Cobb County’s government shriveled for decades. Then the pandemic hit.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

County employs fewer workers per capita than 20 years ago

In February, a Cobb County Probate Court attorney had to fill in as a judge so her boss could step away from the bench.

Chief Judge Kelli Wolk needed a few hours so she could beg the county commission for more staff.

There was no doubt Wolk needed help, commissioners agreed. Her court has just herself and one other judge to handle all the estate, guardianship, mental health, marriage license and weapons carry filings for a county of 766,000 people.

But by a 4-1 vote, the commissioners said no. Like every other county department head that has pleaded for money in recent months, Wolk would have to wait for relief until the next budget year begins in October.

“I hear it every day,” County Manager Jackie McMorris said. “And I don’t have the resources to be able to (address) it.”

Even before the pandemic created worker shortages across the U.S., Cobb County services were already being strained by a diminished public sector.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of county financial reports found that Cobb in 2020 employed 63 fewer workers per 100,000 people than it did in 2001. In the intervening period, the county added 143,000 residents — a 23% increase — but its staff only grew by 11%.

In March 2020, the coronavirus disrupted the economy, creating job vacancies across the metro area that both public and private sector employers have struggled to fill. After adding 56 employees that year, the county’s total staffing has shrunk to 4,444 today, with 677 vacant positions, said county spokesman Ross Cavitt.

Other public agencies were better positioned at the start of the pandemic. While Cobb County today budgets for 10% fewer public workers per capita than it did in 2001, neighboring Gwinnett’s staffing plan has largely kept pace with population growth, the AJC’s analysis found.

The staffing challenges are coming to a head at a critical moment for the county’s future. Voters this year could elect to form up to four new cities, diverting as much as $45.7 million in revenue from the county’s budget each year.

In theory, the county government should save money when a city is formed, because the new local government takes over some of the services the county currently provides. But because Cobb is so short staffed, the savings would be minimal. County finance officials estimate just $4.3 million in annual savings if all cityhood proposals are passed.

Meanwhile, the county commission’s Democratic majority faces one of its most significant political tests since it took control of the commission a year ago: Whether to raise taxes to fund a requested $178 million budget increase and 658 new workers.

A backlog of repairs

By some measures, Cobb is in a strong position financially. Long known for its low taxes, Cobb has a top credit rating, and a large rainy day fund. The county has received more than $200 million in federal stimulus funding, with more on the way. And voters recently extended a special local option sales tax that will fund infrastructure and other capital projects for years to come.

Trouble is, in many cases the county doesn’t have the staff to take care of the basics.

Judy Jones, director of the Cobb County Water System, told the AJC in an interview that the county has a large backlog of needed repairs to its stormwater system.

“...It’s not so much an issue of having the money to do the repair projects, it’s having the staffing to get the projects done,” Jones said.

The water system is so understaffed, its stormwater division doesn’t even have a maintenance crew to make drainage repairs, let alone keep up with routine inspections, Jones told commissioners in a budget hearing.

Stormwater maintenance rose to the forefront when a September storm flooded hundreds of homes, but other services have atrophied as well. Nearly a quarter of the water system’s total positions are vacant, and 30% of its maintenance team is. The Transportation Department in 2020 had just 58 road workers to handle 7,556 maintenance orders, a workload that’s held steady since 2018. Six years ago, it had 65 employees to handle just 4,441 such jobs, according to a department budget presentation.

Since 2001, public safety is the only county service that has come close to keeping pace with the county’s population growth. The water, parks and housing and community development departments added fewer than 20 employees each over that time period, documents show.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the county had eight fewer workers in public health and welfare than it did 20 years earlier.

‘The end of our rope’

The Probate Court and its two-judge staff represents an especially stark example of how decades of conservative budgeting left the county in a precarious position when the coronavirus hit.

The pandemic certainly played a role in rising volumes of guardianship, mental health and estate cases. But so too has the county’s growing and aging population.

Credit: Cobb County Government website

Credit: Cobb County Government website

Wolk, the chief judge, wanted to promote a staff attorney to a judge to help handle an onslaught of hearings and court orders. But county finance officials said federal coronavirus relief funds can’t legally plug the hole because the pandemic didn’t create a backlog. Unlike many other state and local courts, Cobb County’s courts never shut down.

“I don’t try to ask for things until I think we’ve gotten to the end of our rope,” Wolk said. Without a third judge, the court could miss any number of statutory deadlines it has to meet when processing various case types. It faces 3- to 5-day turnarounds on emergency guardianship requests, 7-day deadlines on mental health hearings and 10-day deadlines on gun permits.

She didn’t request the position in prior budget years, she added, because “we were told not to.”

“I’m being told not to now,” Wolk told the commission in February. “But I have to.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Democratic Chairwoman Lisa Cupid was the lone vote in favor of the request, with the two other Democrats and both Republicans voting no. Absent federal funding, commissioners said the court would have wait for the next budget like everyone else.

“I know you have a need and I want to help you,” Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, a northeast Cobb Republican, said. “The funding is not there for all of the requests. If we put you first in line, what does that do to everybody else?”

The next budget begins in October, and the spending blueprint will take shape over the next few months. Not only are commissioners being asked to go on a hiring spree, county officials worry that without sizable pay raises, they’ll lose much of the staff they already have.

“My very real concern is that someone says ‘I will no longer continue to put up with this,’ ” Cupid said. Why continue to work in an understaffed department, when there may be jobs available with better pay and lower stress?

A pay study is due this spring. The last time the county reviewed its compensation policies to keep it competitive with other employers, commissioners only funded about half of its $20 million in recommendations. A number of employees have left in recent years for better pay, and some candidates have rejected job offers. Cobb offers worse retirement benefits than many of its neighbors, and its recently retired police chief made around $50,000 less than other metro area counties, said McMorris, the county manager.

At the board’s annual planning retreat this year, McMorris warned the commissioners that hard choices await them in this year’s budget cycle.

She said it would be tempting to look at the county’s funding constraints and say, “You can’t keep up with the Joneses.“

“You’re right,” she said. “But you can’t afford not to either.”