The commissioners are now considering more tax increases on top of the $492 million SPLOST, or drastic spending cuts, or some combination of the two.
In December, the county said the shortfall for this year was about $24 million. Continued excessive spending for the last four months has grown the shortfall to the $31 million. If the county had addressed this in December, it would have had nine months to manage a much smaller deficit. But obviously, that would have doomed the SPLOST referendum.
On Friday, the MDJ reported details of the budget and tax proposals by Commission Chairman Tim Lee that the commissioners will consider on April 12.
* Close 13 of Cobb County's 17 libraries indefinitely
* Close three senior centers
* Close the Mable House Amphitheater, two pools, and have large cutbacks for parks
* Across-the-board 3.5 percent cutbacks for all other departments, including public safety
* For this year, $16 million in one-time savings for postponing or canceling various purchases, and tapping several reserve funds.
* Even with all of the above, this plan also includes a half mill property tax increase.
Since this plan relies so heavily on one-time items and tapping reserves, it does very little to lay a foundation for solving the projected shortfall in next year's budget.
Of course, our libraries are taking massive cuts. I was astounded at how tiny the projected savings are from closing 13 of our 17 libraries. The proposed budget seems excessively Draconian with regard to widely-utilized, valued services, and does not address our real excessive spending problems.
Reportedly, there is another alternative that would do the one-time savings but not make other spending cuts and increase property taxes by two mills.
If the commissioners refuse to get serious about responsibly cutting excessive spending, two mills will only get us to September 2011. Later this year, there would need to be at least an additional two-mill increase, and still another increase at the end of 2012. And again, all of these millage rate increases will be in addition to the $492 million in SPLOST taxes for additional amenities that we cannot afford.
Cobb County is going to have to recognize the economic realities of 2011, and eliminate its excessive spending. We cannot imitate the State of Illinois and try to tax our way out of this problem. We have to adjust our spending to the economic realities of 2011.
As an example, using Commissioner Bob Ott's suggestion of five furlough days for all county employees and exempting all "on-the-street" police officers and firefighters, the county would save considerably more than the proposed revised budget says we would save by completely closing 13 libraries. Meanwhile, the county could reduce operating hours at all of the libraries and still achieve some savings, without completely decimating the library system.
As another example, Ott has been pointing out for months that Cobb has had an alleged official hiring freeze since 2007. Yet the county continues to pay for the costs of advertising for open, non-critical positions, and routinely continues to hire people to fill those positions. Cobb could achieve massive savings this year, and in future years, by simply adhering to its already existing hiring freeze.
If the county already has a prohibition against paying overtime, except for public safety emergencies, could we save perhaps as much as $1 million per year if all departments actually adhered to this requirement?
Cobb County needs to eliminate a lot of unnecessary spending. That would eliminate the need to decimate our library system, and provide a better foundation for resolving the already identified budget gaps for 2012 and 2013.
We cannot tax our way out of this problem. The half mill for the Fire Fund is defensible. Beyond that half mill, Cobb County has to recognize the economic realities of 2011, and responsibly reduce spending accordingly.
I also recommend that the commissioners make it clear that SPLOST spending must be prioritized to spend only on true necessities first, and delay any spending on non-necessities until such time that Cobb County can sustain those services without any additional tax increases.
Ron Sifen of Vinings is former president of the Vinings Homeowners Association and former president of the Cobb Civic Coalition.