Cobb officials eye large budget increase to combat staffing shortfalls

Construction workers installing sidewalks in Cobb County. AJC file photo

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Construction workers installing sidewalks in Cobb County. AJC file photo

Cobb department officials requested $1.2 billion in total spending for the upcoming budget year, a $178 million increase that looks to address a public sector staffing crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

Commissioners were briefed on the requests at a work session this week that served as a kick-off of sorts for the county’s budget process, which now enters a critical phase after months of build up.

The budget request would likely require a tax increase to fully fund. Early estimates show an $80 million gap in the general fund alone that budget writers would need to close by raising revenue or cutting back on requested spending.

However, the spending plan could change significantly before it is formally proposed in the coming months.

Cobb Finance Director Bill Volckmann told commissioners that property tax forecasts are expected in April that could provide more revenue for the county to work with. On the other hand, the budget picture could look worse depending on two other factors: the results of an ongoing county pay study, which is expected to recommend raises for employees; and the outcome of four cityhood votes, three of which will be decided in May.

If all four cities are incorporated, Cobb officials say the financial impact to the county could be as much as $41 million annually.

The uncertainty will result in a tight turnaround for the Board of Commissioners this summer. Commissioners have to decide by the end of June whether to propose a property tax increase. The full budget is scheduled for a final vote July 26, finance officials said.

All told, the requests amount to a 17% increase on roughly $1 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which runs from October 2021 to September 2022.

Personnel costs are driving the increase. After adding just four employees in the current budget, and none in 2021, county departments are requesting 658 new workers next year.

That figure likely understates the depths of the county’s staffing struggles. County officials say that the size of Cobb’s public workforce has not kept up with population growth, and the requested positions don’t account for dozens of existing vacancies in key departments. For months, department heads have complained in public presentations that staffing woes have led to large backlogs affecting a wide range of public services, such as drainage maintenance, courts and code enforcement.

Cobb, of course, is not alone: private and public sector employers alike have struggled to find workers following the brief recession of 2020. The pandemic economy saw a rise in retirements, as well as workers leaving for better pay. Others remain on the sidelines because of health concerns or trouble finding child care.