By Jody Steinberg

Open. Responsive. Change.

The buzzwords that have taken the nation by storm since the November elections have trickled down to the local level, according to DeKalb County residents who attended a meeting at Chamblee Middle School on Jan. 29. More than 100 people went to hear new DeKalb Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis introduce his proposed 2009 budget and his vision for the county at one of 11 such meetings he is holding across the county.

In addition to the nuts, bolts and priorities of the budget, Ellis focused on a renewed approach to county operations, emphasizing professionalism, consensus and results over politics. His top three priorities: public safety, promoting efficiency and long-term stability.

“You’re going to see a better DeKalb County — one that is fiscally responsible, efficient and responsive to you, and this balanced budget is the foundation of the policy,” Ellis said, adding that taxes would not increase or decrease. But if Georgia balances its budget in part by cutting off reimbursement to the county for the 2008 and 2009 Homestead Tax Relief Credit Grant, 2010 tax bills will increase to cover the state tax.

“This is such a welcome change in the (county’s) overall approach to community,” said Ron Sprinkle, a board member of the Ashford Alliance Community Association (AACA), citing a sense of openness and engagement that the northern part of the county missed with prior administrations. “It’s refreshing to feel like we have an involved and responsive government that will represent our concerns.”

While introducing the CEO, Sprinkle encouraged residents and communities to join the AACA and strengthen its voice in local government. The Ashford Alliance represents dozens of neighborhoods in unincorporated DeKalb west of Peachtree Road from Brookhaven to Doraville, inside I-285, and bordered by Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Chamblee.

The incorporation of Dunwoody immediately to the north of the Ashford Alliance is contributing to a $60 million budget shortfall faced by DeKalb, along with lower recessionary spending and the possible withholding of the homestead grants. The 2009 county budget of $601.4 million is 5.4 percent lower than the 2008 budget, which was adjusted down midyear.

With the goals of streamlining operations, eliminating vacant positions and tightening personnel expenses, Ellis does plan to increase spending on his top priority, public safety — specifically hiring a chief public safety officer to oversee police, fire, the medical examiner and the courts and increase efficiency.

“We cannot enjoy the quality of life we expect without safety,” Ellis said. “Coordination of public safety operations is the one missing piece — the most important one — especially if there is a major disaster.”

The themes of coordination and professional expertise permeated Ellis’ presentation, while questions ran the gamut from watershed management and tax assessment equity to sidewalks, servicing bond debt and CEOs meeting with the grand jury. Ellis, who took office in January, reminded the audience that change takes time.

“It was fantastic,” said Robin Kirby, who came from Kirkwood to hear Ellis. “Clearly, we were in need of a change. Just the symbolism of all these forums says a lot about his style of leadership.”