Cobb faces tough funding choices after rejecting tax hike

The Cobb County Commission split 3-2 to keep the property tax rate where it is following a marathon hearing Tuesday night, but warned that services may be cut as a result.

Many taxpayers will still end up paying more, as assessments in much of the county have gone up, some dramatically so.

More than a dozen speakers assailed the board over a proposed .13 mill increase championed by Chairman Mike Boyce as a means of fulfilling his campaign promise to buy more parks.

“We insist that our local representatives take responsibility to cut wasteful spending and to cut property taxes,” said Nathan Adams, a Mableton resident and executive director of Georgia Taxpayers United.

Adams delivered a thick sheaf of papers he described as a petition against the tax increase.

Chairman Boyce thanked Adams for his civic engagement and said he understood voters’ frustration over the use of tax dollars to fund the new Braves stadium.

“It’s not just the Braves,” Adams replied. “It’s a lot of things.”

In addition to parks, Boyce also said the county was facing a funding shortage for services already provided.

Cobb’s fiscal calendar is unusual for Georgia. It runs from October to September and the tax rate is adopted at the end of the year, after the budget set in September has been largely spent.

“Cobb’s unique,” said Clint Mueller, the legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “Their budget year is pretty much over by the time they get their money.”

Most counties go by the calendar year — January to December — or the state’s fiscal year, which starts July 1.

“Counties like Cobb typically have to have a lot of money in reserves or take out loans” to cover expenses, Mueller said.

Boyce told the board that the increase was needed in order to cover the park bonds unanimously approved in January. At the time, the commission acknowledged an estimated millage increase of .13. The board also voted 5-0 in favor of employee pay raises in February using one-time funds.

“Last year, the board passed the budget and we provided those services and now it’s time to pay the bill for those services,” Boyce said. “I am not going to sit here and try to find a way around the (tax increase). I’m not, because it’s a legitimate bill.”

His motion to raise the tax rate was defeated.

Commissioner Bob Ott made a substitute motion to keep the rate the same and use one-time economic contingency reserve funds to make up the difference.

Ott warned the public that he didn’t want to hear from “special interest groups” when their services were cut. If the county fails to produce a leaner budget, it could mean a tax hike next year, he added.

“The board has a fiduciary duty to balance the budget,” he said.

Ott also sought to highlight several million of dollars in sales and property tax revenue from SunTrust Park and the Battery, as well as the increase in property value around the stadium. The county pays more than $16 million a year on the stadium debt service alone, not including ancilliary costs to the transportation and public safety departments.

Of that annual debt service payment, $6.4 million comes from the General Fund Property Taxes.

Ott’s motion passed with the support of Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Bob Weatherford.

“This is a Band-Aid,” said County Finance Director Bill Volckmann, referring to the use of reserve funds. “It’s just kicking the can down the road and you’re just adding to the can.”

“It’s going to make 2018 difficult for sure,” he said.

Commissioner Birrell acknowledged that the board was in a tight spot after approving former Chairman Tim Lee’s tax cuts last year, which he introduced just days before losing a Republican runoff against Boyce.

“Every one of us has said that we wish we hadn’t (approved Lee’s tax cuts) because it has put us in a hole,” she said.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid, the sole commissioner to vote against the Braves deal and a more recent $11.8 million payment to the team, told her fellow board members that “the chickens have come home to roost.”

Most of the residents who spoke during public comment opposed the increase, but a few said they didn’t mind paying an increase estimated at $12 on a home valued at $275,000.

“I voted for the parks, I didn’t expect to get it free,” said Cobb resident Randall Bedgood. “I expect to pay for it, so I don’t object to the .13” mill increase.

Next, the commission will begin putting together a budget for Fiscal Year 2018, which should be adopted in September. The tax rate to support that budget will be voted on this time next summer.

Does Chairman Boyce think commissioners will be having the same conversation then?

“Absolutely,” he said, laughing.


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