Around Town: Hard choices ... And is 'tax hike' the easiest answer?
by Otis Brumby, Bill Kinney and Joe Kirby
Around Town Columnists
March 25, 2011 10:00 PM | 2955 views | 7 7 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
ARE COBB'S COMMISSIONERS thinking the unthinkable when it comes to taxes? The answer is "yes." Are they going to translate those thoughts into action, and vote to increase the property tax millage? Not likely, say courthouse watchers.

The county is in a budget bind the likes of which it hasn't seen since the Great Depression, back when the county government and budget were both miniscule. But deficit currently looming is anything but miniscule, some $31 million for FY 2011's $328 million budget. And next year isn't likely to be much better.

That had the commissioners this week talking about solutions.

Northwestern District Commissioner Helen Goreham raised eyebrows by arguing that the commission should consider a tax increase, although she didn't quite advocate doing it.

A tax hike is "the evil term out there," she noted, adding that cost would probably just come to a few cents per day for most homeowners.

"To right this ship, I think it needs to be considered," she said.

Courthouse watchers think Goreham was signaling that her vote is available should two other members of the five-person board decide that such a hike might be easier medicine to swallow than the deep cuts they would otherwise have to make in the budget.

"It makes sense, to a degree, to go ahead and raise taxes instead of making those cuts," said one observer. "But they'd have hell to pay with the public at the polls later on."

Indeed they would in this mostly conservative county, which is a hotbed of Tea Party activity.

Some note that there is a greater consensus at present on the need to shrink government than there has ever been.

"And if we don't do it now, we're never going to do it," said one person who's keeping an eye on the proceedings.

It begs the philosophical question of whether the county exists to fund a jobs program, or whether the county government exists to serve the public safety and other civic infrastructure needs of the public.

It's AT's opinion that the commission would spark a firestorm of criticism via such a tax hike vote. After all, the just-concluded successful push to approve the SPLOST was premised on the argument that a failure to reapprove that sales tax would mean a property tax hike. It would be the height of cynicism to now hike taxes just weeks after the SPLOST vote. Moreover, such a proposal also would ensure that next year's state TSPLOST proposal would be DOA in Cobb.

None of the other four commissioners have given any public indication of interest in joining Goreham in a tax hike. Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who plans to seek a full term in office from voters next year, would seem especially unfriendly to the notion of a tax increase. Yet one courthouse watcher predicted that the most likely votes to line up with Goreham might be those of Lee and frequent ally Northeast Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell.

As for Goreham's hints of support for a tax hike, some think her public flirting with the idea was partly "show" and partly politics, as a disproportionate number of county employees (who can form a sizeable voting bloc) are thought to live in west Cobb.

***
COBB COMMISSIONER BOB OTT gave the county's new citizens budget oversight committee a big dose of energy, expertise and credibility when he unveiled the names of his two appointees to that body late Friday.

They're names that need no introduction to most in Cobb: former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr (R-Marietta) and former Cobb Commissioner Thea Powell.

Barr is an NRA board member and former U.S. Attorney for Atlanta who ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination. Powell represented east Cobb on the commission in the late 1980s and again last summer when she was appointed to Lee's old seat on an interim basis. She wound up frequently clashing with Lee about county spending and honed her reputation as an outspoken, no-nonsense public servant. She's also viewed as a potential rival of Lee's for the chairmanship next year and was recently appointed by Ott - over Lee's objection - to the Cobb Development Authority.

The two agreed to take the appointments only after being assured that they would be allowed to offer "meaningful input," Ott said.

Other members are Dave Welden, Ford Thigpen, Charles Casto, Robert Plunkett, Beverly Collins, Brett McClung, Jim Rhoden and Vance Booker.

The commission belatedly voted 4-1 on Tuesday to activate the supposed budget-whacking committee, which was approved last December as a way of building support for the SPLOST, and in exchange for Ott's vote for the SPLOST referendum's enabling resolution. But it then fell by the wayside, with Lee deciding to try and get the tax passed before tackling the budget.

The eight original members of the committee were named Tuesday, but Ott noted that county attorney Dorothy Bishop and Lee have said that Barr and Powell are welcome to attend its meetings even though they have yet to have their nominations approved. But the two cannot vote until after their nominations are OK'd, Bishop said.

The committee has a long way to go and a short time to get there. It's due to present its initial recommendations to the commission by June 28 and be deactivated on Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, some courthouse-watchers question just how effective the "scalpel committee" will be, fearing that some may be "go-along to get-along" types who lack the stomach for deep cuts.

Stay tuned.

CHAIRMAN LEE unexpectedly backed up and punted this week on the county's earlier offer to developer Woody Snell for his planned $40 million Town Village of Kennesaw mixed-use development. His stated reason for doing so was the "potential that our incentive offer may conflict with certain provisions of a development agreement" between Snell and county.

The county had offered Snell a $200,000 discount on building-permit fees and was willing to let him spread payments on his estimated $660,000 sewer development over three years. Snell planned to buy up the aging Hidden Forest Subdivision as the site for his project.

Lee's "take-back" of his offer came just three days after the MDJ started asking questions about it.

Now comes word that several Hidden Forest homeowners - who had accepted the offer from Snell, but became disgruntled after he never came up with the money and now are unable to sell their houses - were threatening to file a court suit against Snell. In addition, several supporters of Ott were reportedly on the verge of filing ethics charges against Lee and the county over the deal.

***
WELLSTAR HEALTH SYSTEM was on the front pages this week after former CEO Dr. Greg Simone, who was fired by the board last September, told the MDJ that a battle is under way behind the scenes for control of the organization. Two other ranking WellStar officials were fired early this week, including Dr. Richard Lopes, president of the WellStar Medical Group, which runs the system's 350-doctors-strong physicians network.

Now a legal source and WellStar critic tells AT that the number of doctors in that network is about to grow substantially. Look for WellStar to soon complete acquisition of one of Cobb's largest remaining specialty-doctor networks after a year of negotiations, he says. Reportedly pushing for the takeover is lawyer Randall Bentley Sr., chair of the WellStar Board of Trustees.

RETIRED MARIETTA HIGH SCHOOL assistant principal Jack Callahan of Marietta died at home Friday morning of complications from metastatic lung cancer. Callahan was a Marine infantry officer who did several combat tours in Vietnam, where he earned a pair of Purple Heart Medals, or as he jokingly called them, "North Vietnamese Army Marksmanship Awards." Callahan, who was a fixture at Marietta Kiwanis meetings and never lost his robust Boston accent, will be missed.

***
THE ATLANTA BRAVES home opener April 8 will include a flyover by Air Force fighter jets, as usual. The lead pilot in this year's formation will be Capt. Eric Broyles, a graduate of Harrison High in west Cobb. ...

Susan Aikman Miles is retiring from Lockheed Martin after 25 as senior manager for employee communications. The Marietta native and former MDJ managing editor is the daughter of former Cobb County Times editor Leo Aikman.

***
SAVE THE DATE: The 27th annual Cobb County Prayer Breakfast will be May 5 this year at the Cobb Galleria Centre with new Lockheed Martin VP and plant manager Shan Cooper as guest speaker.

Scott Gregory, managing member of the Brock, Clay, Calhoun & Rogers law firm in Marietta, will emcee the event.
Comments
(7)
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OhYeahThatsIt
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March 31, 2011
The county MANAGER gets OVER $250k a year, IndianJoe. That is not including his PERKS, a car, gasoline, cell phone, travel, travel, travel, discounted meals, discounted hotel rooms and more, and the COUNTY's contribution to his retirement, the COUNTY's cost of his premium for health and dental and vision benefits, and the supplemental policy benefits. Then there is the cost of the accounting to process ALL of his payroll and expenditures. And, of course, all the photo opps any person on earth could want...as much as any Hollywood star. You never see him MISS a good photo opp...
youngfarm
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March 28, 2011
Did anyone notice: MDJ Online listed 1069 foreclosures in Cobb County last Friday. Does the property tax due on these foreclosures simply vanish? Are there penalties for non payment? Are the mortgage companies/banks/lenders afforded some clandestine method to avoid the taxes owed on these properties?
Indian Joe
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March 28, 2011
Can you tell me that when the budget was made, they did not realize that tax revenues were going to be down. The average person on the street could have told you this. And for their farsighted approach, we pay these people how much?
Concerned business
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March 28, 2011
It would help if the tax assessors office actually made sure that all businesses filed their Business Personal Property Tax Returns. If you start doing some digging, you will find plenty of businesses that haven't filed for years in addition to businesses that flat out lie. There is no reason to raise rates until you actually make an effort to collect what is due now.
Do the Math
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March 27, 2011
If property assessments plunge 20% to 30% and the millage rate stays the same, doesn't that constitute a tax cut? And if you raise the millage rate to equalize the taxes paid to the same or even lesser amount as last year (just not the full effect of value losses)is that a tax increase? Maybe someone can explain how it is that a tax bill could stay the same or even be less than the year before and still constitute a tax increase?
Repugnican
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March 26, 2011
Why raise taxes, simply reduce the salaries of teachers, firemen, police and EMT's. Next let them pay for their own insurance and pensions. It works for Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. With the savings give tax breaks to corporations.
Swooper
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March 26, 2011
This is a great time to "Right Size" Cobb not raise taxes. Any County, no matter how well run, gains a few excess pounds over time... now is the time to trim the fat.

If Mr Lee disagrees, he may be our shortest tenured Chairman on record.

As for Ms. Waste Management... we do not need a tax increase any more than we need a NYSE listed Company to pick up our trash.

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