These are not easy times for any elected official, what with the Obama economy tottering on the brink of another recession. The relentless shrinkage of revenues into the county’s coffers in recent years has put steady pressure on the commission to reduce spending, services and/or staffing.
And those pressures contributed to several of the biggest missteps of Lee’s administration. First, his close supporters warned that a property tax increase would be necessary if the county road SPLOST sales tax asked for by Lee was not renewed in early 2011. The SPLOST was renewed, but days later Lee warned that the county was facing a $33 million budget gap and that — guess what? — a property tax increase would be needed anyway. It was a combination of events that left even many Lee supporters feeling cynical.
Lee then proposed gutting the county library system to sidestep the tax increase, but bowed to public pressure and went ahead with the 15.7 percent tax hike instead.
More recently, Lee pushed for the passage of the TSPLOST sales tax and was one of the architects of its highly controversial projects list, which initially called for spending the bulk of Cobb’s TSPLOST revenues to build a light-rail line from the MARTA Arts Center Station in Midtown northward to Cumberland Mall, most of which would have been in Fulton County.
The rail line and TSPLOST were unpopular from the moment of their unveiling and only got more so as people focused on the issue. Lee finally switched tracks and said the light-rail money would be spent on “premium bus service” in the I-75 corridor instead, but the widespread perception was that if the tax was approved that the rail line was sure to follow, regardless of what Lee or anyone else said.
Lee proved a less-than-effective advocate for the TSPLOST, failing to get the support of the majority of the commission, and in the final weeks refused even to say how he planned to vote. But that was par for the course, as Lee had side-stepped numerous opportunities during his tenure to say what his top transportation priority was for Cobb. His TSPLOST dead end should serve as a warning that he needs to broaden the circle of those he relies on for advice, rather than continuing to be joined at the hip with insiders at the Cobb Chamber and the Cumberland Community Improvement District.
Byrne is unquestionably the most controversial public official ever elected to local Cobb office in modern times. Although he proved a capable-enough administrator, he is best remembered for his role in passing an anti-gay resolution that sharply divided the county and cost Cobb its chance to host any events during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Also memorable was his decision to green-light construction of the poorly designed Bedminster Recycling Plant on County Service Parkway, and the way it spewed noxious fumes into nearby neighborhoods, and the way his commission initially tried to ignore the problem. Also notable was the refusal of Byrne and his commission to adhere to the “Sunshine Laws,” and his attempts to commandeer then-new Cobb TV23 as a bully pulpit from which to push his agenda and bash his enemies.
Byrne is running this time as a critic of Lee’s tax hike and of TSPLOST and has found a receptive audience in many quarters. Yet his proposal last week to create a “City of East Cobb,” which many saw as a transparent pander for votes in that part of the county, has probably cost him considerable support. And after initial attempts to portray himself as a kinder, gentler, new Bill Byrne, the old Byrne has been much in evidence as of late, as witnessed by his comments at a recent forum: “If you think you’re going to get a new warm and fuzzy Bill Byrne, you are sadly mistaken. If I hurt somebody’s feelings, I really just don’t care.”
Lee, on the other hand, retains widespread personal popularity, even among those who have often disagreed with his policies. The owner of a small marketing and consulting firm, his resume includes serving as president of various homeowners and civic associations prior to his election as Northeast Cobb Commissioner in 2002, as well as service on an array of public boards and other bodies. He was elected chairman in 2010 to fill the unexpired term of chairman Sam Olens, who had resigned to run for attorney general. If he is re-elected on Tuesday it would be for a full four-year term.
Lee has had a rocky shake-out in his first two years as chair. But he is the stronger of the two candidates remaining. We see little desire on the part of most voters to roll back the clock two decades and put Bill Byrne at the helm of Cobb’s government once again.
Tim Lee has the vision, the people skills, the energy and the experience to keep Cobb moving forward, and he deserves your vote.