Sen. Fran Millar challenges DeKalb Commissioners 60 percent' pay raise

Dunwoody Sen. Fran Millar is trying to stop the nearly 60-percent pay raise that DeKalb County commissioners voted themselves on Feb. 27.

The $24,107 increase, which becomes effective on Jan. 1, 2019, would raise the seven commissioners’ base part-time salary from $40,530 to $64,637 a year, a 59.4 percent increase that would make DeKalb’s commissioners among the highest paid in metro Atlanta.

By comparison, Cobb commissioners make $47,560, Gwinnett County, $45,000, and Fulton commissioners, $43,769.

Millar, who represents Senate District 40, has proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 430 that would delay implementation of the pay raise until 2021 – after all of the current commissioners’ terms expire.

“The vast majority of people don’t think elected officials should be able to vote themselves a raise while in office,” Millar said on March 15.

Senate Bill 430 is seeking to modify the compensation of, and provide a salary increase for various local government officials.

Millar said his amendment applies to all Georgia counties, and would prevent commissioners statewide from giving themselves salary hikes while they are in office.

“No one should be able to do that, and I think most people would agree with that,” said Millar, who presented his amendment to members of the House Governmental Affairs Committee on March 14.

Millar called the size of the DeKalb BOC raise “outrageous,” and said that until it voted 6-1 for the raise, he was unaware of the “loophole” in the law that allowed elected officials to vote themselves pay raises.

Nancy Jester, who represents Commission District 1, cast the lone dissenting vote to the raise.

Millar said commissioners knew what the job paid before they took it, and that the size of the raise immediately called attention to it.

“A more reasonable raise, of perhaps 10 percent, would probably have gone unnoticed and unchallenged,” he said.

In a legal notice before the Feb. 27 meeting, the BOC said the total impact of the pay increase would be an extra $229,660 a year.

Some citizens who spoke during the meeting’s public comments session told commissioners they felt blind-sided by the pay increase.

Clarkston resident Steven Benny said there should be no increasing of commissioners’ and CEO pay without the approval of DeKalb County voters during a November election.

“If you want a raise, earn it in the eyes of the stakeholders, the voters,” Benny told the board. “If you feel you’re not getting paid enough there are two options: find a new job or quit.”

In response to criticism, commissioners, who last had a raise in 2014, have said that they are well within their legal right to approve the salary increases. They also approved a 3 percent pay increase for DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, which takes his salary to $166,209 from $162,120.

Jeff Rader, District 2 commissioner and the BOC’s presiding officer, said the vote for the raise was proper.

“This action was taken in the way the General Assembly set us up to take action,” he said.

Rader and Commissioners Larry Johnson and Gregory Adams, who represent District 3 and 7 respectively, are up for re-election on May 22, and the pay increase had to be voted on before March 5 when the qualifying period opened for the 2018 elections.

The other commissioners – Jester (District 1), Steve Bradshaw (District 4), Mereda Davis Johnson (District 5) and Kathie Gannon (District 6) – and Thurmond are up for election in 2020.

Millar said he expects his amendment to SB 430 to get widespread support since the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia has not raised any objection to it.

“If the House passes the bill, I believe the Senate will agree to that,” he said. “I would be surprised if it didn’t.”

Ed Williams, who is challenging Adams for the District 7 seat, is also fighting the pay increase. He filed a March 6 complaint with the DeKalb Board of Ethics alleging that in voting themselves a raise, commissioners violated their Code of Ethics.

Williams, who lives in Decatur, said they also violated the Open Records Act by not placing the salary increase on the meeting agenda.

“I’m opposed to the amount of the raise and the way they did it,” he said March 15.

Williams hopes the BOC will rescind its decision, under mounting opposition and pressure.

He said he is also considering filing a court injunction to stop the raise.

“I was hoping to avoid going through the court with an injunction, and that the government system would take care of it,” he said. “An injunction is on the table.”

Williams’ ethics complaint was co-signed by Lithonia resident Faye Coffield, who was also one of a handful of citizens who spoke against the pay raise at the Feb. 27 meeting.

Coffield, who was a candidate for the BOC in 2016, said commissioners should instead be raising the annual salary of police and fire officers to $50,000, to help fill the 200 existing vacancies in the county and provide an incentive for first responders to stay in the job.

“It’s a disgrace that you have the nerve to say you could not live off $40,000 but you expect Police and Fire to live off of it as their main source of income,” she told commissioners.

Not everyone was opposed to the commissioners’ pay increase.

Charles McCorkle of Decatur said commissioners have a big workload, which is evident to citizens who attend county meetings.

“I’m all for the raise,” he said. “I think you deserve it. But I’m also going to be looking for you to show that you earned it and are deserving of it.”

Stone Mountain resident Joe Arrington said he can understand why they want a bigger pay check.

“I’m not against ya’ll having an increase in pay,” he told them. “But I want you to put it down beside what a policeman makes. We’ve got 200 vacancies on the police force but we don’t have any vacancies on the board of commissioners, so that should tell us something.”