Cobb chief: Stop diverting surplus street light funds

AJC results: Majority of board opposed to using targeted money elsewher

Cobb County’s top elected official wants the county to stop diverting surplus money from its street light program to other uses, he said Wednesday.

Commission Chairman Tim Lee’s statement came after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that Cobb officials had spent $5.89 million from the program for other purposes during the past decade — despite a county ordinance stating that the money was for the street light program.

Lee said he wants to ensure that fees raised from county residents for the program are spent only on street light-related expenses. He also said he wants to keep the money in a separate fund and not in the general fund, where it is currently kept.

“My perspective now is that the funding that’s collected for the street light [program] ought to be dedicated and used specifically for that,” Lee said. He said the county needs to determine the best way to make that happen, whether it involves changing the wording of the street light ordinance or some other method.

About 65 percent of unincorporated Cobb’s residents pay into the program, which pays for street lights, including maintenance and electricity, for neighborhoods that choose to participate. Residents pay $9.50 per month for the first 23 months, then $3.50 monthly after that.

The ordinance states that the fee collected from residents is for “the cost of providing and maintaining street light service.” But officials, including County Manager David Hankerson, previously argued that the ordinance did not specifically say they couldn’t use surplus money for other expenses.

Commissioners Bob Ott and Thea Powell said Wednesday they support preventing surplus money from being used for other county expenses. With Lee, that makes a majority of the five-member board.

Commissioner Helen Goreham said she needed to research the issue to make a decision, but said the proposed changes made sense to her. Commissioner Woody Thompson could not be reached for comment.

The county is conducting an internal audit of the street light program. When it is completed in the next 30 days, Lee said the county will determine if other changes need to be made, such as whether the fee should be reduced or whether residents should be refunded for money that was spent on other things.

Lee’s statement this week represented a change of heart.

When interviewed about the surplus street light money prior to the AJC’s Sunday article, Lee said he supported the use of surplus money on other expenses and said he believed it was appropriate. “Why isn’t it?” he asked.

In the AJC article, critics said they felt the county had acted inappropriately and called for refunds and a lower street light fee.

On Wednesday, Lee attributed his change of heart to “thoughtful reflection.”

“After having some thought about it, I changed my position,” he said. “I thought that it was something that needed to be looked at closer.”

Powell said she was curious about another issue: what the surplus money was spent on.

The AJC has asked Cobb officials to show where the money went, but Finance Director Jim Pehrson said the county is unable to track the surplus money.

Powell was not satisfied. “You can’t just say, ‘We don’t know how we used it.’ That’s not a responsible way of utilizing taxes or utilizing money paid by citizens.”

AJC results

On Sunday, the AJC reported that Cobb County had spent $5.89 million from its street light program on other expenses during the past decade — despite a county ordinance stating that the money was for street lights. On Wednesday, the county’s chairman said he wants to stop diverting money from the program.