Around Town: Hard choices ... And is 'tax hike' the easiest answer?
by Otis Brumby, Bill Kinney and Joe Kirby
Around Town Columnists
March 26, 2011 12:00 AM | 4327 views | 47 47 comments | 11 11 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
(47)
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lechat
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March 29, 2011
Kennesaw voter: If your neighbors tell you that you should run for office, they must be as ill-informed as you seem to be. Maybe they’re from Gaul?

As an owner of more than one residential property in Cobb, and properties in two other states, I make it my duty to be informed on valuation and tax issues. The ignorance voiced by many commenters here makes it apparent they do not.

Let’s try this on for size:

Do you realize that if you have a homesteaded property in Cobb, you haven’t had a County General Fund tax increase since 2000 or before because of the so-called “floating homestead” law? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t know enough to make a meaningful comment on the subject; look up your old tax bills. Do you also know that the county hasn’t increased valuations since 2007, and that many properties were last increased even several years prior to that? Some exceptions to this exist for things like additions, etc. The past few years have seen marked decreases in county valuations of many properties, as well.

So, no increase in 10 years in our payments for all the (non-school) amenities and services we’ve enjoyed in the county (rather be in Clayton?), and somehow the shortfall is suddenly the fault of the princely pay enjoyed by librarians and sewer repairmen? I’ll bet you didn’t complain about having that park or aquatics center for your kid to play in, or the senior services for grandma over all those years. I think next time I buy gas, I’ll demand that the attendant take a pay cut so I don’t have to shell out more than I did for that fill-up ten years ago!

rukiddin'
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March 29, 2011
Well, now there is a link at Cobb County to post to for comments for the commissioners to look at for budget tips. Why can't they read it from here? Furloughs and lay-offs should not be an option at all. There is so much waste with dilapidated merchandise purchases, they should have an auction and trim the warehouses, cut off 50% of the lights in the buildings, adjust their thermostats and somebody should just print out all the comments posted at MDJ and drop them off at the commissioner's and county manager's office and someone should make sure they are reading these at night for their night time stories and see how much sleep they lose while trying to comfort their guilty consciences.

anonymous
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March 28, 2011
“Kennesaw voter” thinks police officers get paid too much. He should send his post to the widow and two small children of the Athens-Clark County police officer that was buried yesterday. I am sure that they will be interested in the gratitude of the citizens their husband/father died to protect. You say your neighbors want you to run for office? Maybe your neighbors should call you the next time they are being robbed or victimized by a predator. Bet you would not be as brave in that situation as you are behind your safe keyboard.
lechat
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March 28, 2011
As an owner of more than one residential property in Cobb, and properties in two other states, I make it my duty to be informed on valuation and tax issues. The ignorance voiced by many commenters here makes it apparent they do not.

Let’s try this on for size:

Do you realize that if you have a homesteaded property in Cobb, you haven’t had a County General Fund tax increase since 2000 or before because of the so-called “floating homestead” law? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t know enough to make a meaningful comment on the subject; look up your old tax bills. Do you also know that the county hasn’t increased valuations since 2007, and that many properties were last increased even several years prior to that? Some exceptions to this exist for things like additions, etc. The past few years have seen marked decreases in county valuations of many properties, as well.

So, no increase in 10 years in our payments for all the (non-school) amenities and services we’ve enjoyed in the county (rather be in Clayton?), and somehow the shortfall is suddenly the fault of the princely salaries enjoyed by librarians and sewer repairmen? I’ll bet you didn’t complain about having that park or aquatics center for your kid to play in, or the senior services for grandma over all those years. I think next time I buy gas, I’ll demand that the attendant take a pay cut so I don’t have to shell out more than I did for that fill-up ten years ago!

ECW2
|
March 28, 2011
Kennesaw Voter,

Gaul = an ancient region of W Europe corresponding to N Italy, France, Belgium, part of Germany, and the S Netherlands; A Celt of ancient Gaul.

Gall = Bitterness of feeling; rancor.

The gall, with your ellipses and ALL CAPS!!!!!!, would seem to be yours alone. Why not just post “GRRRRRRRRRRR” and leave it at that. You can scream at your computer screen while typing it. That might help.

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!! Feels good, yeah?

Cheers, mate.

Kennesaw Voter
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March 28, 2011
Some people have a lot of gaul to claim that a Police officer or fire fighter won't do their job if we dont raise property taxes...Most county employees including police and fire are over paid. If they want to just sit around in their office...they should be fired...they get paid now to do a job...if you dont like the pay and benefits...LEAVE....but they wont leave because the pay and bennies are really good...I will definitely vote out Goreham for her raise our taxes stand and i will vote against the Cobb Chairman if he supports rasing taxes...i say cut the size of cobb government NOW...My neighbors tell me, I should run for office
NtheNo
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March 28, 2011
Cobb leadership and Pro-SPLOST advocates PROMISED low taxes and a bright future if SPLOST was passed. Cobb voters believed the promises and passed the TAX in GOOD FAITH. Therefore, the good people of Cobb have every right to expect there be NO tax increase, NO employee layoffs, NO furloughs and NO reduction in services.

You got what you wanted - a nearly $500,000,000 TAX gift from the people. Its now time for Cobb leadership to deliver on the promises. Otherwise all credibility is lost.
Kennesaw Voter
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March 28, 2011
Helen Gorham will NOT be getting my vote when it is time to vote for her spot on the commission...I will vote for her opponet no matter who it is...she has a lot of GAUL!
a;lskjfaslkjf
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March 28, 2011
The County employees who "worked hard" to pass the SPLOST were following direction and just doing their job. SPLOST monies do not fund payroll. It is completely separate. Employees do not benefit from the SPLOST - local businesses do through government contracts. The passing of the SPLOST kept one engineering firm from laying off more people. And...these people ARE NOT county employees. And...these people make much more than county employees.

Also, since many county employees can't afford to live in Cobb, they didn't even vote. Many of the employees who live in Cobb voted against it.

Stop generalizing and making stupid assumptions.
Just Thinking
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March 27, 2011
How about the Chairman, the 4 Commissioners and the County Manager start off by taking a 10% pay cut.

Then stop all employees from driving County vehicles home.

Freeze all hiring and stop all OT.

Put two police officers on Canton, Shallowford, Piedmont, Roswell, Powder Springs, Windy Hill, Austell, Cobb Parkway and Atlanta Rd. every day for speed enforcement, they will have writers cramp with in 2 hours.

Stop all purchasing of new equipment and vehicles.

Eliminate the landscape services for fire stations and other County buildings, let Property Management do it with prisoners like it used to be done.

Stop all after dark events at all County Parks, close the libraries at 7 PM and shut them on Sunday.

Just a few things that will save money and cut cost immediately.
anonymous in cobb
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March 27, 2011
So, county employees should feel what the rest of the county is feeling? Besides the fact that most of them are paid less than in the private sector, many have ALREADY taken pay cuts. The suggestion that the fat should be cut from county budgets (i.e., overtime) is ignorant - what fat? In at least one county division, which consists of over 50% part time employees (read, no benefits), hours have ALREADY been reduced from 19 to 15 per week. Full time employees have ALREADY given up salary increases for 4 years and been subjected to furloughs and pay reductions. Materials and equipment budgets have ALREADY been cut. Overtime ceased to exist years ago.

Has it occurred to anyone that such county staff would ALSO pay a millage increase? That most of the county employees are ALSO county residents and taxpayers?

Seems like those wishing to keep from increasing the millage rate just want someone else to shoulder the costs of these times. Cobb's millage rate is the lowest in the metro Atlanta area, and yet we have enjoyed excellent county public services....hmm...we were already getting a good value for what we paid. Maybe it's time to put your big girl panties on and pay the piper.
BlnkWorld
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March 27, 2011
The Chairman, Commisioners and County Manager are Democratics in Cheap Republican Clothing.

Tax and Spend; they would be wise to take some courses from Cobb EMC Brown.
tired of the excuses
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March 27, 2011
Why are we just hearing about this "shortfall" half way thru the fiscal year ?? Because the county commissioners and manager didn't want anyone to know. Once again, let's make the employees pay, through furloughs & layoffs, oh, and we are going to raise your benefits (insurance & retirement)again next year too.

One person suggested now is the time to cut services and cut the size of governement - another person suggested retirement program like last year, which would do just that & save more money. They (county manager & staff) don't want people to know that they have mismanaged the EMPLOYEES pension fund since it's inception and the fund can't absorb any more retirements right now because it is not funded at a healthy level. The employees contribution to the fund increases every year but there have been no increases in benefits. The employees are not allowed to have any input in to THEIR fund and there is no sharing of information about the fund from the county. Most employees don't even know that they have an "employees representative" on the board - the employees aren't even allowed to have a say in who that representative is and that person will not stand up for or speak for the employees.

This is just another example of what goes on that the general public doesn't know about.
rjsnh
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March 27, 2011
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that Cobb County Commissioners/politicians hid this budget shortfall information during their push to extend SPLOST. And, if they now propose a "small" property tax increase, that will be TWO tax increases, not to mention water and sewer rate increases, during the Chairman's(leader's?) first, and ONLY, term in office. Talk about a big spender with OUR money...with apologies to Everett Dirkson, "a little tax here and a little tax there and pretty soon you're talking about real money".

Let me be clear, I don't have any extra money to give the county. For the past 5 years or so I've been forced to do more with less. Enough already.
concerned4safety
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March 26, 2011
Your choice.

Cut public safety. Your insurance goes up about $150 a year because of a higher ISO rating.

Or raise the millage rate and your taxes go up about $48 a year.

Seems like a no brainer to me.
P D Guy
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March 26, 2011
No, writing more tickets is not the answer. Cutting back services is not the answer. Doing our jobs is the only answer because it is what we swore to do. It stings like the dickens to lose more money. The thought worries me and my family. But, to the citizens of Cobb - I will do my best to do my job well and professionally. I am just highly disappointed and angry at tne situation.
MissMarietta
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March 26, 2011
Wishful Thinking, you are so right. I used to work for the County and have seen it up close and personal. I was at the bottom of the pile in my department and stepping out of your job's box is strictly prohibited. I would love to help out the County but I am not politically connected and the Commissioners would certainly overlook me because I was just a lowly worker bee. Some of the employees care about this stuff and others are poster children for what's wrong with government.
KurtCobain
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March 26, 2011
THis is still the United States of America Cobb County. Freedom of speech, although endangered is still a constutional right. It is still very quiet in Cobb County. Use it before you are too weak and hungry.
CobbCitizen06
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March 26, 2011
Why is that the hard working employees are being punished for a 30 million dollar mistake that upper management made? If a regular employee made a 30 million dollar mistake they would be fired on the spot. How is it fair that upper management can not only keep their jobs, but also get pay raises, more perks, extended contracts, more cars, bigger houses, and fatter pensions. We should have kept THE MULES, they could have done a better job for a lot less.
mmmmmm
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March 26, 2011
When are some of you going to wake up and realize that the Metro area and the Suburbs sustained their artificially low tax rates based on growth. Now there is no or low growth and the artificially low tax rates can not be maintained.

The infra-structure has not been maintained. The base has gentrified. There has been further white flight out to the outer suburbs. Lax building codes and zoning have allowed builders to build inferior homes that don't even last the life of the mortage. Look at the cheap homes build in West Cobb with 2x4 trusses falling apart in place.

Half or more of the county is full of low income illegals or African American Families. The schools at most of the Counties schools are on the failing list and are on 50% or more free lunch.

Of course, you have to raise the tax rate, more services and enforcement will be required or no one will want to live in the county.
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