Election 2022: A voter’s guide to the Cobb County cityhood movements

12/14/2020 —  Marietta, Georgia — Cobb County voting stickers are displayed during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta, Monday, December 14, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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12/14/2020 — Marietta, Georgia — Cobb County voting stickers are displayed during early voting at the Cobb County Elections and Voter Registration Office in Marietta, Monday, December 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Voters across wide swaths of Cobb County face a historic choice in Tuesday’s election: whether to form three new cities in the northwest Atlanta suburbs.

The consequences could be felt for generations to come. If all three are approved, it would eliminate much of the remaining unincorporated land in Cobb, giving control of key public services — most notably planning and zoning — to locally elected officials in Lost Mountain, East Cobb and Vinings.

If approved, Lost Mountain in West Cobb would immediately become Cobb’s largest city, with a population of 75,000. East Cobb’s proposed city limits covers nearly 60,000 residents, while Vinings would have a population of about 7,000. A fourth cityhood movement, Mableton in South Cobb, will appear on the ballot in November.

Cobb today has six cities of varying size. But the last one was formed more than a century ago, leaving county officials and residents scrambling to understand the implications of a vote that Republican state lawmakers moved up to the May 24 primary election. While the whole county will be affected, only those within the proposed city limits get to vote.

Here’s some of the key issues in the election.

‘City lite’ governance

All three cityhood movements have promised voters that they will be limited in scope, providing only certain public services and relying on the county government to provide the rest, much as it does today.

All three would have departments of planning and zoning, code enforcement and parks and recreation. Lost Mountain would also provide trash collection, while East Cobb is the only one with plans to provide police, fire and E911 services.

In an attempt to appeal to conservatives who don’t want an additional layer of government, supporters say these cities will have guardrails that prevent them from growing. The East Cobb charter, for instance, says city leaders can raise taxes to no more than 1 mill. All three charters require the cities to provide some services, but not others.

However, it’s not clear that “city lite”-style charters that seek to limit municipal powers are constitutional in Georgia. The state legislature’s own attorneys doubt that they are enforceable. A lawsuit challenging the charters won’t be heard in court until after voters decide.

ExploreCobb cityhood: Legislative attorneys cast doubt on legality of ‘city lite’ charters

Zoning

The galvanizing issue for all three cityhood movements is local control of land use.

Supporters say locally elected officials will protect their communities from unwanted growth and development: namely, higher density housing, such as apartments.

Opponents contend that a city government isn’t needed to accomplish this goal. County land use plans envision the affected areas remaining primarily low density for decades to come, an AJC review of county documents found.

Land use and building standards in Vinings, for example, are already governed by a master plan that seeks to preserve its historic neighborhoods and large lot sizes.

Still, cityhood supporters fear that plans could change under the county’s new Democratic leadership. They’ve targeted Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, in particular, for her support of affordable housing and mass transit.

Forming a city won’t prevent the county commission, developers or voters from adding housing or transit — but it could make it harder to get approval for specific projects within a city’s limits.

ExploreMisinformation, fears of development propel Lost Mountain cityhood push

Local control

The proposed cities would be led by city councils and a mayor, with the first municipal elections planned for November 2022.

Supporters say local representation would be a major benefit of cityhood.

Today, Cobb’s four district commissioners represent around 191,000 residents each. In the proposed cities, council members would be elected from much smaller districts. Four Vinings council members, for instance, would be elected citywide from districts of fewer than 1,800 people. In Lost Mountain, six councilmembers would be elected from three districts of about 25,000 people.

Opponents argue that their needs are well represented by the current commission, which has two Democratic districts, two Republican districts and one countywide Democratic chair. And, they add, if cityhood proponents wanted better local representation, they could have asked the legislature to add more seats to the board, rather than creating a new level of government.

Taxes

For many voters, one question has been top of mind: Will taxes go up if these cities are formed?

The truth is no one really knows for sure.

Cityhood leaders say they have no intention of raising taxes on residents. And feasibility studies estimate that all three would generate enough revenue to cover their expenses without doing so.

The cities of Lost Mountain and Vinings don’t plan to levy property taxes at all, relying instead on other revenue sources like franchise fees and motor vehicle taxes. East Cobb would receive property taxes that residents currently pay to the county for fire services.

Opponents argue the feasibility studies may underestimate the costs. But either way, future city leaders could expand services or tack on taxes if they choose.

Additionally, the county itself may raise property taxes countywide to replace the revenue lost if the new cities form. County officials estimate that they could lose as much as $41 million net revenue annually from the cityhood movements at a time when Cobb is already facing a budget crunch and large staffing shortfalls.

Schools will not be affected, nor will the senior property tax exemption.

ExploreCounty officials: Cobb could lose $41M if four cities are formed

Other services

East Cobb is the only movement that plans to provide public safety services, raising questions about the quality and financial viability of doing so.

Cobb County fire officials say it costs twice as much to run a fire department in an area the size of East Cobb than the city’s budget estimates anticipate, calling the city’s financial viability into question. And, they say, response times would increase under an East Cobb city government, which only has two fire stations within its city limits.

Cityhood supporters counter that East Cobb residents are overcharged for its share of county fire services, which is one of the top rated departments in the country.

All three cities plan to provide parks, which have emerged as a key campaign issue in Vinings.

Proponents say they want a city government so they can add public greenspace in an area that only has one small pocket park.

But it’s unclear how that will be accomplished. County planners have long viewed undeveloped land along the river as a possible site for a park, but most of it is privately owned.

In legislative hearings, cityhood proponents said they extended the city’s boundaries south in order to set aside land for future greenspace. But the area does not appear to be well-suited to outdoor recreation. Much of the land in south Vinings is part of Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough, and contains toxic coal ash ponds.

Medical sterilization firm Sterigenics sits just outside the southern city limits, and the surrounding area has been flagged by the Environmental Protection Agency as a possible cancer risk because of a gas used at the facility.

ExploreAn East Cobb Fire Department, the make-or-break component of cityhood
ExploreAt East Cobb cityhood debate, sides spar over development, spending