December 31, 2015
MARIETTA — The seed of hope for more dedicated greenspace in Cobb may finally bear fruit, with Chairman Tim Lee saying Wednesday he intends to propose a first step toward issuing millions in bonds to buy parkland.
The Cobb Parks Coalition, a grassroots organization made up of local residents, recently renewed its call for the county to honor a 2008 referendum in which 67 percent of voters authorized the county to issue $40 million in parks bonds. A citizen advisory committee was assembled soon after, and spent about a year coming up with a list of suitable properties.
However, then-Chairman Sam Olens declined to issue the bonds because the recession had deepened and it would have resulted in a property tax increase, Lee said.
Greenspace advocates welcomed Lee’s announcement.
“That’s wonderful news,” said Jennifer Burke, an east Cobb resident and active member of the Cobb Parks Coalition.
Although Lee is now reconsidering the parks bonds, due to the language of the referendum and the passage of time, the tax revenue for years 2010 through 2015 cannot be collected.
The revenue approved for the remaining years amounts to about $29 million, per the resolution.
However, the actual amount collected could be significantly less.
The county government assesses property tax at a rate of 10.51 mills. Of this, 7.12 mills is for the general fund, 3.06 mills is used to fund the county fire department and 0.33 mills is used for debt service. This debt service fund is currently being used to repay previously issued bonds for parkland.
The county plans to use a variety of revenue sources to repay the bonds being used for SunTrust Park, including general fund revenue. To generate enough general fund revenue to contribute to the debt service, the county planned to reduce the 0.33 mills going to the debt service fund after previously issued parks bonds are retired in 2017 and 2018 and increase the general fund millage rate by 0.33 mills.
While the county originally planned to use 0.33 mills worth of general fund property taxes, due to the lower payments and better than projected income from the other revenue sources, only 0.234 mills will be needed to make the annual debt service payments, according to Finance Director Jim Pehrson
Lee has taken his predecessor’s position that the bonds should not be issued if it would amount to a tax hike in the debt service fund.
“Every budget cycle we looked and said, ‘Can we do it this year?’ and the answer was no,” Lee said. “I am going to propose establishing a greenspace committee for the purpose of going out and identifying property that might be available in perpetuity as greenspace and bring those recommendations back for us, the board, to consider whether or not we want to move forward on issuing the voter-approved bonds without a millage rate increase whenever the time is appropriate.”
In order for the 2008 parks bonds to be issued without requiring an overall millage rate increase, the remaining 0.1 mills in debt service fund would be used to repay the 2008 parks bonds, Lee said. Pehrson said the 0.1 mills would generate about $19.5 million based on the current value of property in the county.
However, Lee stressed that the Atlanta Braves move to Cobb has resulted in an increase in the county’s tax digest and a corresponding increase in tax revenue for the county. This effect is expected to continue as the stadium nears Opening Day in 2017 and beyond, Lee said, which would mean an increase in tax revenue available for a new parks bond issuance.
Jim Dugan is another member of the coalition who also sat on the first citizens advisory committee in 2006, which raised $40 million for about 400 acres of greenspace. He later resigned from the parks board over the county’s decision to issue bonds for the new Atlanta Braves ballpark rather than moving forward with the park bonds.
“When the economy went bad it was understandable to postpone (issuing the bonds) perhaps,” said Dugan. “If they can spend $360 million on the Braves, they should be able to spend $40 million on the citizens of Cobb County.”
Dugan said it was “great” to hear the county was considering issuing the bonds, but remained skeptical.
“The people who were on the advisory committee (for the 2008 parks bonds) feel like they wasted a lot of time,” he said. “It would be a shame if it happened again.”
Some of the properties the 2008 advisory committee are no longer available, according to Lee, so a new committee would need to compile a new list of properties to purchase.
Dugan suggested it was “politically expedient” for Lee to pursue the parks project now, as he is up for re-election in 2016.
Dugan is among those who object to the county’s plan to decrease the millage to the debt service fund, which would support the new parks bonds, while increasing the millage to the general fund by the same amount to pay for the Braves stadium.
Lee insisted that the parks bonds and the funding for the Braves stadium were two separate issues.
“The Braves stadium project has a wide variety of revenue associated with it, including 25 percent paid for by the Braves,” he said. “The funding associated with that has got nothing to do with the debt millage rate associated with paying back just debt.”
Published in the Marietta Daily Journal on December 31, 2015. View the original link here.