed budget from CEO Ellis. I read through the entire thing, and a few items jumped out at me.
Police officers that used to cover Dunwoody will be reassigned to other parts of the county. That’s good news, it seems the CEO realizes that public safety is priority one. Now I wonder how many officers will actually be patrolling other parts of the county.
Georgia State University did a study and recommended positions be eliminated or combined to reduce redundancy. The county eliminated just half of the GSU recommendations. If you read through the recommended cuts, they seem reasonable. After all does there need to be 3 deputy directors in sanitation.
GSU recommended the BOC reduce their staff by 10, roughly 7 assistants and some other support people. They eliminated none
GSU recommended the CEO cut 9 from his office, he cut 3.
Why are crossing guards part of police services? Should they not be the responsibility of the BOE. BOE has its own police force, they should be in charge of crossing guards as well.
The library system has some 300 employees. Do people really use libraries that often. I know I have not stepped into one since the mid-90’s. I am not saying that we eliminate them, but maybe reduce hours, especially in the summertime.
I love gardening and growing plants and vegatables, but the extension office may need to be reconsidered. I think it is a luxury more than a necessity.
The county Information Systems department should look at using open software in places where it can. It is hard for me to imagine paying licensing fees for employees who create spreadsheets, text documents, or do research via the web. I am sure that the county has plenty of servers on Linux, but I would like to see the county at least look at transferring their desktops to a version of Linux. This could save millions of dollars in license fees as well as support costs.
I cannot say with any certainty or proof that the county staff is bloated, but if the GSU recommendations are anywhere near accurate, then the county could still provide basic services while cutting an additional 400 plus positions. I hate to see anyone lose their job, but the county should not be a jobs program. If cuts need to be made to help balance the budget, let’s do it. I like that the CEO and the commission wants to balance the budget. If the county has done all it can to reduce waste and improve efficiency, then a tax increase will be reasonable request. The CEO should not ask any resident to pay any more in taxes if he hasn’t done all he can to eliminate waste and redundancy.
No public cash for private developers
Connie Stokes and Kathie Gannon reportedly were the only two commissioners to vote in favor of the GM site redevelopment plan. What baffles me is that the entire commission was dead set against raising taxes to cover budget shortfalls, funding of public safety and infrastructure projects but were in favor of a tax increase to take what amounts to a gamble that if lost, the taxpayers would be stuck with the bill. I know the increase was minimal, but it is about principles. If you are willing to raise taxes to fund a private developer, why not raise taxes to fund items that make the county work. As for the 9,000 jobs this thing was going to create, I wonder how many would actually go to DeKalb or Doraville residents. If this thing was funded by private dollars, and the infrastructure could be paid for with out a tax increase, then this thing would have been a no-brainer. This would have turned into DeKalb’s version of the federal stimulus plan.
Not Surprised by nail salon manager
A store, no a nail salon in Lithonia charges a lady an extra 5 bucks because, in their opinion, she is too heavy for their chairs. Michelle Fonville was shocked and almost at tears according to her when she was told she would have to incur an overweight surcharge. Add to that a manager who basically told Fonville eff you, it costs me 2500 dollars to fix my chair because you sat down and broke it. The salon manger told Fonville to take her business elsewhere and even said that had she seen Fonville before she sat down, she would have refused to serve her based on her weight. all this on local TV no less. This does not surprise me at all. Stores like these consistently berate, and belittle the very people who keep them in business. This nail salon manager knows that her business will not suffer any ill-effects of this bad PR. It will be forgotten Thursday, and she will have a packed house on Friday evening. I personally will not give my cash to a store that berates or denigrates it’s customers. This should be a wake-up call. If they treat you like crap and you continue to give them money, what does that say about you. see video of Fonville here.
DeKalb just can’t seem to stay out of the AJC’s line of fire. After the county rejected using pubic dollars to finance a private project, here’s this. The AJC reported tonight that former communications director Shelia Edwards (she accused NJ police of murder in the death of a friend) is getting a 46k severance to keep her mouth shut. I know these things are typical, even my company did it, but it seems odd they would give her severance and include phrases like not disparage the county, or not sue the county. Tells me she knows stuff that could at the very least embarrass some folks.
A quick note on Dekalb schools.
I talked with a teacher at a school that was recently built under the direction Crawford Lewis, Patricia Pope and others. This teacher told me the school is in terrible shape. Door knobs not working, ceiling tiles falling onto the floor, and leaky ceilings among other things. She told me that she can’t believe that all of the money earmarked for the school construction actually made it there. She told me plainly that she thinks Pope her husband and others took advantage of the school system and should be made to pay. That comes from a teacher who has a couple of decades in the profession. Also, attorneys for Dr. Lewis asked for a change of venue. They say the will be unable to get a fair hearing in DeKalb. If you are guilty, that evidence will follow you wherever you go. A change of venue will not change that.
Lastly, I have to weigh in on this mosque thing that seems to be captivating everyone. I do not believe that this is about reverence for a site that saw the deaths of 3000 people. There is nor reverence here. On the site will rise another structure praising the glory of capitalism. If it was a place to be revered, it would be more like the memorial at Pearl Harbor. In the end this is about hatred of all things Islam, after all it was the religion of Islam that caused the deaths 0f 3000 innocent souls. The idea of government not promoting or sponsoring any particular religion really means that Judeo-Christian principles rule the day, minus the Judeo part. These men and women, being citizens of the United States, have every right to build their place of worship wherever the choose, so long as it meets existing laws/ordinances, and does not infringe upon the rights of those around them.
And the bad news keeps flowing. Can you say tax increase. At some point real soon, the commission is going to jack our taxes up. It can only be a matter of time. When the chief appraiser says that the tax digest could fluctuate even more, you best believe that means it is going to go up. At this point, I am hoping for a resurgence in the economic health of the country as a whole. Until that happens, the bad news on the local level will keep coming.
This is going to be interesting. You have a budget that is 80 plus million short, a commission that says it will not raise taxes, and a CEO who has the stones to fight for a tax increase. I think in the end, the CEO will come out of this with his tax increase. In this day and age no one wants to hear of their police or firefighters being cut. That is something that you do not want playing out in the media day after day. Look what it did to Atlanta when then-Mayor Shirley Franklin decided to furlough cops. Every crime was magnified by the media, and every citizen blamed, right or wrong, the furloughs. The CEO knows that he ain’t gonna cut cops from the force, especially the numbers floating around. And the commission, try as they may, will not come up with enough cuts to fill the budget shortfall. Right now everyone is saving face, but in the end we all will be stuck with larger tax bills. A tax increase is something where the anger will spike for a while but will settle back over time. Cut cops and firefighters, and you will relive that decision every time a body shows up on the news, or fire brings loss of life or property.