December 30, 2015
MARIETTA — Cobb greenspace advocates say the county should honor a 2008 referendum in which a majority of voters authorized the county to issue $40 million in bonds to purchase land for preservation and parks.
The parks bonds were never issued because the recession set in and the county could not support them without a tax increase, county Chairman Tim Lee has said.
As property values creep back up and developers begin pursuing new projects on vacant land, residents are once again galvanized by their concern over the pace of development and rapidly disappearing greenspace.
“In Cobb County, it defines the county. It’s a green place,” said Paul Paulson, who moved to Cobb from New Jersey about 50 years ago. “When I came here, that’s what struck me first.”
Paulson is the founder and former head of the Cobb Parks Coalition, a group of residents who were actively involved in pushing for the 2006 parks bond issuance, which was used to buy 10 properties, including the historic Hyde Farm, Mabry Park and Green Meadows Preserve, formerly known as Bullard Farm.
The coalition’s website cites Cobb’s own Comprehensive Plan, which references the county’s adoption of the statewide Georgia Greenspace Program calling on counties to permanently protect 20 percent of their land as greenspace.
The coalition has calculated that the county has only 6.2 percent of its land preserved as greenspace, necessitating the addition of 8,000 acres to maintain the national standard of 10 percent greenspace, and 30,000 acres to meet its stated goal of 20 percent.
Paulson objects to the county’s decision to ignore a popular referendum for another set of parks bonds while moving forward on far more expensive projects like the new ballpark for the Atlanta Braves, which was not subjected to a popular vote.
“When the people have voted on something and you ignore it, it doesn’t say we’re a country that listens to its people,” said Paulson, who called the move “un-American.”
Paulson commended Chairman Tim Lee for his announcement earlier this month that he would take the issue up again.
“I have directed the county manager to request that the staff revisit the parks bond circumstance, including available funding, the current availability and cost of parcels that were put on a list in 2009, and whether or not the issuance of a bond is feasible today without raising taxes,” Lee said during the Board of Commissioners’ meeting on Dec. 17.
Of the about 25 properties recommended for purchase in 2009 with the $40 million bond funds, 10 are already in the process of being developed, according to Tom Bills of Cobb County Parks and Recreation.
Commissioners could, at any time, issue the bonds, but they would only be able to collect about $29 million because so much time has gone by since the referendum passed. The resolution that 67 percent of voters approved included language stipulating the amount that could be collected each year until 2023, when the bond expires, so the revenue from 2010 through 2015 can never be collected.
Moreover, the county appears to have other plans for the debt service fund that would repay the bond.
When the 2006 parks bonds expire in 2017, the county originally planned to reduce the millage rate for its debt service fund from 0.33 mills to zero while simultaneously increasing the millage in the general fund by the same amount, which would be used to pay the debt service on bonds for SunTrust Park.
However, revenue from other sources, as well as lower debt service payments, means the county only needs 0.234 mills in property taxes to make the payments, Finance Director Jim Pehrson has said. Greenspace advocates are hoping the remaining money could be put toward the park bonds.
The county’s debt service fund generated $10.1 million in tax revenue in fiscal year 2015, according to Assistant Comptroller Bill Volckmann. The millage rate for the debt service fund is not specifically and exclusively to repay the parks bond, he clarified. Rather, the millage rate is set by the commissioners to generate enough money to make the annual debt service payments on the “general obligation” debt, which includes the park bonds.
Critics say decreasing the millage for the debt service fund — which pays for park bonds — while increasing the millage for the general fund to pay for the stadium allows Chairman Lee to avoid an overall tax hike, thus casting the Braves deal in a more favorable light than it might otherwise appear.
Jennifer Burke, a resident of east Cobb and active member of the Cobb Parks Coalition, said the issue is not how the stadium is being funded, but that the will of voters is being ignored.
“I’m not against the Braves,” Burke said. “Why would you do anything before you issue the park bond? … We would like the government to follow through on its own long-range plan (for greenspace).”
Cobb County’s Debt Service Millage
2006 Parks Bond Land Purchases
-Henderson Road Property 15 acres $2.4 million (no funding assigned for development)
-Leone Hall Price Park 18 acres $1.4 million (2016 SPLOST funds for limited development)
-Violet F. Stout Park (Stana property) 137.45 acres $5.3 million (2016 SPLOST funds for limited development)
-Mabry Park 26.5 acres $4.3 million (2016 SPLOST funds for limited development)
-Walker Property 4.52 acres $900,000 (historic property, part of Hyde Farm)
-Hyde Farm Welcome Center (Dolvin property) 13 acres $1.4 million (Developed as historic site with 2011 SPLOST funds; 2016 SPLOST funds for working barn)
-Hyde Farm 43 acres $5 million (Developed as historic site with 2011 SPLOST funds; 2016 SPLOST funds for working barn)
-Camp McDonald Park (Watts Drive property) 7.6 acres $825,000 (no funding assigned for development)
-Green Meadows Preserve (Old Hamilton Road) 13.5 acres $1.3 million (2016 SPLOST funds for limited development)
-Green Meadows Preserve (Bullard/Stockton) 112 acres $18.6 million (2016 SPLOST funds for limited development)
Published in the Marietta Daily Journal on December 30, 2015. View the original link here.