By Jody Steinberg
A “brain drain” soon will deplete DeKalb County’s government. Hundreds of experienced county employees, including several department heads, are taking early retirement as the county tries to rein in its personnel costs.
Employees ranging from the county’s chief financial officer – one of the architects of the employee “buyout” – to the administrative staff who keep departments running took the offer of early retirement. Altogether, 844 seasoned DeKalb County employees 50 or older opted to retire early and start collecting their pensions this month.
“Everyone with serious or useful experience is leaving,” observes Stand Up DeKalb co-founder Jim Smith. “I have not seen a buyout in Atlanta or the corporate world that really benefits the organization in the long term because the people who take it are the knowledge base of the organization, and that really hurts because you can’t replace them, unless you pay top dollar.”
The early retirements were designed to reduce long-term county payroll. The 2010 budget of $565 million adopted in February included personnel cost reductions if 400 employees retired early May 31. Even though double the anticipated number of employees took early retirement, lower tax revenues have pushed the county to make other cuts to further reduce the budget to about $557 million. The savings from personnel reductions cannot be quantified yet, due to the ongoing debate about how many positions will be refilled, county officials said.
“We didn’t have to offer the early retirement to everyone,” DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader said. “That was a policy decision.”
“By doing (the buyout) with early retirement, we pushed off the cost to the retirement system, which also pays for the accrued leave,” Rader said. “That was the ‘genius’ of this program – that we’ll pay for it in the future. But we don’t want to eliminate a short-term problem and create a long-term one.”
The announcement that almost 10 percent of DeKalb’s more than 8,000 employees volunteered to take the buyout came shortly after the release of a Georgia State staffing study that described DeKalb as significantly overstaffed compared to other metro counties. The report recommended that the county restructure and shed 909 employees, which it specified by department.
With so many county employees taking early retirement, no department has been spared the loss of high-ranking and essential staff, a situation that concerns Brookhaven activist Ronnie Mayer.
“As a leader in a community and being a mover and doer, you have to have all your hookups,” says the Ashford Park resident, describing the rapport he’s built with DeKalb County departments over the years.
In recent months, however, all Mayer hears from his contacts is farewell.
“Three contacts in [the] sanitation [department] we’ve always been able to call for a neighborhood cleanup,” are gone, Mayer said. He ticked off a list of department directors leaving: roads and drainage, transportation, planning and development and parks and recreation.
On May 28, his final day of work after 28 years with DeKalb County, Deputy Director Russell Frankofsky said these types of buyout programs are often used in governments that need to downsize payrolls.
“It’s a good deal for the employees and for the county, too,” explained Frankofsky. “It will give the county the opportunity to reorder operations and the payroll will be less.”
The buyout was approved by county commissioners and by the county’s Pension Board. Pension Board members include current employees, commissioners and pensioners. The buyout is being financed by the pension fund, including the 150 percent premium employees will collect for unused leave and the additional two years’ contributions to each employee’s pension. The county will repay that money over the next 30 years.
Even before the exodus began, the administration, which was also banking on a property tax millage increase to shore up the budget about $30 million, was asking the commission to approve funding to refill 43 percent of the positions, including 40 administrative support staff. The commission refused.
Filling so many of the vacated positions would negate the savings gained through early retirement, Rader said.
“It seems to me if we are going to do all this refilling [of positions], then I would question why we had this early retirement and not just done layoffs,” Rader said. “We could have just laid off the positions that wouldn’t need to be replaced. When you offer this broad type of early retirement program, you really lose control – and allow the workforce to make the decisions because we didn’t want to.”
The DeKalb County early retirement programDeKalb County employees 50 or older with 10 years of county employment qualified for the program. If they decided to retire, they can begin drawing pension benefits this month. Actuarial formulas calculate each individual’s pension based on the number of years of county service (the buyout added two years to their pension fund) and highest salary over a certain period, as well as other variables, including retirement age. Pensioners can remain on the county health care plan with a 30 percent contribution, the same as employees.Among the 844 employees who took the deal were the director and assistant director of roads and drainage, the acting director of sanitation, the assistant director of public works and the directors of public works, transportation, parks and recreation and planning and development, and the director, assistant director and three deputy directors of finance. (Source: DeKalb County)