In his State of the County address on Monday, county chairman Tim Lee highlighted the importance of the economic development program known as Cobb’s Competitive EDGE.
“This program, EDGE, is the most important initiative we as a community can take on in 2013,” Lee told a crowd of more than 500 at the First Monday Breakfast of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce held in the Galleria Centre. “It is imperative that we all take part in its execution and its success. It is vitally important to the long-term success of our great county.”
In 2010, when Lee was transitioning from northeast Cobb commissioner to chairman, he and Chamber leaders looked around to see how they could bring more jobs to the county. Gwinnett County had created its own economic development program, and it was one that Lee liked. That led to the formation of a nonprofit called the Competitive EDGE (Economic Development for a Growing Economy), a five-year economic development program.
Brooks Mathis, who was hired two years ago as the Chamber’s economic development vice president, has been named the program’s interim executive director.
EDGE will have a $4 million budget over five years, funded mostly by businesses, with the possibility of some public dollars or in-kind donations. The group has set various goals to be met by 2018, including creating 7,500 new jobs.
Lee said in such competitive times, projects don’t just land in the community by chance.
Cobb, he said, has the lowest millage rate – the amount per $1,000 used to calculate property taxes — in metro Atlanta at 11.11 mills, compared to Gwinnett’s 13.02 mills, DeKalb’s 21.21, Fulton’s 21.53 and the city of Atlanta’s 23.76 mills.
Cobb also has the lowest operating and capital budget at $815.7 million, compared to Fulton’s $862.3 million, DeKalb County’s $1.28 billion, Gwinnett’s $1.46 billion and the city of Atlanta’s $1.8 billion, Lee said.
Cobb has one of the lowest sales tax rates, at 6 percent, the same rate Gwinnett has, compared to Fulton and DeKalb’s 7 percent and Atlanta’s 8 percent.
And when it comes to full-time government employees, Cobb has 4,210 compared to Gwinnett’s 4,460, DeKalb’s 6,247, Fulton’s 5,915 and Atlanta’s 7,398, Lee said.
“I am committed to doing our part to assure Cobb County is the most competitive county in the region,” Lee said. “To that end, we will do whatever it takes to keep Cobb County in its leadership position.”
Lee said by working with the state, the county’s six cities and the chamber, the result last year was 19 new business announcements, more than 1,773 new jobs and investments of $54.2 million from such companies as Gas South, Home Depot, Pramac Group and Assurant.
Overall, 2012 was a very good year for Cobb County government, Lee said, citing the completion in August of the $2.7 million Powder Springs Senior Center, which includes a full service senior clinic and wellness center, a joint effort with WellStar Health System.
Lee said the county’s transportation department has completed 93 percent of the 310 projects in the 2005 SPLOST program. For the 2011 SPLOST, it has started 45 percent of all projects ahead of schedule and under budget.
The county’s information services staff has a new mobile mapping system for obtaining parcel and zoning information, assessable for smartphones and tablets. The system should make it easier for homeowners and real estate professionals to look up information about a property.
The county has made significant improvements to McCollum Field to include a design of taxiway and apron taxi-lane connection, with construction likely this fall. Construction of a 100,000-square-foot corporate hangar was recently completed, and Lee looks forward to a U.S. Customs office opening this fall, as well.
Lee said conservative financial planning resulted in the county’s triple A rating from all three rating agencies last June, the county’s 15th consecutive year to hold that distinction.
The strategy for developing the 2012 budget was to maintain reduced service levels at libraries, senior centers and parks and restore funding for public safety, hold health care cost levels, and eliminate furlough days. All of these goals were accomplished, he said.
“We carried forward the budget reductions of 2011, where they were sustainable and slightly raised the millage,” Lee said.
The county also placed $9.6 million in reserves.
Overall, revenues were up $1.7 million in FY12, primarily due to a better-than-expected tax digest and development revenues. Expenses were down $17.3 million across several areas: unfilled vacancies, reductions in part-time hours, reduced transit and operational transfers, capital and debt savings and reduced health care expenditures.
The fiscal year 2012, spanning Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, ended with a sustainable budget, reasonable surplus, strong reserves and quality services for the county’s citizens and businesses. In September, the board adopted its fiscal year 2013 budget that carried forward this strong financial position. Lee thanked the commissioners who supported the budget strategy.
“My commitment to the community has always been to lead and manage Cobb County Government in the most conservative manner possible,” Lee said.
Last month, the board approved a plan to reduce the county’s general fund portion of property taxes over the next five years to pre-recession levels. The county plans to reduce the millage 0.2 points each year beginning this year and for the next four years, and then 0.1 points the fifth year, Lee said.
In the public safety arena, Lee said the 911 center made a $1.9 million upgrade to its dispatch system designed to improve dispatcher handling of calls. The county also last year hired four additional police officers with plans to add four more this year.
During the past two years, the county added 33 additional firefighters, bringing that department up to full staffing, he said.
Lee said he has already met with newly elected District Attorney Vic Reynolds to discuss launching two new initiatives: an elder abuse task force and an enhanced gang task force.
“No longer are we going to look forward by looking back to where we were,” Lee said. “We will focus what we can control and be prepared for that which we can not control. Only forward vision for Cobb County. With God’s grace, and a commitment to excellence, we will continue to be the best county in this great country.”
Among those in the audience was U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-east Cobb).
“I thought it was a great speech, and it was a great speech because he had a great story to tell about what they accomplished in 2012, the actions they took about 16 to 18 months ago paid off with a restored rainy day fund, there was attraction with new business coming in, with savings and expenditures and a real reorganization of the county’s fiscal affairs and for the 15th straight year a triple A rating: it doesn’t get much better than that,” Isakson said.
Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, also in attendance, referenced the new makeup of the Board of Commissioners, with Lisa Cupid replacing Woody Thompson.
“Seems like they’re all on board to hopefully be behind the chairman and move forward with his plan,” Bacon said. “You know, the last few years, through Sam (Olens) and Bob Ott, we’ve had good relationships with Cobb County, and we look forward to another four years.