Millions for parkland in Cobb County ‘highly unlikely'

Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens said it's "highly unlikely" the county will issue $40 million in bonds to buy parkland for preservation, hiking and recreation.

Cobb County parks proponent Paul Paulson said he is "aghast" at the decision to drop the parks plan.

The county's voters approved the parks bond initiative in November 2008 with 65 percent of the vote.

"If we're not going to respect the people's vote, that's what Hugo Chavez would do in Venezuela, that's not what we do in America," Paulson said.

Paulson is co-founder of the Cobb Parks Coalition, a grass-roots group that lobbied in favor of Cobb's first parks bond in 2006, which resulted in the purchase of hundreds of acres of parkland. The group also supported the parks bond referendum in 2008.

If the county raised taxes slightly -- about $15 per year for the average homeowner -- it would be possible to buy the parkland, Paulson said. That does not appear to be on the table for discussion among Cobb's politicians.

"We promised our residents no millage increase with the bond," Olens said Monday. "I will not support a millage increase."

Last summer, a parks bond citizens advisory committee spent months culling through more than 300 possible park properties, winnowing down the list to 29 prospects for the county to consider.

"We spent every Saturday in August, more or less all day, visiting properties," said John Pape, chairman of the advisory committee.

Dozens of Cobb property owners attended county meetings to highlight the special features of their property, in the hope the county would buy their land.

"I'm disappointed, obviously," Pape said.

"I understand, basically," he said. "All I can say with a smile on my face is that it was a heck of a lot of work. The economic timing just wasn't quite right."

Paulson suggested that Olens does not have the authority to call off the bond issue and that a judge should decide.

Olens said the bond resolution passed by the commission last September contains an "out clause" that would allow the commission to table the idea.

"I'm not happy that we're not doing it. We don't have the finances," Olens said.

"This is the absolute best time to buy land," Paulson said of the historic drop in real estate prices. "This is the time to get it. This is what the people wanted."

Cobb's commission was ready to start visiting properties last November to make final picks, but the county issued a 90-day moratorium on the bond issue. That moratorium expires in mid-February.

Cobb could face a double-digit decline in its tax digest this year, which means less tax money in the county's coffers.

"It's looking kind of grim," said Phil Hogsed, Cobb's chief appraiser.

There wouldn't be enough to pay back a $40 million bond, officials say.

Initially Cobb officials figured they could afford the parks bond without a tax increase because they had more than enough money in the county's fire service fund, said Brad Bowers, Cobb's finance director. The idea was to collect less tax for fire service and more tax for debt service, keeping the overall tax rate the same, he said.

New revenue projections show that Cobb will not have enough money to cover firefighting costs in the 2011 budget and beyond, Bowers said. But Olens said Monday that the county would shift the amount of tax it collects in the county's general fund to make sure fire service is not affected.

The County Commission approved a bond resolution for parkland in September. Commissioners could come back at a future date and follow through, but because of the wording of the resolution, the county would have to issue less and less money in bonds as time went on, Bowers said.

Olens suggested that money for parkland could be included in a special penny sales tax if the county asks voters to approve one next year.

Right now, Cobb County is falling behind on basics like maintenance of its roofs, elevators and HVAC systems, Olens said.

"Due to this recession, are we getting behind on it? The answer is yes," Olens said.

To save money, Cobb has instituted a hiring freeze and is reducing personnel through attrition. The county also has offered early retirement to about 400 employees.

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