In 1998, Cobb County began an annual practice of taking revenues paid by water customers and moving them to the general fund to pay for other expenses, accounting for a total of about $225 million over the years.
Commissioners transferred $15 million from the water fund to the general fund for the current budget, $2.2 million less than last year, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.
The MDJ polled the five Republican candidates running in the May 20 primary for retiring Commissioner Helen Goreham’s District 1 seat, as well as the three candidates running for the District 3 seat held by JoAnn Birrell, asking, “If elected, would you vote to stop the water transfer?”
Bill Byrne, a former county chairman from 1992 to 2002 running for District 1, said although the transfer concept was used when he was in office, the board did not raise water system fees during his tenure to pay for the transfer.
“A fee increase is the same as a tax increase,” Byrne said. “This is wrong, and I will vote against any budget that relies on water system transfer money to balance the budget.”
Byrne pointed out the budget is approved in September, but the water fees are not decided until January.
Former Acworth City Alderman Bob Weatherford, who is also seeking the District 1 seat, criticizes Byrne for backpedaling on a practice he started.
“It is important to point out that this would not be an issue if Bill Byrne hadn’t implemented this policy when he was Commission Chairman,” Weatherford said. “Byrne has blasted the transfer recently, which continues to prove that his hypocrisy knows no bounds.”
Although Weatherford said the amount needs to be reduced, he also defended the transfer. Weatherford called the transfer of water system funds “a good process from the standpoint that it allows (non-taxable properties) to help fund important budget priorities, like public safety through water bills.”
Angela Barner, a Re/Max broker associate running for District 1, said if the money transferred to the general budget had remained with the correct department for the last 16 years, there would not be a discussion about increased water fees “or the much talked about ‘rain tax.’”
Moving forward, Barner said the funds should remain in the water department to replace “corrugated piping that has reached its end of life and the aging/failing infrastructure. … Twenty-one percent of Cobb County is now in a flood plain, and our storm water issues are not going away.”
Scott Tucker, retired assistant fire chief and District 1 candidate, said he would stop the transfer practice.
“Raising water fees just to transfer money to other budgets is at best confusing to the taxpayers,” Tucker said.
But Tucker said “blanket bans” on water fund transfers and other transfers could lead to property tax increases. If there is an excess of money in the water fund “after all bills have been paid,” then a transfer could be considered “for services such as public safety.”
District 1 candidate Glenn Melson is undecided about ending the transfer, but is calling for an overall picture of the county’s budget to trim the fat.
Melson’s “6/16 Plan” calls for an itemization of every dollar spent by the county to identify waste, obsolete services and redundancy.
“In short, let’s find out if we have a revenue problem or a spending problem in Cobb before making any rash decisions,” he said.
District 3 Commissioner JoAnn Birrell is being challenged by two Republicans in the May 20 primary, Michael Opitz and Joseph Pond.
Birrell gave a resounding yes to ending the transfer of funds. She previously supported a cap that dropped the amount taken from the water department’s revenue from 10 percent to 8 percent.
“I have been working on this the last two years and already have a plan in place to reduce it incrementally until it’s eliminated,” Birrell said.
Opitz said the transfer falsely inflates water rates, which adversely affects the poor, who are usually on fixed incomes.
“We need to review all county expenditures to determine if we can reduce taxes across the board to everyone’s benefit,” he said.
Opitz added Cobb officials brag about the county’s low millage rate, but he said the false claim is only possible due to the subsidy from the water system that is “deceitful.”
“It’s cooking the books,” Opitz said. “It is a shame and not honest, open government.”
Pond agreed, saying the practice is a hidden tax threatening the safety of Cobb’s water system.