Cobb County will move forward with transferring about $17.2 million out of its water fund to pay for other county services, a habit some commissioners say can only lead to higher water rates.
The Board of Commissioners approved Tuesday an $816.7 million budget for the county which will take effect at the beginning of October. Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the budget with Bob Ott, who represents southeast Cobb, opposing.
The budget includes a 3 percent merit raise for all employees who earn a satisfactory evaluation. All commissioners have said they will not take the raise.
Siphoning revenue from the water department to cover gaps in the county’s general fund is a practice some commissioners say needs to stop. The general fund is what pays for most services.
“I have brought up the water system transfer for the last three years,” Ott said after casting his dissenting vote Tuesday.
Ott said it’s unfair to take money away from a department that is paid for by water customers. Water is an essential service, a commodity residents can’t live without, he said.
The transfers may lower one bill but they potentially raise another.
Cobb has shifted more than $225 million in water utility revenues to its general fund since 1998. Monthly water rates have jumped almost $23, or 59 percent for the average user, over the same 15-year period.
For the new budget, Cobb Chairman Tim Lee received enough votes to successfully take away $17.2 million from the water fund, or about $47,000 more than the $17 million transferred last year.
Lee defends the practice by saying that having a variety of income sources gives the county “one of the best budgets in the country.”
Lee also points to the budget’s 0.2 mill decrease in the millage rate that sets property taxes, a savings of $6 annually for a home valued at $100,000, $14 for a $200,000 home and $38 for a $500,000 home.
The millage rate, now set at 7.32 mills, still hasn’t fallen back to its 2011 rate of 6.82 mills.
“I believe we had to present a balanced budget that uses a wide range of sources,” Lee said.
But Ott says it’s misleading to reduce the millage rate and continue a practice that could lead to higher water rates.
He wants the commission to outline the necessary expenses pushing the county toward a budget shortfall that requires millions of dollars from the water department. Then, Ott said, the county should make its case to the public on why those expenses are needed in the form of a proposed millage increase.
That, he said, would let residents know what they’re paying for.
“If you need the money and you need a millage increase to do it, you need to call it a millage increase,” Ott said.
Lee declined to say if he thinks the water transfers need to be reined in over time, noting it’s only one part of what he says is a complicated issue.
Commissioner Helen Goreham, representing northwest Cobb, previously stood up for the transfer. Voicing her support again during Tuesday’s budget vote, she challenged her colleagues to find a solution.
“I do raise this red flag and charge this board to look at the shortfall that we have that is covered by the transfer,” Goreham said. “It’s one thing to take a position, and it’s another to come up with solutions.”
Ott and Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb, presented the board with $25 million in possible cuts about two years ago, Ott said, but those cuts weren’t implemented.
Birrell, too, wants the transfers to end, but said it will take time. Though the county is taking $47,000 more than it did last year, it isn’t taking as much as it could. Last year, the county budgeted for a $20.6 million transfer but only used $17.2 million.
Cobb financial policies approved by the Board of Commissioners allow for the transfer of up to 10 percent of the water department’s revenues. The $17.2 million being transferred this year amounts to 8 percent.
“I just want to say, as most of you know, over the last few years, I’ve been pushing for a decrease incrementally in the water transfer,” Birrell said. “I feel that we’re moving in the right direction by coming down to the 8 percent.”