With its prominent role in the $8.5 billion transportation referendum on July 31, the ARC has found itself increasingly in the spotlight.
State law requires every Georgia county to belong to one of the 12 regional commissions in Georgia. Cobb belongs to the ARC, which was created by the General Assembly in 1971. The ARC is governed by a 39-member board that steers the planning and development for the 10-county Atlanta region, including Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties.
The ARC employs a staff of 161 and has an operating budget for 2012 of $8.5 million. Its 2012 budget is $58.6 million. Seventy percent of that funding is federal, 16 percent state, 12 percent local. About half of the ARC’s budget is pass-through monies to local governments or local agencies. Primarily the federal and state monies are passed along in the areas of transportation, aging and workforce development, ARC spokeswoman Julie Ralston said.
Cobb pays $1 for every person in the county annually to be a member of the ARC.
Leithead said the ARC’s charter calls for it to develop a plan and see that plan implemented.
“We have the authority to actually build projects if we want to,” he said. “We’ve chosen not to, but we could staff up like the Department of Transportation and go out there and build projects. The ARC was intended to be a forum for regional cooperation and regional planning and implementation of those plans, and today I think we’re just trying to fulfill that role.”
J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party, said his group is opposed to regionalism at the expense of local control.
“It’s the whole self-government thing,” Van Brink said. “It’s taxation without representation. If we lose our liberty, if we lose our ability to tax ourselves, then it’s gone. Once we succumb to regionalization, once we vote on that and say ‘yeah, it’s OK,’ and we lose that, good luck ever getting it back. All it would take is a simple majority in the region to force Cobb County to do things that are not in the best interest of Cobb County.”
However, Leithead said it’s important to remember that such things as zoning are still done at the local government level, so while the ARC can make recommendations, it is the local government’s job to make the final decision.
“We’re not a super-government in that we can usurp or replace or veto the authority of local governments with regard to local issues, whether that be zoning or property taxes,” Leithead said. “We can’t do that and we don’t want to do that. ... We’re a collection of existing local governments speaking with a common voice about regional issues.”
At the same time, an evolution has occurred in the way metro counties interact. Historically, as metro Atlanta was growing, individual counties were highly competitive. A Gwinnett commissioner in the 1970s, for example, who helped get a project approved in DeKalb would likely pay the price on election day.
Leithead believes such thinking has changed.
“We’re not competing Cobb against Fulton or Gwinnett against DeKalb. We’re competing the Atlanta region against Charlotte, or the Atlanta region against Philadelphia, or the Atlanta region against Dallas. That’s had the effect of … coming together as a region so that it can compete effectively in the national and international market.”
It was former ARC chairman Sam Olens who proved that a county chairman could have both a regional perspective and still be highly popular within his own county, Leithead said.
“There was a growing awareness on the part of the residents in the county that participating in the regional conversation was good for the county,” Leithead said. “Sixty-four percent of the people who live in Cobb actually work somewhere else. They began to recognize that you couldn’t just build a gate around Cobb County and be self-sufficient.”
Former county chairman Bill Byrne, who served on the ARC for 12 years, is less enamored with Olens’ work on the ARC.
“I hate to say this, but one of their real heroes in waiting was Sam Olens because Sam bought into all of their regional concepts for planning and growth, and then Tim Lee has just followed suit, and he has been their lead person in developing this TSPLOST regional concept, so they’ve had a lot of influence in Cobb County over the last five or six years,” Byrne said.
Olens declined to comment for this article on account of his role as attorney general for the state.
Leithead believes the ARC is best known for doing planning, particularly transportation planning conducted by its two dozen transportation experts. One of the plans it develops is called the Regional Transportation Program, a 30-year transportation investment plan on a project-by-project basis that has to meet federal air quality standards and is financially feasible to accomplish.
“We just finished development of Plan 2040, which is the name of our 30-year transportation plan, and it’s the most comprehensive plan we’ve done because it also brings in issues of land use and issues of sustainability from an environmental and social standpoint,” Leithead said. “We’re getting involved in not only developing the plan but supporting its implementation. We believe it’s not only important to develop the plan but also to defend it, and … try to see that the plan that’s developed is actually implemented and winds up with projects on the ground.”
An example of this is how the ARC worked with the 21-member Atlanta Regional Roundtable — many of the ARC board and roundtable members are the same people — to design the $8.5 billion list of transportation projects voters will decide upon on July 31.
“The first phase was for us to support the 21-member roundtable and the development of a truly regional project list, and I think we did that,” Leithead said. “We staffed that and came up with a very, very good project list that’s regionally significant and balanced in a number of ways. But we didn’t stop there. On Oct. 15 when the project list was approved, then we transitioned immediately into the educational program to try to get the information out to as many potential voters as possible as to what were the facts of the referendum so that they could make an informed choice on July 31.”
If voters approve the transportation sales tax referendum on July 31, the ARC will transition into a support role of seeing the 157 projects on the list built, he said.
Byrne, who is running for re-election in the county chairman’s race, said while serving on the ARC board he quickly came to realize that the agency’s agenda was for all counties from a growth perspective to grow in the same way. Byrne says the ARC’s agenda mushroomed under former ARC director Harry West, who worked for the ARC from 1972 to 2000.
“Their agenda was driven by the desires of the city of Atlanta, and their justification about it — they made no bones about it — was that the city of Atlanta is the central focus for the economy for the whole state, primarily because of the airport,” Byrne said.
Byrne disagreed with this approach, as did several other commission chairmen while he was serving on the ARC.
“It was always a battle as to the focus, but their land-use planning concepts were driven and still are by what is referred to as the Agenda 21 program, and that is a U.N.-mandated concept of growth that pretty much says we need to pick out our corridors for high-density vertical development, both residential and commercial, in relying on public transportation for circulation, and the offset to that is the open space that remains after that is designated as common open space for all people,” Byrne said. “Well hell, I never bought into that then, I don’t buy into it now and have fought it ever since, but they have a U.N. concept of the redistribution of wealth and a very liberal approach to how they spend their monies.”
Byrne said it is unfortunate state law requires Cobb to be part of such an organization. As chairman in the mid-1990s, Byrne said he tried to move Cobb into another district, the northwest district, but in order for that to work Cobb needed that district’s permission.
“They didn’t want Cobb County because they were afraid we would dominate the policies and procedures and planning concepts there and encouraged us to stay within ARC,” he said. “One of the problems you have in ARC is you’re mandated by law to be a part of it, but also the ARC lobbies the General Assembly extensively, and they get a significant amount of money from the federal government and the state of Georgia, and their involvement in all kinds of social programs is very, very extensive, and they utilize those monies as leverage, and their focus is a very liberal focus.”
The ARC’s 39-member governing board consists of 23 local elected officials, 15 private citizens and one representative of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The elected officials are the 10 county chairmen as well as one mayor from each of the 10 counties with the exception of Fulton County, which gets to have a member from north and south Fulton as well as the Atlanta Mayor and a member of the Atlanta City Council.
Cobb Countians have led the ARC three times. The first was the late Commissioner Ernest Barrett, the ARC’s first and longest serving chairman, who served from 1971 to 1984; second by Olens and presently by Leithead, who recently moved from east Cobb to Dunwoody. Leithead, who has served on the ARC board since 2000, was elected the ARC’s first citizen chairman in December 2009.
Five citizen members represent parts of Cobb on the board. They are Leithead, Bank of North Georgia president Rob Garcia, developer Kip Berry of Douglasville, Dan Post Jr. of Post and Associates CPAs of Marietta and Cherokee Bank president Dennis Burnette.
Citizen members are selected by a caucus of the elected officials on the board, with terms ranging from two to four years. They are paid $44 per meeting as well as compensated for miles traveled. Board meetings are monthly, as are committee meetings, Ralston said.
Board meetings are open to the public and held at the ARC headquarters, located at 40 Courtland Street NE in Atlanta.