Board will pay $326K for staff salary study
by Jon Gillooly
April 23, 2014 04:00 AM | 437 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — The Board of Commissioners has agreed to pay $326,420 for a consultant to review the salaries and responsibilities of county employees to determine whether their pay is competitive with surrounding governments. Commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to hire The Archer Company, a Rock Hill, S.C.-based firm, to carry out the study, which is expected to take a year. Because the last such study was performed in 2006, county Chairman Tim Lee said the new study may find pay adjustments need to be as much as a $2 million increase. Yet those are adjustments Lee said he is willing to make for the county’s 4,500 full-time and 1,200 part-time employees. “Yeah, I’m prepared to move forward with the recommendation,” Lee said. “You want to keep quality people. The best way to provide the best services that folks come to expect at the best possible rate is to make sure you have quality employees. The best way to have quality employees is to make sure you have a competitive package and recruit the best, which I think we do. We just need to reward those (employees) for a fair day’s work with a fair day’s pay.” Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said both the 2011 Citizens Oversight Committee, chaired by Brett McClung of northeast Cobb, and the county’s 2012 Compensation Committee, chaired by Lee, recommended paying for the study. Tony Hagler, the county’s human resources director, has said he didn’t have the staff to carry out the task. “It has been way over our five-year mark of doing a study for compensation,” Birrell said. “I think it’s important that we look at our departments and employees and see where we are in comparison with the market and with other jurisdictions and pay them appropriately and accordingly.”
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Several residents still unwell with possible WellStar expansion plans
by Nikki Wiley
April 23, 2014 04:00 AM | 388 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Marietta’s Marshall Dye urges Mayor Steve Tumlin to get behind an effort to move WellStar Kennestone Hospital’s construction efforts north of its current location, and that any further development, including a bridge over Church Street, is too much for the surrounding neighborhood.<br>Staff/Jeff Stanton
Marietta’s Marshall Dye urges Mayor Steve Tumlin to get behind an effort to move WellStar Kennestone Hospital’s construction efforts north of its current location, and that any further development, including a bridge over Church Street, is too much for the surrounding neighborhood.
Staff/Jeff Stanton
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Despite many neighbors of WellStar Kennestone Hospital being against expansion plans, Jill Litton, left, says she’s in favor of the plan, including the bridge that would cross over Church Street.<br>Staff/Jeff Stanton
Despite many neighbors of WellStar Kennestone Hospital being against expansion plans, Jill Litton, left, says she’s in favor of the plan, including the bridge that would cross over Church Street.
Staff/Jeff Stanton
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MARIETTA — Church Street residents packed into an auditorium at WellStar Kennestone Hospital on Tuesday to drive home their concerns about the hospital’s proposed expansion. About a dozen residents spoke, and all raised opposition to the project except one. They claim WellStar blindsided them when it quietly sent the city a proposal to build a new two-story, 175,020-square-foot building, including an 80,750-square-foot emergency department at Kennestone Hospital, a parking deck and a pedestrian bridge across Church Street. WellStar officials maintain they are in the early stages of planning. Kennestone has asked the city of Marietta for an easement to build the 20-foot sky bridge across Church Street connecting the hospital’s existing surgery department to the new emergency department, planned to be built between Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets. Marietta City Council has tabled the request twice. The last time it voted to postpone making a decision, council members said they weren’t optimistic an agreement could be reached between Church Street residents, who allege the expansion will ruin their historic neighborhood lined with expensive, sought-after homes, and the hospital, which adamantly maintains the proposal is the only way to solve the emergency department’s overcrowding problem. The City Council’s next meeting is set for 7 p.m. on May 14 at City Hall, 205 Lawrence St. The Council doesn’t have control, however, over where the new building is constructed because it is owned by the Cobb County Kennestone Hospital Authority, a government entity that is exempt from city zoning rules. Mayor Steve Tumlin said Tuesday the city has growing pains and the community must work together to solve them. “I think what you’ve seen in the last six weeks is the willingness of Kennestone to work with us,” Tumlin said. WellStar addresses traffic Some opponents say more information is needed on how the new emergency department would affect traffic before a decision is made. WellStar CEO Reynold Jennings told residents Tuesday night much of the traffic in the area around Kennestone is not related to the hospital. A 2004 traffic study, he said, showed 89 percent of the area traffic is not from the hospital. That same study projected that number would be 83 percent in 2030. Jennings said the hospital’s proposed expansion would not dramatically impact that number. He maintains technological advances, such as over-the-counter diagnostic tools, are expected to decrease the demand of emergency care, and the completion of a new emergency room at Northside Hospital in Cherokee County may draw north Cobb residents to Canton, rather than Marietta, for medical care. The relocation of Kennestone’s helipad causes hesitation for some Church Street residents, but Woods said little change should be expected because the new helipad is close to its current location and pilots would likely use the same flight path. Marshal Dye, who challenged Councilman Andy Morris in last year’s election, told Woods he was “selling a load of crap.” “They’re loud, they’re noisy, they’re dangerous and they hover,” Dye said. “The hover now. This weekend they were hovering over our house.” He maintains the helipad’s new location will only make things worse. “It’s not easy living on Church Street,” Dye said. Jill Litton, who lives on Chicopee Street, said she is rarely disturbed by ambulance drivers or landing helicopters and supports the hospital’s plan. “I think we should all be very happy we have that right outside our back door,” Litton said. Other sites considered, but not feasible Critics have also questioned what other options were considered before WellStar set its sights on the property between Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets. Some charge any hospital expansion should be directed north toward Tower Road, rather than near residential neighborhoods. WellStar says the new building is needed to relieve its crowded existing emergency department, and its proposed location is the only place where the facility can be built to connect critical patients to the hospital’s surgery department. Dan Woods, president of Kennestone, said Tuesday three other sites were considered. Officials looked at an area west of the hospital’s energy plant next to the current emergency department, but scrapped the idea when it was determined it would cost $40 million to move the plant. A southwest parking lot also adjacent to the emergency room was considered, Woods said, but that location would not have allowed critical patients to efficiently be transported to surgery. A third spot facing Church Street was considered, but it was determined to be too small for the new emergency room. An underground tunnel has been presented as a possible alternative to the sky bridge by some residents, but Woods said that too was not feasible. He said the cost of building a tunnel would be $1,100 per square foot compared to the $365 per square foot cost of the sky bridge.
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Lee: Proposed BRT system might be funded by SPLOST
by Nikki Wiley
April 23, 2014 04:00 AM | 451 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This rendering shows what a proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw State University to Midtown Atlanta could look like. About $100 million of the $494 million BRT system could be paid for with sales tax, county officials said Tuesday. Originally estimated to cost $1.1 billion, the price fell to $494 million in January when a dozen grade separations — bridges and tunnels — were eliminated from the project that is proposed to run alongside Cobb Parkway. <br> Special to the MDJ
This rendering shows what a proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw State University to Midtown Atlanta could look like. About $100 million of the $494 million BRT system could be paid for with sales tax, county officials said Tuesday. Originally estimated to cost $1.1 billion, the price fell to $494 million in January when a dozen grade separations — bridges and tunnels — were eliminated from the project that is proposed to run alongside Cobb Parkway.
Special to the MDJ
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MARIETTA — About $100 million of the $494 million proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw State University to Midtown Atlanta could be paid for with sales tax, county officials said Tuesday. Originally estimated to cost $1.1 billion, the price fell to $494 million in January when a dozen grade separations — bridges and tunnels — were eliminated from the project that is proposed to run alongside Cobb Parkway. The Cobb Board of Commissioners heard for the first time Tuesday exactly how the funding for the project could break down during a presentation by Ed Ellis, project manager for Kimley-Horn and Associates, which was paid $3 million by the county to complete an environmental assessment on the transit system. The largest part of the $494 million cost could be paid by the New Starts grant administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration. Ellis estimated as much as 49 percent of the project — $242 million — could be paid for by that federal program. Another $152 million, 31 percent, could come from other sources, Ellis said, such as additional federal grants, Cobb’s cities and universities, community improvement district funds, naming rights revenue, potential public-private partnerships and private organizations. The remaining cost would be paid for by the county government. “The current proposal is that Cobb County would contribute $100 million to the project, which is 20 percent,” Ellis said. SPLOST possible funding source It’s not clear exactly where that $100 million would come from, and Cobb Chairman Tim Lee, who is behind the transit system proposal, said conversations are ongoing regarding that funding. Before commissioners heard the funding breakdown Tuesday, Lee said discussions are taking place about the possibility for a special purpose local option sales tax referendum to appear on November’s ballot. Lee said projects to be funded under that SPLOST have not yet been finalized, but the county is considering another round of the tax because it’s the “prudent” thing to do. A SPLOST is being collected now in Cobb and is set to expire at the end of next year. Lee said it’s possible another round of SPLOST could help pay for the county’s share of the bus system, but that’s something a majority on the county commission would have to authorize. “I think the SPLOST is a good mechanism for funding DOT expansion projects,” Lee said, adding it’s worth “taking a serious look at.” Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who is up for re-election in the May 20 primary, said she is planning to meet with the county’s transportation director and residents about the transit system. Birrell expects it will appear on a list of potential SPLOST projects and doesn’t take issue with funding a public transportation system along Cobb Parkway with sales taxes — whether it’s the proposed bus-rapid-transit system, light rail or an express bus — because public hearings will be held on the project and voters will have their say. “I have no problem with it going on the SPLOST list because, as you know, that will be voted on by the public,” said Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb. Lee has said he’d like to see a six-year SPLOST voted on this fall. The referendum could be called as late as August. Using dedicated lanes for Cobb, HOV in Atlanta Ellis said his study found the transit system would have no significant impacts on Cobb’s environment. Though the system is called bus-rapid transit, Ellis said the vehicle would not be like Cobb Community Transit’s large blue buses that transport residents now. “The vehicle that was chosen is a rubber-tired vehicle, but it’s not a bus,” Ellis said. The ride experience would be similar to the quality of light rail, Ellis said, with vehicles leaving every 8 to 12 minutes from level platform stations. Customers would pay using a pre-loaded fare card. “There would be some kind of Breeze card-like system so that you can tap it and get onto the vehicle and ride,” Ellis said, referring to the system used by Atlanta’s MARTA trains that allow customers to pay fare in advance. Riders would board on both sides of the vehicles and would travel in a dedicated lane on Cobb Parkway with a special traffic signal allowing the system to bypass traffic. Phase one of the project would connect Kennesaw to the Cumberland area through the proposed dedicated Cobb Parkway lanes. Travel would then continue, Ellis said, using Interstate 75’s HOV lanes. “We’ll have no money spent in the city of the Atlanta except for some minor station renovations,” Ellis said. System could be running in 2018 The transit system is not finalized and has not been approved by the Board of Commissioners. Lee said a vote could take place as early as June. Ellis said the next step in the planning process is to receive a statement confirming no significant environmental impacts will be caused by the transit system from the Federal Transit Administration, which he said should be received in the coming months. Preliminary engineering reports could be completed by early 2015, Ellis said, with right-of-way acquisition taking place in summer 2016. Final engineering is proposed to take place in spring 2016, Ellis said, with construction beginning in summer 2017. The transit system could be open to the public by late 2018 or early 2019. Cobb Community Transit already has 18 bus routes with a fiscal 2014 budget of $18 million. Of that, 33 percent is paid by passenger fares. The rest comes from federal grants and the county’s general fund budget. The county outsources CCT operations to Lombard, Ill.-based Veolia Transportation, paying the firm $13 million annually. The county also employs seven people to run CCT operations. By the numbers: $494 million: The total cost of the proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw to Midtown $242 million would come from U.S. DOT Federal Transit Administration $152 million would come from ‘other sources,’ such as additional federal grants, Cobb’s cities and universities, community improvement district funds, naming rights revenue, potential public-private partnerships, and private organizations. $100 million would come from Cobb County
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Internal audit critical of medical examiner; Board says Frist should keep job
by Haisten Willis
April 23, 2014 04:00 AM | 326 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners on Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the M.E.’s office. <br> Staff/Jeff Stanton
Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners on Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the M.E.’s office.
Staff/Jeff Stanton
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04-22-14 -- Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the ME's office. Staff/Jeff Stanton
04-22-14 -- Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, left, listens and watches as an internal audit is presented to Cobb County Commissioners Tuesday afternoon regarding issues with the ME's office. Staff/Jeff Stanton
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MARIETTA — Cobb County commissioners say they see no reason to part ways with county medical examiner Brian Frist, despite an internal audit that found several issues with his office. A report written by the county’s internal audit department makes 27 recommended changes to the medical examiner’s office, including a suggestion the office hold competitive bids or privatize. Latona Thomas, who heads the county’s audit department, gave a presentation to the commissioners during a work session Tuesday afternoon, which Frist attended. Frist has been the county medical examiner since 1999, and was an associate medical examiner for 10 years before that. Medical examiners have a job roughly similar to that of a county coroner, but Cobb is one of only five counties in Georgia that has eliminated its coroner in favor of the position, making the switch in 1973. A coroner is an elected official who must live in the county and is not required to be a physician because they do not perform forensic pathological services. A medical examiner is an appointed position, does have to be a physician and does not have to live in the county. Frist’s contract is worth $475,500 a year, which he splits with three part-time employees. When asked, he said he did not know how much goes to him directly as salary. The contract at one time included salary for other staff members, but those are now paid by the county. “We were unable to determine the justification for the county assuming personnel previously paid out of the contract without a corresponding reduction to the ME contract,” reads the audit. The audit lists several other issues with the office, such as a lack of written procedures, no monitoring of internal camera systems and lack of a subspecialty accreditation for Frist by the American Board of Pathology. Frist also performs autopsies independently, which he profits from. He is allowed free use of county facilities and also uses county employees who are off the clock. But the audit found that a neighboring county, DeKalb, charges its medical examiner $1,485 per month for use of facilities. There was also no documentation to prove county employees were off the clock when working for Frist or that county cases were coming before his personal ones. Frist assured things in his office are being done correctly. “The county’s always come first,” Frist said in an interview. “I want to make that clear.” The audit was trigged by a complaint from Tom Cheek, who was upset about the way the office handled the death of his son, who died in a 2012 fire. Frist said the complaint was unwarranted. “He’s totally wrong,” Frist said. “He’s acting out of anger and grief, trying to mourn his son, and he can’t accept it.” While internal audit did not examine work done on Cheek’s case specifically, its findings about the medical examiner’s office would not have come to light without that complaint. Commissioner Joann Birrell said she was part of a citizen’s group that recommended any county office not audited in the last five years should go through an internal audit. But both Birrell and Chairman Tim Lee said they saw no reason to remove Frist from office. “There’s responsibility all around,” said Lee of the issues that need to be fixed. “This is a joint effort. We’re a team.” Lee said it’s too early to determine whether or not competitive bids or privatization are needed, but that it may not make much difference because so few people are qualified to serve as a medical examiner. He also sees no need to reduce the value of the contract. “Our cost is in line with that of neighboring counties,’ Lee said. Frist stressed he’s willing to work with the county on almost all of the issues identified in the audit. He said competitive bids would be a mistake and noted Cobb’s average cost per autopsy is lower than surrounding counties. However, if competitive bids are taken, he would bid for the contract.
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Kennesaw denies billboard in city
by Rachel Gray
April 23, 2014 04:00 AM | 340 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
KENNESAW — A year after a split decision to annex a hotel property into the city limits, the Kennesaw City Council unanimously voted Monday evening to deny a billboard designed for the site. City staff presented a design for a billboard to be erected on the northwest corner of the M-Star Hotel at 3027 Cobb Parkway, on the west side of the city between Mack Dobbs and Jim Owens roads. After battling its way through multiple Planning Commission meetings, the height of the proposed digital billboard was decreased from 45 feet to 35 feet from the base of the structure to the top of the sign. According to a document submitted to the Planning Commission by American Outdoor Advertising, which would construct and own the billboard, the average height of a billboard on Cobb Parkway is 46.5 feet. One looming concern about the digital billboard stemmed from its placement atop a 15-foot hill. Kennesaw’s City Council had a public hearing about the needed approval before a permit for the sign could be granted by city staff. Although Mayor Mark Mathews did not have a vote Monday night, he was concerned about the design plan. “There were a lot of issues with the overall site,” Mathews said. There are 24 billboards within the city limits, and Kennesaw’s sign ordinance was passed to reduce the amount of billboards. “Any sign containing an electronic display which is 70 square feet or larger in size shall only be allowed as conversions of existing sign faces on parcels adjacent to the right-of-way of Cobb Parkway and I-75,” the code states. American Outdoor Advertising owns billboards in Hiram and Powder Springs, but not in Kennesaw, so the company could not offer a trade. Mathews said when the possibility of erecting a digital billboard on the commercial property was discussed a year ago, he hoped an advertising company would offer to subtract an existing structure on Cobb Parkway to make the deal. “From that stand point, I am very disappointed,” Mathews said about the unsupported plan. Councilman Leonard Church, a former mayor of Kennesaw, said even if a different advertising company proposed a plan to build at that same spot on the hill with an agreement to take down other signs, it would not change his stance. “If it is digital, it is going to be an issue,” Church said. Kennesaw chooses to be neighborly Along with the height contention and lack of an offer to take down an existing billboard, the placement of the new digital sign required another variance. Kennesaw’s sign ordinance states the structure must be in a commercial or industrial zone no less than 300 feet from a residence. The suggested placement is 200 feet from two nearby homes in unincorporated Cobb. Church was not sure why all the council members were in agreement to deny the billboard request Monday night, but for him it came down to the proximity of the residential houses. “I am getting tired of going against our code,” Church said. “Unless it is a hardship, and I didn’t see a hardship.” Still, the short distance was already approved as a variance on the property’s zoning when it was annexed a year ago. At that time, former Councilman Jeff Duckett and current Councilman Tim Killingsworth voted to approve the variance and annexation of the hotel into the city limits, with former Councilman Bruce Jenkins and current Councilwoman Cris Welsh opposed. At the time, the late Councilman Bill Thrash was battling cancer and therefore absent from the meeting. Mayor Mark Mathews broke the tie and the variance for a future billboard passed 3-2. The variance on the distance to a residence is tied to the property, not the business owner, according to Planning and Zoning Administrator Darryl Simmons. But there is a five-year deadline for construction to be completed before the variance is lifted, and one year has already lapsed. Before Monday’s vote, Mathews said the original variance only allowed the business owner to apply for the permit. “It did not in any way approve the billboard or the construction of the billboard,” said Mathews, who added there was no guarantee or assurance a digital billboard would be approved at the location in the future. Arun Patel, who sat in the audience Monday but did not address the council, moved to Cobb from India in 1969 and built his business 13 years ago, which is now part of the M-Star Hotel chain. Patel said when his property was annexed, there was an understanding the revenue from the billboard would be needed to help pay an increase in property taxes. Marty Williamson, a representative of American Billboard Company who addressed the City Council, said he became involved in the property after the variance and did not know about the contention. “I am sad there is controversy. It is not what I like to do,” Williamson said.
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