Cobb approves employee raises one year after tax hike

A year after approving a tax hike to avoid a $33 million deficit, Cobb commissioners Tuesday voted to give county employees a 3 percent pay raise and to spend a surplus of millions accumulated during the last fiscal year.

The unexpected $12.6 million surplus came from increased traffic in the real estate market, changes to health care plans and belt-tightening in the county office. Using that money and an additional $9.7 million from various savings accounts, the commission voted 4-1 for the raises and unanimously approved a small 0.2 mill tax decrease and other expenses.

County employees have not received pay increases since 2008. Critics said employees deserve some compensation, but questioned whether one-time surplus money should be used to pay for permanent pay increases. Bob Ott, who represents east Cobb, voted against the raises and said he would rather the county offer a one-time bonus for employees until the economy is more stable.

“This is a one-time savings,” Ott said. “With a raise, we don’t know whether that surplus is going to be there. We have a lot of uncertainties over the next year.”

Chairman Tim Lee said the raises are sustainable. The pay raise for Cobb’s 4,000-plus employees will take effect in December and accounts for about $4.5 million, which will come from overages in the county’s medical and dental fund — money normally used to pay insurance claims. In the future, raises will be paid from the county’s general fund, but if the money isn’t there Lee said the county would cut services or staff rather than increase taxes.

A handful of residents attended Tuesday’s meeting to sound off on the pay increase. Billy Mull, president of Cobb’s Fraternal Order of Police, said the county is training police officers, then losing them to nearby jurisdictions that pay higher salaries.

“This would do an immense effort to improve morale and stop our younger officers from leaving for other agencies,” he said.

Money from the surplus would also be used for one-time expenses such as technology upgrades and debt payments. Lance Lamberton, president of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, said he favors bonuses rather than permanent raises.

“The lion’s share of that should go back to taxpayers because it was taken from them in the first place,” he said. “Employees should get sizable bonuses, something that will make a difference in their lives, but most should go back to taxpayers, plain and simple.”

In July 2011, the commissioners approved a 15.7 percent tax increase to fill a budget gap in 2011-12.

As the economy improves, Lee’s plan is to reduce the general fund millage rate each year for the next five years until it’s returned to the 2011 rate of 6.82 mills. He said the county can’t afford to reduce the tax rate more without risking another shortfall.

“I can’t do more because it’s not sustainable,” he said. “The reason we have a balanced budget is because of the millage rate that was put in place a year ago. What created the surplus was unforeseen revenue increases and due diligence of our employees.”

This year’s tax decrease will result in a savings of about $14 a year on a $200,000 home.

Ethel Gibson has lived in Cobb for 65 years and spoke out against the tax increase in 2011.

“I am glad they are going to give us a little money back, but it’s too little too late,” she said.

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