Bill Byrne, a landscape architect who served as Cobb chairman from 1992 to 2002, started the Republican Primary forum by pointing out that national Republican leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner, state leaders like Gov. Nathan Deal and even the Cobb County school board have not proposed raising taxes to solve budget deficits.
“The Board of Commissioners, a year ago almost to the day, had to address a budget shortfall of about $33 million,” said Byrne, the only non-east Cobb resident participating in the event hosted by the East Cobb Civic Association. “And the majority took a different approach. The majority raised your property taxes by 16 percent. Raised your water rates by 12 percent, and if you ride CCT, your fares went up as well … That’s the difference between Republicans. What is it you believe in? In the political arena, you are judged by what you do, not by what you say. The rhetoric comes fast and easy, the answers do not.”
Lee compared himself to a Republican icon, defending his move by saying the board made tough decisions, also reducing the county’s budget and number of employees, while maintaining a AAA credit rating with all three major agencies, one of only 37 counties in the country to make such a claim.
“Whereas no one wants to have a tax increase, Ronald Reagan, one of those put forward as being one of the best of the best, first year in office did a tax increase to address the issues he inherited,” Lee said. “Our state legislators did a tax increase three years ago by removing your homestead exemption. Sometimes you have to make the tough decisions to make sure that you’re financially secure and make sure that you have what’s in front of you to move forward. No is not an option.”
Speaking third, Larry Savage, a retired mechanical engineer and businessman who worked in the auto industry, said trends in the county have moved away from conservative government.
“We have a local government that never sees a tax program that’s turned away,” he said. “Virtually anything now qualifies as a special purpose, or SPLOST, tax. We depend so heavily on SPLOST that we can’t live without it.”
Retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce told the audience of about 130 people at the East Cobb Library that Republicans should have four fundamental principles — fiscal responsibility, individual accountability, lean government and entrepreneurship.
“What we did last year, the chairman led last year, was not a Republican government,” Boyce said. “We raised taxes. Nothing he says is going to eliminate the fact that we raised taxes as Republicans. We can’t sit here as Republicans and criticize President Obama’s administration for raising taxes and cutting benefits and do the same thing here in Cobb County and think that we’re different. We’re not. It’s time to hold people accountable. If you voted for a tax raise last year, you need to be held accountable.”
Southeast Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, who is running unopposed for a second term, participated in the forum, but was only included on some of the questions submitted by the public to moderator Karen Hallacy, chairwoman of the Georgia PTA’s legislative committee. Later in the forum, Ott, seated at his own table to the left of the four chairman candidates, again brought up Reagan.
“‘Governments don’t reduce deficits by raising taxes on the people,’” Ott quoted the former president as saying. “‘Governments reduce deficits by controlling spending and stimulating new wealth.’ I hope to continue that for the next four years.”
Later in the forum, the four candidates in the July 31 Republican Primary were asked about the Transportation Investment Act referendum, which will take place the same day as their party election. That referendum would pay for $6.1 billion in transportation projects in a 10-county Atlanta region with a 1 percent sales tax if approved.
Savage, who lost to Lee in a special election to fill former Chairman Sam Olens’s seat when Olens resigned to successfully run for state attorney general in 2010, criticized the regional roundtable that put together the TIA project list, which included Lee and Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, because it was largely made up of board members from the Atlanta Regional Commission. He said that influenced the group’s selections, including the controversial proposed light rail line from near Cumberland Mall to MARTA’s Arts Center Station.
Savage also said that travel time could be improved by dealing with accidents more quickly.
“This thing has proven to be a good idea initially that has pretty much run off the rails,” Savage said. “If we don’t pass it, the law provides for a do-over — you go back and make a new list. In my mind, that confirms the old adage that repeating the same behavior and expecting a different outcome is insanity. If we go back and try to do the same list with the same people and working from the same feeder list … then we’re going to pretty much come back with the same result. And I think that will be a colossal waste of time. In my view, the legislature’s going to have to jump in, we’re gonna have to revise the law and we’re gonna have to find a different approach.”
Lee insisted that the transit project description on the TIA project list calls for a bus rapid transit system to be built from Acworth to Midtown, even though the $689 million line item on the project list does say that the project may also provide a fixed guideway rail system if additional funding becomes available.
“The TSPLOST was brought to us by the legislators to deal with,” Lee said. “It was processed through a very defined process and will be brought up to you … It will be up to you to say yes or no. It’s a program that will eventually lead to this region having very modern fast transit options that connect all of the region not just downtown Atlanta.”
Byrne, a Marietta resident, took the opportunity to criticize Lee when a question of what the county’s involvement should be with the Cobb Chamber of Commerce. He questioned why the chairman would support using county funds to assist the Chamber-promoted Competitive EDGE program.
“The Chamber of Commerce’s role in Cobb County is dramatically different than government’s role,” he said. “Participation? Yes. Cooperation? Possibly. But there is a difference in the focus and the priorities … Their focus is to bring new companies and new jobs from outside of Cobb, and I applaud that. My focus as chairman would continue to be as it has been in the past. Rather than bringing new in, work with the 11 business associations throughout Cobb County to expand and improve the businesses we already have.”
Lee denied that he had ever approved funding for the EDGE, calling Byrne’s statement a lie.
“The economic development program is designed to bring new businesses here, and in 2011, we brought 10,809 jobs here, in which half were from the (economic development) side,” Lee said.
One question that seemed to throw the candidates dealt with “domestic terrorism” threats at health facilities in the wake of a suspicious fire May 25 at an abortion clinic off Powers Ferry Road, which led to a federal investigation. But all four men agreed that such threats need to be taken seriously.
“I’m the captain of the ship, I set the tone for how I expect people to behave,” Boyce said of what he’d do if he were chairman. “I’m a law and order candidate. You don’t selectively choose which laws you’re going to enforce and which ones you’re not. Word has to go out that we are going to observe the law in this county. We have the proper peace officers to enforce that. And if you so choose to violate that, regardless of what the act is, and I know my team’s going to cringe when I say this — we will hunt you down, we will find you, we will take you to court and I’m sure you will be convicted. And I hope you enjoy your stay.”