Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb, didn’t come alone: About 20 county employees, including county attorney Dorothy Bishop and transportation director Faye DiMassimo, joined the crowd of about 150 at the Mountain View Community Center.
Audience member John Velten asked Birrell about the commissioners’ practice of transferring 10 percent of the total revenue from the Cobb Water System — $20 million to $21 million — to its general fund to help balance its budget.
“As a homeowner who is paying a mortgage, those would be taxes if they charged us as taxes as opposed to took away the money from our water bill or increased our water bill,” Velten said. “I can’t deduct the water bill from my taxes, so that’s basically taking away an opportunity from us to get a significant tax deduction.”
Jim Astuto asked if water rates are going to increase again in January by 5 to 8 percent in order to continue the $20 million transfer.
“(County chairman) Tim Lee stands up there and says we haven’t raised rates. That’s not true,” Astuto said. “When you raise the water rates to fund the county, you’re raising taxes.”
Birrell said last year’s water fee increase was a result of the cost of water the county buys increasing.
In response, Astuto said, “You’re funding general revenues with the (Cobb Water System), and I know it’s been done forever and Helen Goreham says it’s legal, but it’s not right.”
Birrell said that when she voted to pass the budget last month, she requested that staff examine a way to reduce the water transfer amount over a period of three to five years by $5 million. Birrell raised the issue after it was brought to the public’s attention by Southeast Commissioner Bob Ott.
“It’s not something that we can just pull the plug on overnight,” she said. “It’s going to take time, but I am definitely recommending that we do away with it.”
Astuto said his comments weren’t meant as a denunciation of Birrell.
“I applaud you and Bob Ott for bringing it up and trying to do it, but I heard the other three (commissioners) sitting there going ‘uh-uh,’” Astuto said.
Herb McKinnell asked Birrell when the county will start using the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir.
“You’ll have to ask the city of Canton and the Water Authority that,” Birrell said. “They had some issues with the city trying to sell it, and they don’t want to give up their rights.”
Another question from the audience came from Pam Subalusky, who pointed out that a few years ago Cobb “paid a lot of money” for a study about a storm water utility fee proposal.
“It was not approved at the final moment I believe for political reasons,” Subalusky said.
The fee would be based on the amount of impermeable surface a property owner had. Parking lot owners would be charged more than houses with a driveway.
“I’m wondering if Cobb County is reconsidering it, because then you would not have a situation where you’re taking money from one area to another,” Subalusky said. “It would be much more fair to have a fee that is proportional to how much of a water issue each particular homeowner or landowner has.”
Birrell said commissioners have been discussing the issue.
“I’ll be honest with you, it’s not something that is very favorable right now because it is another fee,” she said. “I understand what you’re saying to be proportional, but there are a lot of lakes and properties just in this district … a lot of subdivisions that want it and that would benefit from it. The problem is if you do it, it’s got to be countywide. Where west Cobb doesn’t have the infrastructure problems and the issues with the lakes that I have in District 3, they might not be so receptive to it because they’re not going to benefit from it like the subdivisions over here.”
Velten also asked Birrell about the sewer fee the county charges.
The county’s billing system is set up so that residents connected to the county’s sewer system are charged on all the water that goes through their meter. The county doesn’t meter sewage because it’s too expensive, said Stephen McCullers, director of the Water System.
“I don’t understand why as a lucky person who happens to be on a sewer line — when my septic tank failed I had to get sewer connections — that I had to pay an additional somewhere on the order of 55 percent more than the neighbor across the street who waters the snot out of his yard, but he doesn’t have to pay that sewer line because he’s not on the sewer,” Velten said. “To me, sewer should be countywide just exactly for everybody because we all benefit.”
McCullers said he wished it could be different, but that’s just the way it was.
Supporters who want to change the county’s ordinance when it comes to chickens, which currently requires two acres of property to have chickens, also addressed Birrell.
Brad Norman of east Cobb of the Backyard Chicken Alliance asked how many votes would it take Birrell to support the movement to allow backyard hens for egg production or pets.
Norman said his group currently has 2,500 signatures from Cobb County residents in support of his cause, pointing out Tim Lee’s narrow victory in the August runoff, where he won by fewer than 1,500 votes.
“I don’t have a number off the top of my head,” Birrell said.
Birrell said the county’s staff is reviewing options that could revise the code. The county takes up code changes at the beginning of each year.
“I personally feel that the two-acre minimum-law is what we need to have,” Birrell said.