Ott shared his suggestions for solving the shortfall and answered questions in front of about 150 concerned and curious residents at Mount Bethel United Methodist Church.
Cobb Finance Director Jim Pehrson announced last week that the county would need to find $31 million to balance its budget before October. Ott said he agreed with west Cobb Commissioner Helen Goreham that nothing can be off the table to address the situation, though he disagreed with Goreham that a tax increase is necessary.
"I've said 'no' to a tax increase, and I'll stand by that," Ott said. "Your commissioners can't come to you and say, 'We're spending too much money so we need a raise.'...We're not operating in a vacuum, so we have to look ahead. If all we did was raise the millage rate and the same thing happens next year, are we going to raise it again? We don't need to ask for another increase in our allowance."
Ott said he supports furloughing employees, as he said it would save people's jobs while also saving the county money. Ott said one furlough day would save the county about $660,000, and he suggested implementing seven furlough days across the board to save approximately $4.7 million. He said he does not, however, support pay cuts.
"To me, the worst thing you can do to an employee, especially one who doesn't make a whole lot, is cut their pay," Ott said. "People buy cars, have mortgages, and they plan their lives based on their pay. The easiest thing to do is to lay people off, but it's a terrible economy to do that. The in between is the furlough day. And if you cut people's pay, they're still working the same number of days for less money whereas they're not having to come to work that day that you're not paying them for."
The county faces the shortfall because the fiscal year budget is projected in October, but funds for that budget are not collected until almost 10 months later, when property tax bill payments are collected. That means that county officials have to project what the collections will be, and if property values shrink, so does the budget.
"So why hasn't the timing of the collection of revenues been solved? If we don't solve it, we're going to hit this problem again and again and again," said David Hong of the East Cobb Civic Association.
Ott said there are a number of changes that would have to occur along with a shift in collections, such as the issuance of tax anticipation notes in March of each year and setting aside money to do that, which Ott said the county cannot afford to do at this time. And even if the county could afford to do that, it would take up to four years to completely make the shift to a different budgeting process, Ott said. Still, Ott agreed with Hong.
"We need to change it," Ott said.
Ott said County Manager David Hankerson will present a list of recommendations to fill the $31 million gap on April 12, and that the commissioners will likely vote to implement changes sometime in April.
"It can't get carried out for too long because we need to address it now," Ott said.
Some of the options Ott believed to be off the table included completely shutting down Cobb Community Transit. CCT eats away around $13 million of the county's general fund budget each year, but has a $26 million string attached with federal grant money that would need to be repaid if the county shut it down. Ott also thinks that selling off parkland the county has acquired, but perhaps has not yet developed, is also off the table.
The recent passage of a new, 2011 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was also a topic that sometimes popped up in the two-hour meeting, and while Ott defended his vote to place the SPLOST on the March 15 ballot, he said he did not support the SPLOST that was passed. Commissioners voted 4-1 in December to place the four-year, $492 million SPLOST on the ballot, with Goreham dissenting.
"I voted to put the SPLOST on the ballot because I felt it was my responsibility to let the people decide. It's a public referendum, and it's not our right to prevent that from happening. Personally, I voted against the SPLOST. There are just too many wants versus needs," Ott said.
Tuesday night's meeting was also attended by Chairman Tim Lee, Hankerson, several county department heads, former Congressman Bob Barr, former northeast Cobb Commissioner Thea Powell, former chairman candidate Larry Savage and State Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta).