Cobb’s growth is slowing as national trends meet local realities and the housing market cools. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Cobb chairman warns no tax rollback as growth slows

Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce warned residents not to expect a millage rollback this year as growth in the tax digest slows and the county continues to struggle with some of its financial obligations.

The chairman said he would not raise the millage rate this year, but acknowledged that by not rolling it back to account for the growth in the tax digest, the county would have to advertise a tax increase.

Boyce said Cobb was on the right track with his five-year “restoration plan” based on the tax increase he spearheaded last year. But many of Cobb’s problems, such as its ailing pension plan and poor public safety employee retention, can’t be solved overnight, he said.

“We work at the speed of government,” Boyce said. “We have to appreciate the fact that the taxpayers give us money, and they want to make sure that we spend it every time appropriately.”

Cobb’s tax digest is expected to grow 5.5% in 2019, according to the county tax assessor. While property values are rising, they are doing so more slowly: last year, growth was more than 9%.

Roger Tutterow, a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, said the cooling in assessed property values is indicative of a maturing economic expansion and not necessarily cause for concern.

“When home prices were running up very fast and the housing bubble was building, it gave municipalities the option to cut millage rates and allow increases in the values to offset that,” he said. “I think that the community may have gotten somewhat accustomed to those kinds of adjustments, but when home prices are rising at a more modest pace then the ability to reduce the millage rate is a little bit hampered.”

Tutterow, who also serves on the county’s pension board, added that Cobb is increasingly built-out, limiting new development opportunities. He said the county would have to be prudent in the years to come, especially when it comes to expanding services or payroll changes.

That could be bad news for public safety employees, including police, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, who are pushing for better pay and benefits to address low staffing and high turnover. Boyce said he intends to shift money toward public safety by cutting nonprofit funding — about $850,000 a year. He will also trim his original proposed library budget by about $400,000 while still increasing library funding and keeping all libraries open seven days a week.

But Steve Gaynor, president of the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the county needs to add at least $10 million to the public safety budget to even begin addressing the problem.

“The FOP is not going to be in favor of any millage rate rollback because we can’t afford the bills we have now,” Gaynor said. “Could they do better in budgeting? I think so.”

Lance Lamberton, head of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, called the proposal to not roll back the millage rate “unfortunate.” He said Cobb could save money by privatizing some services and tying raises to performance for county employees.

“The elephant in the room, quite frankly, is what we’re paying down on the Braves deal,” Lamberton said. “That’s putting a great deal of pressure on us.”

Last year, the county spent $25 million on the stadium, $22 million of which went to debt service paymentsThe county’s contribution included $5.8 million in subsidies from the general fund and more than $10 million in other taxes and fees from commercial properties, car rentals and hotel rooms. The Braves paid $8.4 million toward stadium costs.

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