Important News about the County Budget and Water & Sewer Upgrades

From DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis:

Dear Neighbor:

We have been making difficult decisions: a faltering economy and plummeting revenues profoundly impact your DeKalb County government. Hard choices will continue in 2011. I want you to know what we are doing.

From 2008 to 2010, county revenue declined by $78 million, forcing severe spending cuts virtually across the board. To continue our delivery of basic services, we have reprioritized, downsized and eliminated non-essential services. We have restructured and streamlined our operations with significant input from our stakeholders. We will also implement a number of new non-tax revenue sources recommended by our Revenue Enhancement Commission. But more challenges lie ahead.

In 2011, we face a $17 million increased pension contribution mandated by state law, a $5 million increase in insurance costs, and an estimated further $13 million decline in our property and sales tax revenue due to the recession. The Board of Commissioners hopes to restore funding so our employees can again enjoy standard paid holidays, which I support. That costs another $12 million.

The federal government in Washington offers less support than ever. The stimulus package is coming to an end, and the sea change 2010 midterm election will mean curtailed federal spending on state and local government. Deep cuts in programs we have traditionally relied on are on the way: funding for public safety, community and economic development, workforce development, airports, highways, rail and transit, bridge and water infrastructure, broadband deployment, health safety-net responsibilities, and social welfare programs, among others. For DeKalb County, these cutbacks mean that resources that had been paid for with our federal tax dollars will disappear unless we directly pick up the tab ourselves.

Even though Washington will be returning fewer of our tax dollars to us, unfunded federal mandates apply by law to our water and sewer system. When I took office, I ordered an assessment of the condition of our water and sewer infrastructure. We discovered that our old and aging system has been under-maintained for years. The Snapfinger Water Treatment Plant is nearly 50 years old, and the Pole Bridge Water Treatment Plant is almost 40 years old. Most of our sewer pipes are more than 25 years old, and some are older than 50. We have now identified $1.4 billion in critical upgrades that must be initiated over the next 5 years. An increase in our water and sewer rates is the only way to pay for these necessary upgrades. We cannot say “no.”

We are, therefore, proposing a 13 percent increase in our water and service rates for 2012, 2013 and 2014. On average, that equals an increase of $8 per month in 2012. I am keenly aware that this is a difficult time to propose a rate increase but, frankly, we simply have no choice. The federal government’s tightened enforcement of its regulations requires we upgrade our system now, and safe clean water and a properly functioning sewer system are basic human necessities.

There is, perhaps, a silver lining. While the rate increase will, no doubt, impose an additional financial hardship on families, the upgrades will create hundreds of new engineering and construction jobs at a time when many of our citizens are desperately in need of employment.

In a few short days, I will be presenting my 2011 budget recommendations. Those recommendations will include some tough decisions to address the local impact of cuts in federal spending, the sluggish economy and unfunded federal mandates. In making those decisions, I pledge to you that I will exercise sound principles, good reasoning and apply some of the best ideas that have come from you. I will propose a responsible budget that addresses our critical needs at the least costs. I will do my best to make your priorities the priority of county government.

The difficult and challenging decisions we are forced to make today will lay the foundation for a brighter tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Burrell Ellis
Your DeKalb County CEO