Cobb’s $1.2B budget looks to rebuild beleaguered county government

Tax rates would stay the same, but rising property values mean many will see higher bills.

If Cobb County’s last two budgets were about surviving the pandemic, next year’s looks to rebuild in the wake of it.

The Cobb Board of Commissioners on Tuesday will vote on the county’s largest ever annual budget, a $1.2 billion spending plan that would invest heavily in the northwest Atlanta suburbs’ depleted public sector workforce.

If approved, the budget would fund pay raises to help fill dozens of vacancies and would create around 150 new positions to tackle the work backlogs now afflicting a wide range of county services, including courts, road maintenance and code enforcement.

Tax rates won’t go up to fund the 11% increase in public spending. But many businesses and homeowners would pay higher tax bills anyway due to rising property values.

Here are some highlights from the proposed 2022-23 fiscal year budget, which takes effect Oct. 1.

Tax rates will stay (mostly) the same

The budget would keep the county’s property tax rate steady at 8.46 mills for the general fund, which pays for most county services, including law enforcement, roads, courts and parks.

Even so, the county expects to have an extra $51 million in property tax revenue to spend, a 15% increase over the current fiscal year.

What gives? Mostly soaring home values — but the typical Cobb homeowner won’t foot the bill. The county’s homestead exemption locks in the amount a homeowner paid to the county general fund at the time they bought their house, as long as it’s their primary residence. The tax break will save Cobb homeowners $71 million this year, Cobb’s chief tax appraiser Stephen White said in a news release.

As a result, the bulk of the increased tax collections will come from businesses, including landlords, who can be expected to pass on much of their rising costs to renters.

At a town hall meeting this week, one East Cobb landlord said she raised her rent prices in response to her rising tax bill, causing some of her tenants to leave altogether.

“We were trying to have affordable housing,” she told Chairwoman Lisa Cupid at the meeting.

Notably, the exemption only applies to the county general fund. For homeowners, the portion of their tax bills that pay for schools, fire protection or a city government will rise with their assessed property values.

Even though people’s tax rates aren’t increasing, Georgia law requires counties to advertise it to the public as a tax increase. To offset the rise in property values, commissioners could adopt a rollback rate of 7.51 mills, which would give most homeowners a property tax cut. That’s a difference of about $123 on a home worth $350,000, Cobb officials said in a public notice.

Departments will beef up

The budget attempts to combat two workforce crises at once: a lack of jobs, and a shortage of qualified people to fill the jobs it has.

To start, the proposal calls for 150 new positions to catch up to the service demands of a fast-growing county that’s added 143,000 residents since 2001 but little staff.

In 2020, the county was already 10% behind its per capita staffing levels from two decades earlier. Then the pandemic hit, disrupting the workforce nationwide. Today, some key county services are scraping by with as many as 40% of positions vacant, with low pay cited as a frequent complaint of those who leave.

The budget attempts to bring county employees up to market-level pay, after a study found that Cobb pays its workers around 8% less than comparable metro governments. Cupid, a Democrat, is also proposing raising the county’s minimum full-time worker pay to $17 an hour to help the county compete with fast-food restaurants that pay $15.

The road maintenance division is particularly short-staffed, and would see one of the largest budget increases of any division. Today, 44% of its 94 positions are vacant, leading to slow response times and a growing backlog of maintenance issues. The budget adds nine more positions on top of that and funds the construction of a $2.7 million satellite facility.

The budget also funds four new code enforcement officers and a 42% budget increase for the stormwater division, amid worsening rental housing conditions and flooding.

The justice system, including courts, prosecutors and law enforcement, accounts for half of all the new positions.

Key services will remain underfunded, understaffed

Even with the hiring spree, the budget falls well short of what Cobb department heads say is needed to adequately fund county services.

Cupid’s proposal would fund less than 1 in 4 of the 658 new employees that department leaders requested earlier this year.

The elections office would only get one new full-time worker after requesting five. Parks officials requested 37 new employees and the budget calls for 10; that would still leave the department with fewer workers than it had before the Great Recession in 2008.

At Wednesday’s town hall, a number of residents asked county officials to address the flooding problems in their neighborhoods. But while the spending plan adds $1.7 million to the stormwater management budget, it punts until later a decision on whether to implement a fee in response to a rise in flash flooding. Studies dating back as early as 2005 have urged county officials to adopt such a fee to provide a stable funding stream for stormwater infrastructure maintenance.

Judy Jones, the county water director, said Cobb simply doesn’t have the staff to manage the system effectively today. Every time workers complete a project, another request comes in, leaving the county unable to overcome the backlog of work, she said.

“In the last four years, we have not even spent our capital replacement repair budget in stormwater because we don’t have the staffing to get the project out the door,” Jones said.