Commissioner Jeff Rader (District 2) hosted a meeting to explain the ins and outs of the proposed DeKalb County budget for 2012, touching on topics such as funding parks, libraries and fixing the conditions of the county animal shelter.
Rader also brought a map showing proposed new county commission districts that was released only hours earlier. He feels the map is problematic because it packs about three percent more people into the district than there should be, meaning that the voting power of its residents is diluted. This map also takes the Briarcliff Elementary, Druid Hills Middle and North Decatur voting precincts out of his district.
“This process, unfortunately, has really fallen apart this year,” he said. He also said the county school board’s redistricting process is “a trainwreck” because they must reduce from nine districts to seven or fewer. Rader said DeKalb is the only county that has not been able to propose maps like this.
He encouraged concerned residents to contact their state representatives as soon as possible because maps must be submitted before Feb. 14. The U.S. Department of Justice must approve all maps, and they require 60 days for approval. However, many legislators will be out of town for a recess this weekend and they will want to get it done sooner.
The 2012 budget must be approved by Feb. 28. As the year goes on, the commission can amend the budget. In summer, they must lock in a millage rate, which generates much of the revenue the county needs for operations. At that point, the goal is to manage spending.
In total, the county spends about $1 billion a year, according to commission staff. The budget is based on the idea that on Jan. 1, 2012, property values were 5 percent lower than January 2011. The budget also includes some tax and fee increases. One proposal is to raise the hotel-motel tax to its cap of eight percent. Another is to start collecting fees on things that weren’t monetized before, like utility inspections. There are no property tax hike proposals.
For the most part, however, the 2012 budget is a maintenance budget without too many new things in it. It is balanced mainly by a budgeted reduction in county salaries and pensions. Tax increases enacted last year put money in the county coffers so that it finished 2010 with negative $3 million but finished 2011 with about $32 million.
One notable increase in the 2012 budget, of about 162 percent, is for the county registrar’s office. This is because it is an election year and the registrar asks for a budget increase each election year. In 2013, the registrar’s office will ask for less funding. County facilities management is asking for a 23 percent increase because the county is trying to consolidate its sources of utilities and streamline them through Facilities Management.
Many residents raised concerns about the conditions of the DeKalb County animal shelter. Rader himself has visited the shelter on multiple occasions and did not like what he saw there. He said that if the transportation sales tax is approved by the vote in July, the money coming in from that could help other funds become available for non-transportation improvements, like helping improve the shelter. They cannot just borrow money for shelter remodeling, though.
“That’s been forestalled from us by state legislature,” Rader said.
Residents also wondered if the county could allow nonprofits to help operate recreation centers. Rader said that there is interest in this, but the county isn’t willing to allow nonprofits to operate the newer rec centers, only the older ones. Since there is interest, though, he will continue to press the issue.
Rader said that libraries are very efficient, especially considering their budgets have been squeezed and new facilities have led to increased demand. He said library budgets need to be increased, and the budget should ideally be re-prioritized to shift money into the libraries.
Concerns about undetected water leaks causing unreasonably high water bills led Rader to remind the audience that the county will help out customers who are victims of the leaks.
This county budget, however, does not prepare for the possibility of Brookhaven splitting from the county and forming its own city. If they did so, and it became effective January 1, 2013, the effects could be intensely felt in many areas of the budget and should ideally be planned for ahead of time.
Staff explained that Dunwoody’s separation was a big financial hit to the county and Brookhaven's departure would have a similar effect. If Brookhaven left, money for police, public works and parks would be especially hurt.
Budget committee meetings will be held on Feb. 7, 9, 16 and 21 at 3pm (except on Feb. 9 at 9am) in the meeting room on the fifth floor of the Maloof Administrative Building in downtown Decatur. Department presentations, to explain why they made their budgetary requests, will be held on Feb. 9 at 9 am in the same location. A full budget analysis is available as a pdf file here.
Rader praised the mindsets of his constituents regarding the budget.
“I don’t think that people mind paying taxes. They just want to make sure that they’re getting full value for their money,” he said.