And it keeps getting clearer that uncertainty reigns among the board. Not only do none of the commissioners say how they'll play their hand, Lee suddenly and unexpectedly late Friday postponed the vote from Tuesday night to Dec. 7 to supposedly give the board yet more time to study information they've gathered.
Although the agenda for Tuesday night's commission meeting calls for the board to vote on whether or not a new 6 year, 1 percent sales tax will be put on the March 15 ballot, three commissioners - Helen Goreham, Bob Ott and Thea Powell - have told Around Town they are undecided on whether they'll vote "yea" or "nay." Commissioner Woody Thompson is walking a yard-wide tightrope, refusing to say whether or not he wants the SPLOST on the ballot, and instead saying he'll make up his mind after Tuesday night's public hearing.
One would think 22 public meetings in two months would give the commissioners enough input from Cobb residents to make their decisions by now rather than after a few people speak Tuesday. Instead, they're fending off questions. Asked by Around Town on Friday which way he might vote, Ott said he's "undecided" and that he's still "waiting for more information from Tim Lee." Asked how he thinks the board might vote, he said, "I'm not going to go there."
Lee told the Journal Friday, however, that he is postponing the SPLOST vote in order to give him and the commissioners more time to look over the project list, go back over input from citizens and to study surveys issued by the Citizens for Cobb's Future, Inc. group, whose makeup is largely unknown and is conducting its surveys in secret.
On the secret surveys conducted by the citizens group, Lee says: "Overall, it looks pretty positive and shows that the citizens of Cobb are willing to move forward with a SPLOST if it's fiscally sound. I want to make sure that all of the commissioners have time to review the results of the surveys, and that we have a good list that's fiscally sound and do some fine-tuning."
Lee said the public hearing scheduled during Tuesday's meeting will still take place, but his switcheroo on the SPLOST vote will now make the main agenda item a proposed hike on water rates - which begs the question "who cares!"
Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler said the March 15 county-wide, special election could cost the county anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000, and so far it's the only item people would be taking time out of their day to vote on.
The county has already taken two blows to the chin this week with both the local TEA Party and Cobb County Taxpayers Association throwing the haymakers. Both groups have voiced opposition to the county's $746.2 million tax plan, saying they don't think it's justified just to mainly repave roads and renovate parks.
When contacted by Around Town Friday, Lance Lamberton of Austell with the Libertarian Party, who is leading the Taxpayers Association group, said he had been under the assumption that the commissioners were unanimous in their support for SPLOST but now feels they are wavering.
Lamberton said he spoke to Thompson just last week, and though Thompson never told him whether he would vote for or against putting it on the ballot, he said the other commissioner gave reasons why the SPLOST would benefit the county.
"Maybe all of this has changed as a result of what I see as an outpouring of opposition to the SPLOST. I think the economy has a lot to do with it, because it's just not a good time. And I think there is some concert about the content, that some of the projects are seen more as wants rather than needs and should be addressed through general fund revenues and not through a SPLOST. I know that we've had way more turnout at our meetings, around 40 people, than we expected," Lamberton said.
Cobb's six mayors, along with Lee, seem to be the ones most enthused about a new SPLOST, and that's because about $198 million of the expected $746.2 in collections would go to them to use for anything from roads to a new police station. Marietta Mayor Steve "Thunder" Tumlin even went so far as to say the SPLOST is "crucial" to his city. But most mayors, at some point, have acknowledged that the SPLOST will be a tough sell to residents, and commissioners are keenly aware that residents statewide narrowly defeated a $10 tax that would have funded trauma vehicles and potentially saved lives.
Lee said a vote will take place "no matter what" on Dec. 7, but without full support from the top, you can bet a March vote will be up to $400,000 worth of toasted money.
Speaking of SPLOST, Journal reporter John Gillooly unearthed a secret survey Friday on the potential 2011 SPLOST that has phone lines in the county buzzing. Some of the questions posed to Cobb residents included: Are you in favor of the SPLOST? Would you vote for road improvements? Would you vote for senior citizen facilities? Would you vote for parks? Would you vote for fire and police facilities? Would you be more likely to vote for it if you knew that about 30 percent of the SPLOST would be paid for by non-Cobb County residents? Are you a Democrat, Republican or Tea Party member? Are you liberal, conservative or inbetween? What is your age, education and income, and do you rent or own your home?
When AT started probing further into the poll, it mostly got the runaround.
Companies have set up the responsibility tier of phone surveys so that one can point to the next without anyone ever getting to the bottom. Stacy Jenkins, attorney for Orem, a Utah-based polling company Opinionology, said his company was hired by Alexandria, Virginia-based public opinion research firm American Viewpoint to make the calls and read the script provided to them by American Viewpoint. Jenkins said he does not know who hired American Viewpoint to conduct the poll, as his company does not ask in order to avoid "inherent biases" from the pollsters, and refused to say how many people from his company were hired to call, how long they are contracted to conduct the survey and how much they are being paid to do it.
Calls for comment from American Viewpoint Friday morning were not returned.
So who's at the bottom of the well? Until Around Town started asking questions Friday, it was starting seem like a CIA operation.
Asked about the secret survey, Commission Chairman Tim Lee said he had heard of American Viewpoint, but had not heard of Opinionology. He was adament that no county money went towards paying for the survey, though he did acknowledge that the citizens group Citizens for Cobb's Future has been conducting and funding its own surveys.
One Cobb resident said she was concerned the county may be spending tax dollars to get out the vote. "Am I paying for the county government to know how to word the vote so I will be more likely to give them more money?" she asked.
"This is not a county project, and if they are funding that poll, it is not funded by the county. They are paying for it. They are a group of active Cobb citizens and have no affiliation with the county government," Lee said.
Around Town kept digging until late Friday afternoon Marietta attorney Chuck Clay revealed that he is involved with the Citizens for Cobb's Future group and that the group is behind the poll in question. He said the poll is funded by his group, although he was squirrelly about saying where the money is coming from and just who is putting it up. He did acknowledge the group is pro-SPLOST. He also said the poll has been completed.
"This is a typical, formal poll to find out what the issues are that the public supports, does not support, to find controls that you want in place, buzz words that get your numbers up and get your numbers down, and the results we've seen have been quite positive in an otherwise unfriendly environment. It doesn't mean it's an easy sell, but if it's properly handled with the proper level of management and control, most Cobb Countians believe the county is going in the right direction and they have a pretty high confidence in the Board of Commissioners, which is key to building consensus," Clay said.
Clay also said the county is not affiliated with the group, nor is the county funding it or any surveys performed by the group.
Another Marietta attorney with the citizens group, Heath Garrett of Marietta, confirmed the group is sponsoring the poll and that American Viewpoint is conducting it. Garrett is the former top aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-east Cobb) and is the son-in-law of AT columnist Otis Brumby.
As Thanksgiving week approaches, all of us at Around Town - Bill, Joe and Otis - hope that you and your families abundantly share in the Spirit of Thanksgiving. After all, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday and tradition where, regardless of our challenges and difficulties, we can all express our thankfulness and gratitude for our many blessings.