The board voted 7-0 to approve the $558.9 million budget, which includes $180.5 million to fund 25 new police officers and 44 firefighters, and without the property tax increase proposed by CEO Burrell Ellis.
District 5 Commissioner Lee May, who chairs the Finance, Audit and Budget Committee, called the budget “a tremendous accomplishment” for not increasing taxes but maintaining current service delivery levels.
“I think citizens have something to be proud of,” said May, the board’s presiding officer.
The 2013 budget sliced $3 million from the $562 million budget proposed by Ellis on Dec. 14. It is $800,000 less than the $559.7 million budget approved by commissioners in 2012.
District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, who chairs the Planning and Economic Development Committee, said their goal was to develop a budget that doesn’t raise taxes and “is fiscally sound that our community can live with.”
The property tax hike was averted when the county finished 2012 with $8.7 million more in the bank than expected and the board cut $100,000 from DeKalb’s lobbying contracts and saved $250,000 by eliminating the public safety director position on the Feb. 28 retirement of Director Wiz Miller.
Ellis first proposed a 1.69 mill property tax increase in December and revised it to 0.64 mills on Jan. 31.
In his Jan. 5 State of the County address, Ellis said property values have gone down 25 percent countywide over the past five years and 50 percent in unincorporated DeKalb, greatly impacting county revenues.
The 2013 budget also includes board-initiated adjustments to the Police Department’s $120.5 million budget.
After commissioners discovered that the department was holding vacant positions open while seeking an additional 25 officers, they voted to abolish the practice, which resulted in a $1 million savings. The Police Department, which has 946 sworn personnel, plans to fill the 25 slots as soon as possible and start a police academy to recruit 17 more cadets. Its 2013 goal of 988 sworn officers is 20 more officers than the 968 employed by the department in December 2011.
The board stopped the practice of funding vacant positions in the Fire & Rescue Department.
Firefighters have been lobbying commissioners to have four firefighters on each of their trucks when they respond to a call. The 44 new firefighters will accomplish this goal, taking the department to 676 firefighters. In 2012, the department had 686.
“It’s been about four years since the county’s hired anyone new, so we’re really excited. We need the help,” said Iosefa Leota, a firefighter at Station No. 2 in Decatur. He said the station hasn’t had any new hires since he moved from Utah six years ago.
The budget also includes $900,000 to update the Planning Department’s antiquated permitting system. Staff at the department, which handles zoning, building permits and business licenses, was reduced in 2009 when the real estate market tanked.
As the industry makes a comeback, growing complaints about long wait times for permits and licenses have raised concerns that entrepreneurs will take their business to other counties.
Commissioners reluctantly restored the $900,000, under the condition that the money won’t be spent until the board further discusses its use.
The county’s 22 libraries got a $100,000 increase – double their current funding – to buy books and educational materials. Recorders Court got $300,000 to buy a new computer system.
Reductions to electricity and natural gas spending also cut the budget by more than $1.4 million.