This is the wrong time for city of DeKalb officials to make drastic cuts to their budget or seek to pad fund reserves with a raft of new taxes on residents.
This is the kind of problem a city manager should solve, and DeKalb does not have one. City Manager Anne Marie Gaura resigned six months ago. Molly Talkington, who was hired as finance director about a year ago, is the second person to serve as the city interim manager during that time.
There are legitimate concerns that DeKalb’s budget for fiscal 2019, which coincides with the calendar year, will be about $1.2 million out of balance.
That would be a crisis if the city did not have a $9 million reserve fund. That reserve represents about 24 percent of this year’s budget of about $38 million.
The City Council’s policy calls for the city to maintain 25 percent of its annual expenses in reserve, and reducing that reserve by $1.2 million next year will leave it well below that.
Proposals to reduce next year’s deficit include cutting employees at the police and fire departments to save $350,000, along with cutting other expenses. The cuts would not reduce the number of people patrolling the streets, DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith said, but could increase overtime expenses.
Another possibility is a raft of new taxes on residents and others, including increasing the city’s sales tax, its hotel tax, its electric utility tax and its natural gas tax. DeKalb could raise an estimated $3 million simply by hiking its sales tax by a quarter-point, officials said.
A better course of action: Don’t commit to anything until a new city manager is selected. The council should not tie the hands of its next administrative leader by reducing services or instituting new taxes. Instead, it should hire someone who is both qualified and eager for a new challenge, then let them analyze the operation and offer their suggestions on how to fix it.
As they consider the fiscal 2019 budget proposal, council members absolutely should scrutinize it for waste, push staff to find efficiencies and determine if there are areas where the city is spending too much – or shouldn’t be spending at all. But locking themselves into a course of action will limit the ability of any new hire to have an immediate effect.
If it means spending down some of the reserve funds in the meantime, that’s a cost that the council should be willing to accept as it continues what has become a lengthy search for a new administrative leader.