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Board of Commissioners need citizens’ input on budget

2/21/2014, 6 a.m.
When I was elected in 2008, I was eager and excited to continue my career in public service as a ...

When I was elected in 2008, I was eager and excited to continue my career in public service as a DeKalb County commissioner. Little did I know what severe economic times were ahead. My first budget vote in 2009 saw a $30 million decline, and we didn’t know how we would get through it. That was followed by an additional $48 million cut in 2010 and a $18 million cut on top of that in 2011.

How on earth did we do it? We offered early retirement to reduce our number of employees. We reduced the number of police and firefighters hired. We paved fewer roads and deferred maintenance on government buildings. We greatly reduced the number of books bought for our libraries and delayed maintenance in our parks. It wasn’t enough. We then adjusted our employee pension contribution and eliminated employee cost of living raises. As a last resort, there was a millage increase. Due to the decline in the housing market and economic downturn, which led to the erosion of our tax digest, we reduced the budget even further.

These were tough decisions, but they were the right decisions at that time.

Today, our police and fire departments are lacking adequate staff, our roads are in desperate need of repair, our parks are in need of maintenance, and the best and brightest of our county work force are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.

However, there is hope for improvement. Our prudence has positioned us to take advantage of the economic turnaround, and that is now taking place.

In interim CEO Lee May’s 2014 budget recommendations, there is an increase in available funding. This windfall is due partly to the stabilization of the digest, and partly due to tight control on spending in 2013. The amount we are talking about is $13.3 million.

I support the interim CEO’s 2014 budget recommendation because it addresses four key priorities without a tax increase:

1) Public Safety: In this budget we will hire 160 police officers and 100 firefighters. Everyone agrees we need more police officers and firefighters to ensure the safety of our communities.

2) Attractive Communities: In this budget we will hire more Code Enforcement officers, increase cleanups on major roads, including street sweeping, and increase mowing schedules on rights of way and parks. We will have the resources to fill more potholes and street patching. There is also an exciting gateway and interchange beautification program – the people of our neighborhoods and commercial districts need and want this.

3) Investing in Our Employees: This budget provides for a long overdue raise of 3 percent for our employees. The vast majority of these employees have not had any such salary adjustment since in more than seven years. We should not have to balance our budget on the backs of our employees.

4) Government Oversight: We are contracting with efficiency experts in our Watershed Department, which should save us millions.

Additionally, for the first time our county budget is investing in our youth. Government, as a whole, has been lax in meeting the needs of our youth. Look no further than our court system and our youth detention centers to see proof of that. I have been at the forefront of advocating for our youth and youth programs. We must give our most precious resource, our children, positive guidance and proper resources in order to ensure good citizenship, excellent education, low crime rates, better economic outcomes and a better quality of life for us all. This office will work to pull key stakeholders together to ensure that we are working in a collaborative manner to create a sustained and strong foundation for our youth.

All of these important priorities are in jeopardy, if we continue making budget cuts without investing in our strategic priorities, regardless of the implications or damage they could cause.

To borrow a line from President Barack Obama, “Cutting [expenses] by gutting our investments in innovation … is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.” DeKalb County needs to make prudent investments in its own operations, lest we feel a similar impact.

DeKalb County’s future is bright, but our re-investment in public safety, our neighborhood streets, and core county services is needed now to ensure our continued prosperity and economic competitiveness as we emerge from our recent recession without a tax increase.

Your commissioners need to hear from you to find out what your priorities are.

There is a public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 9 a.m. at the Maloof Auditorium – please be there. The future, safety and well-being of our county depend upon it.

Sharon Barnes Sutton represents Commission District 4 in Stone Mountain.