Cobb financial troubles hang over commission races

A voter walks into Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia on election day. (FILE PHOTO: DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Credit: David Barnes

Credit: David Barnes

A voter walks into Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia on election day. (FILE PHOTO: DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

With one day left for candidates to qualify to run for office, Cobb's looming fiscal crisis has emerged as the key issue in two contested county commission seat races.

Commissioners are discussing a combination of tax hikes and service cuts — including shuttering libraries — in order to fill a $30 million hole in the 2019 budget.

Cobb's role in a proposed metro Atlanta transportation plan is also likely to galvanize voters, as will fears of over-development, especially in the more rural areas of the county.

“I think voters are going to be focused really on two issues, primarily development and taxes,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University and West Cobb resident. “Cobb has prided itself on keeping taxes relatively low and property taxes in check. I think in the current climate there’s a lot of trepidation about is that going to be feasible into the future.”

Incumbents JoAnn Birrell, (District 3—East Cobb), and Bob Weatherford, (District 1—West Cobb), will both fend of Republican challengers in the primary scheduled for May 22.

Birrell said she is running on her “experience and results and accomplishments” over the past eight years, such as reducing the number of sites slated for redevelopment in her district from 17 to three.

“The budget problem is the biggest [election issue] with the things we’re looking at, ways to save money and make up the deficit,” she said. She also said she would be paying close attention to public input on a regional transit plan that could pave the way for mass transit connecting Cobb to Atlanta.

“I, personally, would like to be out of the transit business as a county,” she said.

Birrell’s only Republican challenger so far is Tom Cheek, a local businessman and vocal critic of the deal to fund the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium with public money.

Cheek said he thinks voters will be moved by transportation concerns and the budget gap.

"Obviously, the problems that have caused the gap are the fact that the board has approved expenses but when it came time to pay for these items, the approval of expenditures was voted down," Cheek said. "You had a series of decisions that have led to being backed into a corner."

At least one candidate, Jim Smith, a retired Cobb County Water System employee, has qualified for the District 3 race as a Democrat, all but assuring a general election contest in November.

Smith said as a former water system employee, he knows "how things work" and has also been an active member of Canton Road Neighbors, a zoning and land use advocacy organization. He also said the county budget was a primary concern, and criticized commissioners for implementing membership fees for the senior centers and threatening to close libraries.

“You can’t make up $30 million by starting to charge seniors $5 a month to use the senior center that their tax money basically paid for,” Smith said.

He added that transportation would be “very big” in this election.

“Simply saying no to mass transit is no longer acceptable,” Smith said.

In District 1, two Republican candidates have qualified to run, in addition to Weatherford.

Weatherford dismissed his opponents for wanting to stop or slow growth in West Cobb altogether, while touting what he described as his own pragmatic approach to negotiating with developers. He also pointed to more than 100 acres that have been procured as greenspace during his tenure.

“My record will speak for itself,” Weatherford said.

Candidate Melissa O'Brien administers the West Cobb Advocate Facebook page in addition to substitute teaching in Cobb County schools. She faulted Weatherford for not holding enough town hall meetings with his constituents, and said whoever represents the district needs to consider the long-term implications of zoning decisions. But the defining issue of the race, she said, was the $30 million hole in the budget.

“We need to have a balanced budget and what’s been happening the past years is they’ve been kicking the can down the road,” O’Brien said. “We need to communicate with our neighbors and talk to them about the issue that we face.”

Candidate Keli Gambrill is the president of People Looking After Neighborhoods and has a background in business and accounting. She got involved in local politics when her yard started flooding due to a development under construction next door.

Zoning and land use “turned into a passion,” she said. “Not every homeowner has the time to learn what I had learned.”

Gambrill also said the biggest issue facing the county was the budget.

“The budget is the thing that is the most difficult to understand,” she said. “That’s where I feel my background with the county and business is going to be beneficial.”