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Despite COVID-19 pandemic, proposed City of DeKalb 2021 budget, with police restructure, is balanced

DeKALB – Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and all its indefinite and negative impacts on local revenue streams, the City of DeKalb proposed 2021 budget is balanced, thanks in part, said City Manager Bill Nicklas, to some federal pandemic relief funds and thinning out the city’s debt.

The DeKalb City Council and the city’s Finance Advisory Committee met Monday to begin Fiscal Year 2021 budget talks, the highlights of which includes tackling a complete restructure of the DeKalb Police Department amid local demands for police reform, addressing staffing levels during a crisis and anticipating expected revenue shortfalls from a lack of sales tax revenue from struggling businesses such as bars, restaurants and hotels.

“We are coming to the end of an extraordinary year,” Nicklas said. “The COVID crisis has affected us very deeply in terms of revenue.”

Nicklas said the loss is estimated at about $4.5 million, due to losses in Bar and Restaurant sales tax, and hotel motel taxes, to name a few. And that loss could deepen.

“We don’t know how we’re going to end the year,” Nicklas said. “But I daresay, and I hope I’m wrong, but if we don’t see any opening of hospitality businesses throughout their main season in the next six weeks, and it doesn’t look like now we’re in a hurry to get there, we may see another 3, 4, $500,000 loss in revenue. That’s the reality we’re facing.”

However, the City of DeKalb just this week received $1.8 million in funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Nicklas said. That, coupled with another $1.8 million taken out of the city’s General Fund to pay down four bonds brought the needed savings to balance the budget, Nicklas said.

In it’s draft form – to go before the City Council for a first round vote Monday, and a second, final vote Dec. 14 – the FY2021 budget sits at $98,369,544 in expenses, and $103,538,919 in revenues.

Personnel costs attribute to about 83% of the city’s budget, documents show, and include 187-full time positions and 35 part-time ones, the lowest staffing level since fiscal year 2013, documents show.

The DeKalb Police Department’s next year – with a $27 million proposed budget for 81 full-time personnel, including currently 56 sworn officers, down from last year, plus 19 part time staff – looks to be the most significant, with a complete department restructuring set to divide the department’s operations into three separate divisions with an eye to community-led service in response to months of daily marches and local calls for police reform led by activists and the local Black Lives Matter chapter.

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith commended the proposed police department plan, which will reassign some existing officers and hire some additional ones.

“You’re to be commended,” Smith said to Nicklas. “Along with Chief Redel and others. To take a look at what happened in our community in 2020, what happened this summer, and what happened nationally as it relates to community policing. While it will not be a perfect fix, it certainly is a step in the right direction and I’m proud to live in a community like the city of DeKalb that has put together an organizational chart reflecting a major change in our community policing going forward.”

The divisions will be a Community Support Services division, Patrol division and Investigations. Each division will be lead by a department commander, with the exception of the Community Support Services division, which will have two commanders, one for informational services and the other for community engagement.

Nicklas also credited Acting Police Chief Bob Redel and his team for their input on the restructure.

“I’m proud of our police department,” Nicklas said. “The department has engaged us throughout the summer, fall and up to this point in the exchange or ideas. What can be done, what should be done. And when I say engaged, I say our whole community, persons who were part of the Black Lives Matter, social justice marching and rallies and faith-based groups, anyone who had a voice that really wanted to talk. People wanted to be heard, so it was incumbent upon us to be available to listen. And this is one result, this isn’t the only result. There will be others.”

The department will also have a new leader by 2021, though Nicklas said that process has been on hold since calls for reform led him to re-envision the role, begin the search anew and reform a community-led search process which, once the council approves the budget, will include a panel made up of residents to assist in the interview process for DeKalb’s new police chief.

Redel said the department hasn’t yet identified exactly how they’ll put the restructure into practice, but he’s confident of its eventual success.

“We’re not exactly sure how we’re going to do it, but we’re excited,” Redel said. “I think once we decide how we’re going to do it, I think other communities are going to start to follow what we’re doing here.”

After a back-and-forth between council earlier this month, salaries for elected officials will remain unchanged, with the mayor making $22,500, council members making $5,400 and the city clerk making $8,000.

The City is looking beyond 2021 to economic development on the south side and downtown as a financial safety net, Nicklas said.

An added economic development boom promises to bring nearly $10 million onto the city’s property tax, though it won’t be added until the fall of 2021 at least, document show. That includes a Facebook data center estimated to be worth $800 million, Ferrara Candy Company’s distribution center worth $100 million, downtown investment including Pappas Development’s Agora Tower worth $13 million and the developer’s plans for the old city hall worth $5.3 million.

Lynn Neeley, chair of the Financial Advisory Committee which gave the budget draft a positive recomendation Monday, said when she first began on the committee years ago, she echoed fellow members who said the city “had a structural problem.” But she commended efforts made to address those changes, including staffing and salaries, in the years since.

“I think this is excellent,” Neeley said. “I think it reflects tremendous work, there’s progress in here for the community, and so for what my advice is worth to you, I think this is a fine document and it reflects things that you and the community have said are good and want.”

The FY2021 budget will go before the council, along with a public hearing on the tax levy, during Monday’s regular city council meeting set for 6 p.m.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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