Some Cobb commissioners not 'in the loop,’ with county budget

Public safety spending within the county’s $350 million general fund includes:

  • Sheriff's Office, $72.9 million
  • County police, $61.2 million
  • State Court, $7.2 million
  • District Attorney's Office, $7 million
  • Superior Court, $6.4 million
  • Juvenile Court, $5.2 million
  • Solicitor's Office, $5.2 million

The county’s fire department is funded separately, with a $79 million budget

Two Cobb commissioners are upset that a local newspaper received details of the county’s 2016 budget before they did.

Commissioners Bob Ott and Lisa Cupid said Commission Chairman Tim Lee did not meet with them or provide them with information about the budget before the newspaper wrote about it, and before finance director Jim Pehrson made a first public presentation of the $783.8 million spending plan at Tuesday’s meeting.

Ott, who has clashed with Lee on several issues, said it’s the first time in his seven years as commissioner that he has not received budget information in advance of the presentation, which he said prevented “review and input” and “is not the normal practice.”

“I think this is yet another example of what appears to be happening where members of this board are out of the loop until the last minute, then given information just before it’s presented … or not given it at all before it’s presented,” Ott said. “It gives the impression that the chairman doesn’t want us to know the details.

“I don’t intend on being a rubber stamp.”

» DOCUMENT: See Cobb's FY 2016 budget here and comment on it (.PDF)

Lee did not return phone messages Wednesday seeking comment. But at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Lee said that he tried to schedule meetings with each of the commissioners.

“We were unable to make that happen and consequently … it was shared this morning,” Lee said. “There was a lot of thought process and rationale behind that and, like we said, it’s the beginning of the process.

“We’ve got another three weeks and I look forward to meeting with each of you … to bring forward a revised, sustainable budget that we all can be proud of.”

Lee’s office sent an email to Ott giving three potential meeting dates, two of which were before the meeting.

“We responded immediately and picked one of the three dates they offered us,” Ott said. “The chairman didn’t say: `Oh, by the way, the budget is going to be presented to the newspaper and the public before that date.’

“If they had, we would have made a different decision.”

Cupid, who has been busy studying for the Georgia bar examination and was the other commissioner who did not receive any budget information before the meeting, said she could have “at least received the power point in an email.”

“There are so many things that concern me about the county that I’m just going to roll with this one and go through the process,” Cupid said in an interview.

There have been other instances where commissioners have complained about the lack of information, or been confused about what they were given.

Just last month, commissioners were presented details about the proposed bridge over Interstate 285, linking the Galleria with SunTrust Park, then asked to approve the design concept the same day that the information was presented.

Two months ago, commissioners approved a federal transportation grant application without being given the opportunity to review it. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, the application had incorrect information in it related to a controversial bus rapid transit system.

At the same meeting, all four district commissioners voted to approve a long-range transportation plan that they were told would require a referendum before the county could move forward with a controversial bus rapid transit system. The plan does not require a referendum.

And in approving a preliminary agreement to build SunTrust Park, commissioners had just two weeks to consider a deal that will require a $400 million public investment for stadium construction and maintenance, and even more in infrastructure and other improvements. Cupid was the only commissioner to vote against the agreement, saying she did not have "adequate time to make sure I am diligently protecting the best interests of the county."

The proposed spending plan includes a $350 million general fund budget, which is a 2.7-percent increase. A separate fund pays for fire protection, which is budgeted at $79 million, a 4.4-percent increase.

All four of the commissioners pushed back against Lee’s budget proposal for different reasons — none harder than Cupid, who sharply questioned why county staffing levels have not increased along with revenues.

Finance Director Pehrson told commissioners earlier that revenue from property taxes has almost returned to pre-recession levels; Lee’s budget includes money for 40 new police officers and two new positions in the County Attorney’s Office, one of which will mostly be funded with special purpose sales tax revenue.

Cupid noted that Lee also added a $105,000-a-year spokeswoman to his office. Kellie Brownlow was hired in January, but her position isn’t considered new because the county manager approved giving a vacant slot in the Community Services Department to the chairman.

“It is discomforting to see increases of staff on (the commissioner’s) floor and not see increases in other staff considered in this budget,” said Cupid, adding that “our employees and citizens need to see the fruit of” increasing revenues.

Commissioners approved a public hearing on the budget for Aug. 25; they anticipate adopting the budget Sept. 8. The county’s 2016 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.