Guest Column
Jeff Rader, Dist. 2 commissioner

DeKalb County continues to struggle with the rising cost of health care for its employees and retirees. The current cost trends are unsustainable in the long run. It remains to be seen how the national health care reform legislation impacts the county’s health benefits program.

In 2011, the county will continue to pay for 70 percent of health insurance premiums while its employees pay the other 30 percent. However, the dollar value of each side’s share will increase significantly. This is a regrettable trend in the cost of health care in the county and the country.

The county also pays for health insurance premiums for its retirees under the age of 65, and for a supplement to Medicare for retirees older than 65 years of age. The county continues to seek ways to constrain the growth in health care costs.

One such initiative, in cooperation with the county’s health administrator and insurer, is to ramp up efforts in health wellness programs. The aim, of course, is to reduce incidences of illnesses among county employees. Further, a disproportionate number of county employees have chronic medical conditions, which are costly to treat.

In the future, the county is going to consider ways to get its employees more engaged in their health and its associated costs. Such options could include Medical Savings Account (MSA) or higher deductibles, to name a few, as tradeoffs for constrained increases in monthly premium costs. Managing the cost of benefits is necessary to insure that employees still receive a good value in return.

Stimulus dollars

After contemplating multiple options and much public discussion, the Board of Commissioners voted to accept roughly $36 million in federal stimulus loans to upgrade the county’s infrastructure.

The bulk of the money, about $28 million, is slated for upgrades of the county’s water and sewer lines. That money will be repaid using utility revenues. The balance of the money is designated to renovate and expand the Recorders Court facility, build a new North Precinct police station (to be located in District 2), and renovate a building for use as a family protection center. Debt payments for these improvements will be covered by tax funds.

The federal dollars constitute a loan to be paid back by the county over the next 20 years. However, the loan comes with an interest rate much lower than conventional financing available to the county. One estimate is that the county will save $1 million in interest payments over the life of this loan. Moreover, each of these expenditures will serve citizens for years to come. It is therefore reasonable to spread out the expense over the life of the projects.

Expansion of the Recorders Court is designed to increase its capacity and improve the efficiency of its operations. The court adjudicates violations of county code, including traffic offenses, code violations and other misdemeanors, and the court improvements mean more orderly justice for those involved. The court’s primary means of punishment is fines, which deters violation and offsets the cost of court and county operations.

The North Precinct police station, formerly located in Dunwoody, will be relocated to a site on Clairmont Road, just north of Buford Highway. This will be the first time ever that District 2 residents have a full-service police station. The station will be built from scratch. Once completed, District 2 residents can look forward to improve response times and a greater police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods.

An old county building on Candler Road will be transformed into a family protection center to house services for victims of rape, child abuse and domestic violence.

The county CEO and commissioners discussed other options for this package of federal stimulus dollars, notably development of the old GM plant in Doraville. In the end, there was no compelling business case to invest public (i.e. taxpayers’) money into the proposed venture.

Aside from the fate of the rejected Doraville proposal, DeKalb County must remain open for development. DeKalb’s residential tax base needs to be balanced with commercial properties to keep tax rates lower, and to serve the employment and commercial needs of county residents.

Under the right circumstances, I will consider using county money to stimulate private development that yields new basic employment. I will carefully consider such proposals on a case-by-case basis, judging them on their individual merits rather than adhering to a hard-line ideological position on development.

On the horizon

Looking ahead, the county faces enormous economic pressures in balancing its budget while maintaining the level of services expected by its residents. History reminds us that the economy is cyclical with good and bad times, so I’m confident that better days are ahead.

My long-term goal continues to be to fundamentally change the operation of county government to improve its efficiency and oversight. When the time comes for me to leave office, I hope to leave behind legislative accomplishments that provide for better quality of life in DeKalb County.

Jeff Rader is a member of the DeKalb County Commission. He represents District 2.