Cobb County Commission to revisit parks bonds

After seven years of Cobb commissioners ignoring voters’ overwhelming approval for spending $40 million to preserve green space, Chairman Tim Lee is now suggesting the county spend less than half of that amount to preserve the county’s dwindling wild lands.

The $40 million approved by voters in 2008 was never spent because of the sinking economy. But two years ago, Lee and his fellow commissioners dedicated money that could have been used for green space to construction of SunTrust Park — a deal in which voters had no say.

Lee, who is up for re-election this year, has been under heavy pressure from parks advocates to make good on the 2008 vote. And for many, the $19 million Lee has in mind is too little, too late.

“It’s totally inadequate in my book, since $40 million is what the citizens voted for,” said Roger Burke, who served on a committee that evaluated available green space for the county. “We didn’t vote in favor of $400 million for the Braves. The revenue is there, Lee just decided to spend most of it on the Braves.”

Understanding the parks bonds issue requires a 10-year history course, and an understanding of the arcane world of property tax rates.

Cobb voters in 2006 approved issuing bonds so the county could buy $40 million worth of green space, and preserve it in perpetuity. Those bonds were issued, and paid for with a .33-mill increase in the county-wide property tax rate.

The program was successful, with the county buying eight properties totaling more than 177 acres.

Two years later, just as the Great Recession was taking hold, an identical referendum was approved with 65 percent of the vote. But then-Chairman Sam Olens, who was eyeing a run for Attorney General, decided against issuing the bonds because it would have required another property tax increase.

“I’m not happy … (but) we don’t have the finances,” Olens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010.

Fast forward to November 2013, and the Atlanta Braves announcement that it planned to build a new stadium in Cobb County with the help of taxpayers.

Lee, a district commissioner in 2008 and now chairman, helped devise a stadium financing plan that would generate $18 million a year for the county’s portion of stadium construction.

That plan included taking the .33 mills in property tax that was funding debt for green space and using it to pay half of the county’s 30-year obligation toward the stadium. The green space bonds will be paid off late this year and early next.

As the AJC reported in April, parks supporters were outraged and said the county had a “moral obligation” to honor the 2008 vote rather than redirecting the cash toward SunTrust Park.

Since that report, the county’s share for SunTrust Park debt was reduced by about $2 million a year — and that has allowed the county to reduce the amount of county-wide property tax dedicated to the project, to .23 mills from the original .33 mills.

That, in turn, has made available .1-mill for parkland — or about $19.3 million between now and 2023, when the bonds for green space must be paid off.

Lee sent out a press release last week, saying that the park bonds and SunTrust Park are unrelated.

When asked by the AJC in an email how the two are not connected — given the millage rates are identical and Lee continually explained early on that the Braves deal would require no county-wide property tax increase because residents were already paying the .33 millage rate — Lee talked about how important the stadium is.

“At the moment we were negotiating a partnership with the Atlanta Braves on the ballpark, we were focused on what was perhaps the most transformational economic development project in Cobb County’s history,” Lee responded. “Never once did I see such a moment as a choice between acquiring green space for Cobb County or a $1.2 billion investment.”

Nevertheless, Lee did ask the county’s finance department recently for an analysis of the 2008 parks bonds issue, including how much money could be raised between now and 2023 if the entire .33 mills were used for green space ($29.8 million) and how much would be raised in the same time frame with 1 mill ($19.3 million).

When asked why he is not in favor of providing the entire $40 million for green space that was approved by voters, Lee said it’s because it would require a tax increase.

“This bond program was always based on a promise to residents that there will be no millage increase,” Lee wrote. “I did not support a millage increase with the bond then and I do into support a millage increase now.”

Burke pointed out that there would be no need for a tax increase now if commissioners had not redirected the green space revenue for the stadium.

None of the machinations over property taxes or SunTrust Park really matter to Roberta Cook, a member of the Cobb County Parks Coalition and Citizens United for the Parks Bond. She just thinks the county has an obligation to spend $40 million on green space, as voters instructed in 2008.

“It would be an injustice to the voters of Cobb County for anybody to say they will accept $19 million,” Cook said. “Nobody can say that’s acceptable because they can’t speak for all those voters. That would not be fair.”

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