MARIETTA — Eight years after Cobb voters approved a bond referendum to pay for additional county green space, a majority of the county commissioners Tuesday refused to greenlight a proposal to finally issue the bonds.
Two-thirds of Cobb voters approved a $40 million bond issuance for parks in the November 2008 referendum, but county officials never issued the bonds, saying the tanking economy would have forced a tax increase to repay the bonds. County officials say the full $40 million can no longer be legally issued because of the language in the referendum.
In September, Commissioner JoAnn Birrell announced her intention to introduce a proposal to fund the $24.7 million in park bonds the county is now legally able to issue out of the approved 2008 bonds. Under the proposal, which commissioners considered Tuesday, the bonds would be paid for by increasing the county’s property tax rate for debt service by 0.13 mills, or about $10.40 a year on an average $200,000 home, said Bill Volckmann, the county’s interim finance director and comptroller.
Volckmann also said the bonds, if approved, could be issued within a 60-90 day window — a positive for Commissioner Bob Weatherford, who seconded Birrell’s motion to issue the bonds. Birrell and Weatherford were the only two commissioners to vote in favor of the measure.
“I fully expect that we will have the properties that we can afford and that we want to purchase by the time the bonds are issued, and for that reason, I can support this,” Weatherford said prior to the vote, referencing the list of 13 properties the county’s recreation board has recommended for purchase.
Commissioners received the list last month behind closed doors and have not publicly released the list, but the MDJ obtained a copy, which contained 13 properties totaling 494 acres across Cobb.
OPPOSITION TO ‘RECKLESS,’ ‘PREMATURE’ ISSUING OF BONDS
Cobb Chairman Tim Lee said commissioners have not made it far enough in the process to “purchase a single piece of property in 2016,” and called it “reckless” to issue the bonds without a plan of how to use them.
“Today, the agenda item before us is not asking the board if we want more green space — it is asking us to raise taxes to purchase more green space,” Lee said. “Under all other circumstances, the Board of Commissioners is required to advertise a tax increase, and hold three public hearings before levying such an increase. If we adopt this agenda item today, not only are we imposing a tax increase without public input, we are approving a tax increase before we know what we are going to purchase with the revenue generated by the tax increase.”
But Birrell contended that Cobb residents knew a tax increase was likely when they voted on the bond measure eight years ago.
“When you vote on a referendum — (special purpose local option sales tax), parks bond — it’s pretty much a given that it’s going to be taxpayers that are paying for it in a bond situation,” she said. “I think it was approved with the understanding of that, and (it’s) $10.40 a year, which would’ve been more had we been able to legally fund the full $40 million, which we’re not.”
In addition to Lee, voting against the measure were commissioners Bob Ott and Lisa Cupid, though both said they fully intended to support the bond measure in the future.
“I support issuing the maximum bond that the county can (issue) at this point in time. I also support looking for ways to fund the remainder of the $40 million that was authorized under the 2008 referendum,” Ott said. “Having said that, I believe that issuing bonds in any amount before the Board of Commissioners has had the opportunity to review the recommended properties and discuss options is both premature and inadvisable.”
CUPID: EMPLOYEE PAY ISSUE ALSO CRUCIAL
Cupid said her reason for voting against the bonds’ issuance was because the county had not taken action following its pay and class study. In August, commissioners were presented with the results of the study created by the Archer Group, which compared Cobb’s pay with that of similar governments. The consulting firm made several recommendations to amend the county’s pay plan, including salary increases.
“I’m fully supportive of moving this parks bond forward, but I’m not willing to look at these two issues separately,” Cupid said, adding that she believes the pay and class study recommendations have not moved forward because of an unwillingness to increase the salary of part-time employees, including those who would maintain the county’s existing and future parks.
She also referenced commissioners’ September approval of Lee’s fiscal 2017 budget, which was based on the current millage rate of 6.66 mills. Lee had proposed the budget as a “continuation budget” as it included no new initiatives from him as part of an effort to not bind other county leaders or his successor, presumptive Chairman-elect Mike Boyce. Cupid was the sole vote against the budget.
“I think it’s unreasonable to increase the burden on our county staff and to not increase the millage, which would have supported additional hires to parks and recreation or supported their operation. I think it’s unreasonable to not increase the wages of those who are to maintain this increased burden of new parks,” Cupid said.
Birrell said she intended to bring the measure back for a vote sometime after the first of the year.