Savage was the only person to challenge two-term Commissioner Tim Lee in the July 2010 special election, held after former Chairman Sam Olens resigned to run for state attorney general. Lee won that race with 60.59 percent of the votes to Savage’s 38.4 percent.
But the July 31 Republican Primary is already more crowded than it was in 2010. Bill Byrne, who served as Cobb Chairman from 1992 to 2002, has filed to run, as has retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce.
While he expects Lee and Byrne to have their loyal supporters, Savage is hopeful to find an opening.
“The remainder of the vote is going to be cut however many different ways it has to be cut,” he said. “That’s going to complicate matters for sure.”
But Savage, who calls himself a watcher of local government, feels he has a leg up this time. In 2010, he entered the race with little name recognition just 100 days until election day.
“In the two years since then, really nothing has changed in terms of the things that caused me concern before,” he said. “I really think the commitment to a conservative local government is drifting off-course. I wouldn’t tell anybody that we’re in bad shape. I think I’d say more correctly that our direction is not what it needs to be.”
Savage, who spent around $20,000 of his own money in 2010, plans to rely almost exclusively on fundraising this time. He seeks to raise around $100,000, though he admits that will be a challenge in the struggling economy.
“Last time, I never asked anybody for money because, frankly, there wasn’t time to campaign for office and try to raise money simultaneously,” he said. “This time I’ll have a fair chance at raising money because my visibility’s been better and people understand what I’m about more fully than last time.”
Savage is troubled by last year’s passage of the $492 million penny SPLOST sales tax and the Board of Commissioners voting to raise property taxes by 15.7 percent for the current fiscal year.
“My concern is the collectiveness of it, which shows me that our focus has not been on a tight, conservative government in general,” he said. “We have to establish priorities about what’s really important to us.”
With some department heads concerned about losing employees, Savage said the county needs to be more competitive in pay, especially with public safety workers.
“We’re going into the fourth or fifth year now where nobody’s had a salary increase, nobody’s been promoted, nobody’s had career advancement,” Savage said. “At some point in time, bad economy or not, you’re going to be at risk of losing people, and it’s going to be the best people you’re going to lose, because they’re the ones with the most options available to them.”
Savage said the Board of Commissioners should have looked somewhere other than salaries when determining where to save money.
“That’s a question of how we set our priorities, and we did not set our priorities in a way we should have,” he said.
Savage feels pay can be raised without raising taxes.
“To put it in the old traditional terms, you have a pie,” he said. “And you cut it how you need to cut it to do what you need to do with it. You’ve got finite resources, you can’t always look at it as a revenue issue, but I believe that public safety is a top priority, and whatever falls below that will end up helping to fund public safety.”
But Byrne said it is not appropriate for the county to give employee raises while Cobb residents are struggling with unemployment, a high foreclosure rate and an overall uncertain future.
“The economy will determine when we can afford more than we pay now,” he said. “We can hardly reward Cobb County employees when those who are paying our taxes are going without. You just can’t do that.”
While he welcomes Savage to the race, Lee said Savage needs to provide specifics as to how he plans to increase pay.
“He has an idea that is easy for most to agree with, but provides no details,” Lee said. “Unless he explains the how, it is nothing more than an empty promise and political attempt to take advantage of Cobb employees. This is a very important issue to the employees of Cobb County and their families, and to use it as political folly is inappropriate.”
Boyce did not immediately return requests for comment.
Savage also spoke against using SPLOST money to put electronic scoreboards in county parks.
“I know what the law says — you can’t take the money out of the SPLOST to pay for policemen — but you have sources of revenues and you have expenses, and you’ve got to look over the horizon to make sure that things are going to work together,” he said.
Savage said he has been talking about the Transportation Investment Act since shortly after it passed in 2010. It is still a major issue, with Lee asking the state Legislature last week to change Cobb’s project list to allow for a $689 million earmark for light rail or bus rapid transit to instead be used to build reversible toll lanes on Interstates 75 and 575.
Lee, along with Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, was one of two Cobb representatives on a 21-member roundtable of leaders from the 10-county metro Atlanta area that determined the transportation project list.
“The way it’s been handled certainly has not pleased the public, and not produced the best outcome for the people,” Savage said. “We’ve always been proud of getting the best bang for the buck when the people’s money is being spent, and this thing is not doing that.”
Instead, Savage would rather spend money on projects that would keep traffic moving, including more over- and underpasses and taking left turns out of some busy intersections, requiring drivers to make U-turns up the road, coming back and making a right turn.
“They work beautifully,” said Savage, who said the intersections are popular in Michigan.
Savage is planning a launch event for his campaign. He said he has a “close circle” of people he is working with. He said he has delayed his official filing of his intent to run with the state Campaign Finance Commission because he has been serving on the Cobb County School District’s Facilities and Technology Committee, its SPLOST oversight board, which prohibits political candidacy of its members.
He has now resigned from the committee.
“I’ve got my declaration of intent in the car,” Savage said. “It would have already been mailed in, but I left it in the car a couple days ago.”
Savage is also involved with the Northeast Cobb Homeowners Group and the Cobb County Civic Coalition.
Savage retired from the German firm Henkel, which acquired Loctite, the company he worked for. The company made specialty adhesive sealants for industrial applications, mostly for the automotive industry.
“The part I was responsible for was kind of an obscure technology,” he said. “We sold big application equipment that would sometimes run in the millions of dollars. Sealant material was really our core business. We had to sell the equipment in order to have a mechanism to use the sealant we provided.”
Savage also worked at General Motors. He received a mechanical engineering degree in 1967 from the General Motors Institute in Michigan.
Other than his time in college, Savage has lived in Georgia his entire life. He grew up in Atlanta and moved to Cobb in 1976. He said being a life-long Georgia resident can give him an edge over some of the other chairman candidates.
“It gives me a long-term perspective,” he said. “Some of the people who are pushing the light rail system talk about how bringing light rail to Cobb is like years ago when Atlanta was trying to build the big airport, or when Ernest Barrett and that guy (James) Quarles were developing Cobb County … I’m thinking, ‘No, this is not like that at all.’ Those really weren’t contentious issues at all because they made sense. Those were things that benefitted everybody. What we’re doing now is things that are not going to benefit everybody. It’s going to take an enormous amount of money and not provide benefits to many people at all in the big picture sense.”
As the other candidates make more clear what they are about, Savage said he will distinguish himself.
“I know what I’m about, I’m gonna focus on getting people to understand what I’m about,” he said. “I think in doing that, the differences will come out.”
Savage admits he should have had more people around him last time who know more about the election process.
“Knowing who has influence, who do you talk to, all the different events you can go to, the events you can’t go to,” he said. “Things like that; I have a much better understanding now. And frankly, a lot more people know who I am.”
Savage said he will be assisted by more people behind the scenes, as well as public faces, but won’t yet say who they are.
“I think I’d be premature if I called names right now,” he said.