Sep 28, 2016
MARIETTA — Cobb’s fiscal 2017 budget will not include funding for the $40 million parks bond approved by voters in 2008, despite an audience that clamored for such an inclusion on Tuesday. But parks proponents were offered an olive branch by one commissioner who proposed measures that could see tens of millions of dollars earmarked for new county green space in the coming months.
The budget vote came after commissioners heard from nearly 20 community members who weighed in on the funding plan. Many of those who spoke were members of the Cobb Parks Coalition and others who supported their effort to see the county fund parks bond.
Two-thirds of Cobb voters approved a $40 million parks bond in November 2008, but the bonds approved by voters were never issued by then-county Chairman Sam Olens due to a tanking economy and a tax increase he said would come as a result of the bonds’ issuance.
Commissioners have yet to take action regarding the approved parks bonds, but Commissioner JoAnn Birrell prior to the budget vote told those in attendance that she planned to propose next month a resolution to increase the county’s debt service millage by 0.13 mills to fund the $24.7 million in park bonds the county would legally be able to issue out of the approved 2008 bonds.
Birrell on Wednesday said the 0.13-mill increase would equate to a $10.40 annual property tax increase on a $200,000 home.
“Through the budget talk, I’ve been working with staff and legal to find out what we can do to get the balance, the $24.7 million, moved forward,” she said. “Because of the way the bond is structured, it depletes annually even though it was never issued … we have to do a resolution and vote on it to issue the bond.”
Birrell said she planned on introducing the resolution at the commission’s Oct. 25 meeting.
Commissioners next month are also slated to receive from the county’s recreation board a list of properties that could become future county parks. The county held a public nomination process from late January through April 15, with 166 properties nominated for purchase by the county to increase green space. The recreation board is expected to narrow that list down and present its recommended properties to commissioners.
“The $24.7 million in bonds can be issued in December of ‘16, and we can purchase properties beginning in January of ‘17,” Birrell said.
NEW PARKS BOND PROPOSED
With Cobb residents expected to head to the polls on March 21 to vote on a renewal of the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for Cobb County and Marietta City Schools — neither school board has authorized the ballot measure but are considering it — Birrell said Tuesday night she would also propose putting on the same ballot a referendum for an additional $40 million parks bond. Her proposal would have to earn approval from her fellow commission members to be placed on the ballot.
“I know it’s not what everybody wanted as far as a full $40 million now, but if we can purchase park land at $24.7 million in 2017, and issue a new bond for $40 million, that will give us $64.7 million total in the next two years,” she said.
Birrell’s announcement earned applause from the audience, who earlier had booed as commissioners said they had planned to vote on Chairman Tim Lee’s “continuation budget.” That budget was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Lisa Cupid the sole dissenting vote.
Janine Eveler, director of Cobb Elections, said commissioners have time to put a new parks bond referendum on the March special election ballot.
“We like to have notification of it 60 to 90 days ahead, because it takes that long to plan the election,” Eveler said, but added that the absolute deadline to move forward on adding the ballot initiative would likely be in January.
Several of Birrell’s peers on the commission Wednesday expressed a desire to issue the proposed parks bonds. Bob Weatherford said he would “fully support” the resolution to issue this year the $24.7 million remaining in the previously approved parks bonds, as well as a measure to have a March vote on the new bonds.
“The timing is perfect,” Weatherford said. “There’s already something on the ballot, so it won’t be a special election, as it will coincide with the school boards’ referendum.”
Commissioner Bob Ott said he had “no problem” with the issuance of the $24.7 million. “The public voted on it, and the associated millage increase, the public knew that when they voted on it,” he said.
But Ott said Tuesday’s meeting was the first time he had learned of Birrell’s proposal for the new parks bonds.
“There’s been no discussion as to the resolution we’d craft, would it be issued the same way as the one in ’08 was supposed to be issued — she just threw it out there. I think there’s a lot of discussion that needs to happen,” Ott said. “This is committing the county and the board to something before the new chairman’s there to have a chance to weigh in on it, because you’re talking about at least another .2 to .3 mills on top of the .13 for the $24.7 (million).”
Lee reiterated Wednesday that his fiscal 2017 budget had been designed as a “continuation budget” in light of his term ending in December. He is expected to be succeeded by Mike Boyce, who defeated him in the Republican primary runoff in July; Boyce has no Democratic opposition in the November primary.
Lee said he did not yet have a stance on the issuance of the $24.7 million from the existing bonds, due in part to Birrell’s proposal being newly introduced.
“We’ll have to see what it looks like when it gets to that point — last night was the first time I had heard that, so we’ll have to have a conversation about that,” Lee said. “As to anything that happens in 2017, I’ll have to leave it to their discretion.”
Lee added that he did not have a leaning either way on a vote for a new $40 million parks bond. It remains to be seen if commissioners would have to consider authorizing the ballot initiative this year or could wait until after Lee’s departure from office.
“I’m going to leave it up to their leadership and their best judgment,” he said.
Next Blog to Read: 3 Ways the BoC Denied Funds Earmarked for Park Bond 2008 + 2 Positive Developments for the Future of Park Bond 2008