Guest Column by Jeff Rader, Dist. 2 commissioner

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jeff Rader, Dist. 2 commissioner

A year ago, I publicly expressed my disappointment in the budget process for DeKalb County. The process, as described in my formal remarks in February 2009, is subject to political considerations and short-term gains at the expense of tough decisions and long-term sustainability.
It was my hope then that the new county CEO and the new governing structure for the county Board of Commissioners (BOC), each with a full year under its belt, would lead to a budget that reflected forethought and long-term planning. Sadly, that is not the case.
The CEO’s proposed budget is based on the assumption that the county tax digest (also known as “property values”) will remain the same as it was in 2009. The general consensus is the real estate market shows signs of, at best, a weak recovery in 2010. The county’s Board of Tax Assessors, in two separate memos this January, estimates the tax digest will decline by nearly 7 percent in 2010.
Even if the administration’s revenue forecasts were accurate, it still has a roughly $60 million deficit relative to its spending requests. The CEO proposes to close roughly half that gap roughly in half by raising the millage rate 1.86 points and the other half eliminate the remainder by reducing the labor force through an early retirement offer.
Given the current economic climate, it is not prudent to burden the taxpayers with a tax increase. So a tax increase is not a viable option to address a budget shortfall.
The logical alternative is to reduce expenses by trimming positions from the county work force because labor costs (wages and benefits) comprise roughly 80 percent of the county’s budget. While no one wants people to lose their jobs due to layoffs, the county’s fiscal situation creates the necessity to right size the workforce now.
The administration proposes an early retirement incentive program. Early retirement puts the decision into the employee’s hands, but county could end up losing its most talented, experienced and critical employees, impairing county services. We might even have to hire some back as contractors, reducing the financial savings from the initial staff reduction. A worse scenario would be to lose a disproportionate number of employees from public safety departments, where I place my top priority.
Ideally, the administration would identify those positions that could be eliminated with the least impact on county services. That can be done after a careful performance audit of each department to evaluate the correlation between quality of services and its staffing levels. Absent administration action, the commission has only recently commissioned a staffing study to that end, which we will use over the coming months.
The administration also proposes business as usual for those employees still in place after the reduction in force. In fact, the CEO’s budget proposes a 1 percent, across-the-board merit increase. While there are many county employees who are exceptional performers, the economic reality dictates that DeKalb County does not have the luxury of offering pay increases, no matter how deserving.
Nor does the CEO’s budget propose any changes in the benefits programs — health, retirement — for county employees. The county currently funds 70 percent of medical costs and about 67 percent of pension contributions. The county can not sustain those costs unless its beneficiaries contribute more.
Nor does the CEO’s budget propose any changes to the number of paid holidays for county employees. Temporarily eliminating a paid holiday saves money and probably has the least impact on county services because government is considered closed that day.
If implemented, these adjustments to the compensation structure for county employees means the budget would be balanced on the back of good county employees. That would be regrettable, but preferable to balancing it on the back of taxpayers.
The CEO describes the proposed budget as “bare bones,” one that provides little more than the essential, required county services. In 2001, the first year of the former CEO’s administration, DeKalb County had a $420 million budget. If that budget was sufficient to fulfill the county’s mandate at that time, then it should have continued to be the benchmark in the subsequent years while allowing for inflationary and population increases. Based on those two statistical factors, today’s budget would be $563 million rather than the $583 requested by the CEO.
The CEO and his team are honorable and well intentioned, but regrettably they have not been able to stay ahead of the extraordinary economic and organizational challenges we are now facing. Crafting this year’s budget is not a one-time challenge. The county tax base is expected to remain flat for a significant period into the future. The administration needs to reject the premise of relying on short-term fixes in order to resume business as usual.
Jeff Rader represents District 2 on the DeKalb County Commission.