Much interest in Cobb primary

The primary for Cobb County Commission chairman is six months away, but the campaign for the county’s top leadership position has long been in high gear.

Already three Republican contenders have emerged to challenge incumbent Chairman Tim Lee, who is hoping to win his first full four-year term in that position. No Democrats have announced their intentions to run, but qualifying for the seat in the July 31 election is May 23-25.

The race is as much about the economy, budgets, changing demographics, transportation and infrastructure as it is about the candidates.

As one political strategist noted, Cobb is a county in transition. For almost two years, Lee has led that transition, taking over the chairman’s seat from now-state Attorney General Sam Olens, whose leadership over the county was highly regarded.

Georgia’s fourth-largest county has grown dramatically, with a 13.2 percent population increase over a decade to 688,078 residents in 2010, according to census figures. The county has improved in the number of high-income residents and those holding bachelor’s degrees. But since the recession, the county has lost about 35,000 jobs.

On Lee’s watch have come county tax deficits caused by the housing crash and recession; the threat of losing the county’s vaunted triple-AAA bond rating; renewal of a local sales tax; and the regional transportation referendum.

His handling of those issues — including getting an almost 16 percent property tax increase, supporting the local SPLOST renewal and advocating for a transit line in the regional transportation plan — led to criticism from many county residents and his challengers. Lee has maintained that the taxes were necessary after other budget cuts and fee increases were exhausted.

“I have never let the fact that there was the possibility that I would not be here after two years be an influence when making decisions,” Lee said. “I’ve made the decisions that I’ve made with the interests of the county and its residents in mind, and not based on who would be in this office.”

Still, east Cobb resident Larry Savage, who ran against Lee two years ago and is trying again this year, thinks the county is drifting off course.

“We’re losing police officers. We didn’t manage the budget well. Our taxes are going up,” he said. “The things I was concerned about happening in 2010 have been confirmed.”

Savage, along with retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce and former Cobb Chairman Bill Byrne, are running against Lee on fiscal conservative platforms mirroring some of the small government, less spending sentiment held by tea party members across the country and in Cobb.

Like Savage, Boyce faults Lee for using a tax increase to handle the county’s deficits. With better management, the shortfalls could have been addressed as early as 2010, Boyce said.

“Cobb has a consistent tradition of being conservative and fiscally responsible,” Boyce said. “When government officials say something, you can hold them to their word.”

Cobb Democratic Party Chairwoman Melissa Pike said she is supportive of Lee’s focus on economic development and his willingness to listen to other viewpoints. But she disagreed with his recommendation last year to shut all but four of the county’s libraries to close a budget gap. Ultimately, avoiding that outcome required furloughs and service cuts that angered some public safety employees.

“Lee’s decision to pit public safety workers against libraries was reprehensible,” Pike said.

As the election season continues, voters are likely to hear more from Lee’s harshest critic, Byrne, who has his own political history to defend.

For months, Byrne has blasted the chairman on his tax decisions, support for chamber of commerce-led economic development initiatives and his handling of the transportation referendum.

On the same day county residents vote in the chairman’s race, voters in Cobb and nine other metro area counties are set to decide on a $6.14 billion list of regional transportation projects, along with a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax to pay for them.

Last week, Lee led a contingent of county leaders proposing reopening the transportation referendum’s project list and transferring more than $600 million from Cobb’s controversial transit line and putting it toward funding for reversible toll lanes along the I-75 /575 corridor. Whether that plan is successful, and the impact on Lee’s re-election chances, depends on whether enough state lawmakers can be persuaded to reopen the list.

In the meantime, Byrne is keeping the pressure on Lee.

“People are telling me that they are disgusted with this. Cobb is the mirror image of the country with property values falling, foreclosures, high unemployment, and we turn around and raise taxes on them,” Byrne said.

Byrne says some people have come to call him the Newt Gingrich of Cobb County. But like Gingrich, Byrne’s return to the ballot is likely to conjure up his political history.

Byrne was chairman of Cobb’s commission in the early 1990s that passed an anti-gay resolution that led to the county losing out on Olympic volleyball events in 1996. During his time in office, Byrne also backed a $23 million county-owned composting plant it operated with Bedminster Bioconversion Corp. The plant never functioned correctly and resulted in more than $60 million in costs for the county. In 1999, the state ethics commission fined Byrne $1,000 for failing to disclose a business partnership.

As for his past, Byrne said, “I don’t see that as baggage, I see that as a reputation for a political person who had to make a tough decision and stood by that decision.”

As the candidates continue this election season, they will face a formidable task, said state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, who was approached about running for the chairman’s seat but declined.

“Cobb is a large county, with a lot of voters and a lot of different types of voters,” he said. “You’ve got to have a medium to get your message out to all of them.”

Mableton resident Jackye Mumphrey, who has lived in the county since 2003, said she hopes whoever wins the chairman’s race will have more of an open dialogue with constituents.

The town hall meetings and public forums held by commissioners are good, she said, but “it doesn’t seem as if what their constituents suggest is taken seriously, which can be disheartening when you are a person who wants to get involved.”