Lee defends budget plan to transfer water funds
by Jon Gillooly
September 05, 2012 12:39 AM | 4188 views | 33 33 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb County Board of Commissioners <br> (MDJ File Photo)
Cobb County Board of Commissioners
(MDJ File Photo)
slideshow
MARIETTA — County Chairman Tim Lee on Tuesday responded to Southeast Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott’s criticism about the fiscal year 2013 budget transferring Cobb Water System revenue into the county’s general fund by saying it all has to do with economic development.

Lee explained his position to the Journal following a Tuesday public hearing on the proposed budget during which no one from the public spoke.

Present were Lee and Commissioners Woody Thompson, JoAnn Birrell and Helen Goreham. Ott was absent because of a flight commitment with his Delta job.

Last week Ott expressed disappointment that the proposed budget would transfer $20.6 million from the Cobb Water System to the general fund.

The argument against transferring the funds is that if they were not transferred, the county wouldn’t have to raise water rates on customers, which it plans to do in January, or at least not raise rates as high as planned, according to Ott.

But Lee said when it comes to achieving his goal of being as competitive as possible when it comes to economic development, expenses need to be as balanced as possible.

“We’ve got the second lowest water rates, soon to be the lowest — as soon as Fulton County gets done doing what they need to address their sewer problem — in the region,” Lee said. “And we also have the lowest millage rate. If I didn’t transfer that money I’d have to go up another mill. Sure my water rates would go down, but now I don’t look as attractive because I’ve got a higher millage rate, but a really low water rate, and it’s just not a good balance. By doing this I look good in both places.”

Ott is aware of the argument that failure to make the transfer to the general fund would result in a millage rate increase.

He said he simply wants residents to know that when their water rates increase, it’s not because the Cobb Water System is making capital improvements, but because $20.6 million has been scooped out of the Water System to help pay for the general fund.

Moreover, a long-term reliance on an annual $20 million cash infusion from the Water System to the general fund is not the conservative approach to take, he said. Cutting spending, not raiding one fund to balance another, is the fiscally responsible approach, he said.

Lee said preparing the FY13 budget, which is expected to be approved on Sept. 11, has been “definitely easier,” than working on last year’s or the year before.

“When I first got in office two years ago we were looking at a huge projected decrease in our digest, and we had to make some one-time cuts,” Lee said. “We made a 10 percent across-the-board operating cut, we gave furlough days, all to get it balanced that first year. Then we made the hard decision about the millage that we couldn’t do the next year. We couldn’t do the 2012 budget utilizing that same tactic because it just wasn’t a sustainable solution.”

Lee and commissioners Goreham and Thompson therefore raised the millage rate. Lee’s reasoning was that he had a $25 million budget deficit, an amount more than the parks and library departments combined.

This year is different, Lee said, because “we have a sustainable funding source and because the digest is projected to be flat. We’ve got a year behind us working on the Citizens Oversight Committee recommendations and the staff working hard to be as efficient as possible to make sure they keep costs down. Costs have gone up. Fuel costs have gone up. A lot of things have gone up. But we still added positions, added costs to our general budget and still kept a flat budget, so the headline here is despite rising costs, despite the desire to continue to support public safety as a priority, we’ve been able to through increasing our effectiveness maintain a flat budget.”

The proposed general fund budget would see a drop of 0.04 percent from the current fiscal year. A budget of $321.8 million has been proposed, which is down slightly from the $321.9 million adopted for 2012.

Even so, the budget proposes hiring 43 new people.

The position of public safety director, which was first held by the late Robert Hightower in 1993, was created as a way to tie the county’s fire, police and 911 operations together. The position became vacant when Mickey Lloyd resigned the post in July 2010 amid claims he had embellished his military career. The county’s fire chief, Sam Heaton, stepped in to serve as the interim director.

Lee said that position was left permanently unfilled while the Citizens Oversight Committee conducted a review of the county, ultimately finding that it was a position that was needed. County manager David Hankerson plans to bring the Board of Commissioners a recommendation to fill that seat possibly in the next 60 to 90 days, Lee said.

“We intend to look everywhere for the best candidate both within and outside,” Lee said.

Similarly, the position of deputy director of the Cobb Emergency Management Agency became vacant when Lloyd’s wife, Lanita Lloyd, resigned in March 2011 following claims that she made employees feel “belittled” and perform duties unrelated to their jobs. The county’s 911 director, Tony Wheeler, stepped in to serve as interim director for that position, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.

The last time staff received raises was in 2008 and they aren’t included in the proposed budget either. Lee said there just isn’t the money.

“I would be naïve to suggest that there isn’t restlessness (among county staff), but we’ve got to deal with the reality of the funds,” Lee said.

Just as county employees won’t be getting raises in the immediate future, nor does Lee believe last year’s millage increase will be reduced until the digest starts to increase.

“We don’t see that happening for another three or four years, so unless something positive happens in the digest size or we discover a huge savings (it won’t be done) — not and provide the same level of services that folks have come to expect. If folks didn’t want libraries I could find it tomorrow. If they didn’t want parks I could find it tomorrow,” Lee said.

The new hires, some of which are already in place, are a mixture of positions funded in the 2011 SPLOST, recommendations of the Citizens Oversight Committee and filling positions that previously lacked funding. The 2013 budget shows Cobb with 4,432 employees, up from 4,388 in the current fiscal year budget.

The 43 positions, which amount to a cost of $1.1 million, are broken into four categories. In the public safety category is the above mentioned EMA deputy director, who would receive a base salary of $56,597. Also proposed is a fire captain ($59,468 base salary), three fire driver/engineers ($44,366 each), 15 firefighters ($40,186 each), two police lieutenants ($51,293 each), a police major ($65,499), a police sergeant ($44,366), and the previously mentioned public safety agency director ($101,587).

Under the general government category, new hires include one automotive tech ($34,778), one custodian ($21,320), one judicial administrative supervisor ($38,355), two judicial administrative technicians ($25,896), one maintenance tech ($34,778), one property management division manager ($56,597), one public services agency director ($96,803) and one risk analyst ($44,366).

In the public works category, new hires include a client support analyst ($53,851), two equipment operators ($25,896), a general crew chief ($31,533), three maintenance workers ($23,566 each) and a program division manager ($68,744).

Finally, under the culture and recreation category, one administrative supervisor is called for ($38,355), according to Jim Pehrson, the county’s finance director.

“This budget provides the services most in demand, those we have a duty to provide and our promise to deliver them efficiently,” Lee said. “I believe the public understands what we are doing and is focused on moving forward.”

The county’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
Comments
(33)
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SG68
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September 06, 2012
By the way the City of Marietta does the same thing with Marietta Power revenues.

They subsidize the tax base to the tune of about $10M per year.

Both (Cobb County and Marietta) keep the millage rates in artifially low.
Shifty Funding
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September 05, 2012
Shifting funds hides the true cost of doing our County business. Citizens can become enamored of services, thinking them to be less costly than they really are. They will demand services that they would not otherwise support if they knew the full cost.

Good business practice and quality improvement are both predicated on knowing what the REAL costs of goods and services are. Let's not fool ourselves. If we want a service from government we have to pay for it, but if government chooses to hide the true costs, we will be paying for things we can't afford, and passing up things we might prefer.
Da Crow
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September 05, 2012
Keep'n It Real Cobb County!!
Da Crow!!
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September 05, 2012
Cobb Counties new Motto- Expect the best because we pay our employees LESS!!! SO if you have worked for Cobb County for at least 10yrs, you have not gotten a pay raise since 2008 but your insurance has increased you've been furloughed and you want get a raise until at least 2016.I guess I'm suppose to be thankful I have a job! WHATEVER!! My pay raise might come around next time Timmy is up for Re-Election! Haha good luck with that TIMMY!!!
Kennesaw Resident
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September 06, 2012
I do not work for Cobb County, but also have not gotten a raise since 2008 - in fact I have had a pay cut and my work increased. I get the impression it is okay with Cobb County workers to ask me to pay for them a pay increase even though I have had a pay decrease in the same time period.
FROM TEXAS
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September 05, 2012
Well I would like to thank 1,300 stupid people for voting Taxing Timmy Lee back it already started didn’t take long. 2013 should be a banner year for studies other ways to waste your tax dollars all those cronies need to be paid back; those big signs cost a lot of money. By the way is C W Mathews going to pick up all those Timmy Lee signs or does Cobb DOT get them, he won and still left litter all over the county?
Ksaw
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September 05, 2012
I agree with raising water rates instead of millage rates. It more directly raises "taxes" on those that are renters and not property owners. Better than property owners having to shoulder the entire burden. Sure you could make the argument that property owners paying higher millage will trickle down to renters, but not at a dollar-for-dollar impact that an increase in water rates would do.
Active Citizen
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September 05, 2012
More importantly, churches and other entities that are exempt from property tax, also pay the water rates.
Gringo Bandito
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September 05, 2012
Why should me water rates go up so that we can hire auto techs and janitors? What do they have to do with the water system?

Tim "The Taxman" Lee should be honest and ask for a tax increase if that's what he wants rather than taking the money from the water system which causes the water rates to go up.
Watcher...
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September 05, 2012
Comissar Lee is trying to defend the indefensible!

Sometimes I believe that we are too polite!

The only way that politicians will change is to be publicly confronted, and perhaps humiliated, with questions that may be tough to answer.

It is my intention to do just that!
Active Citizen
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September 05, 2012
Moving monies from a county or city utility is a common practice of local governments that have their own utilities. That is why the law allows it. If it's wrong, it's wrong for all of them and the law should be changed.
Vorant1
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September 05, 2012
I agree, I've seen first hand the questionable practice of pilfering monies from one department into another in Powder Springs.
Gringo Bandito
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September 05, 2012
I agree. The law should be changed so that politicians cannot hide behind this shell game.
Kennesaw Resident
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September 06, 2012
Aboslutely, let's get this law changed!
David Welden
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September 05, 2012
The comments from readers as well as from within the county regarding the water fund transfer clearly illustrate the need for a program to educate all on the mechanics of budget management in the county. If the facts were understood, there would be far less criticism floating around.

Gringo Bandito
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September 05, 2012
Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not budget management.
Cobb Taxpayer
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September 05, 2012
This is not budget or spending management, but revenue mismanagement !
Thanks MDJ!
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September 05, 2012
Your endorsement of this idiot ensured his re-election. So here we are having had our water rates raised so that those "excess funds" can then be transferred to the general fund, and all Lee can think about is how these machinations make him look. Sounds like Lee is taking lessons from the CCSD. Robbing Peter to pay Paul; how nice.

I'm so tired of our county government reminding us of how low our millage rate is! We KNOW - that's why we choose to live here.

I gotta move.
Concerned for Cobb
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September 05, 2012
When will the citizens of Cobb open their eyes to reality. The reality of our County's past leadership maintaining a millage rate that was unable to sustain future economics. The citizens of Cobb reapped the benefits of a low millage rate simply because the leadership at that time were self-absorbed rather than forward thinkers and planners for the future of Cobb. Well, it is what it is. Citizens of Cobb need to take off their blinders and accept reality. The millage has got to be increase to sustain future economics. Chairman Lee is in a difficult position and Ott continues to stir the pot rather than to help problem solve for the future. Support our leadership. Voice our opinions. ...Doesn't mean we all have to agree.
SG68
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September 05, 2012
Don't you think that companies considering Cobb might be more impressed by appropriate spending cuts than playing checkers with revenue from the Water System to artificially keep the millage from increasing?

Whether it is increased water rates or increased millage it is still an INCREASE.

Ott seems to be the only one who recognizes the need for belt tightening to address the budget problem long term.

Lee's solutions are year to year band aids.

W Cobb Conservative
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September 05, 2012
Chairman Lee's comment regarding employee raises is silly. This is simply a question of priorities and the employees are not a priority of this Commission. Politically it's easy to say "we just don't have the money." In reality, employee services are no different from any other commodity or service the county buys. Those costs are higher than 5 years ago. The only reason for not giving employees much needed raises is it's not politically correct. There just isn't any political courage among this commission to do the right thing. This is all about headlines and reelection. Where have all the true leaders gone?
Livid!
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September 05, 2012
I am simply livid! This is just what I need, my water rates raised. Well, I should not be surprised. Why can't Lee try to find ways to help us, we the poor taxpayers, instead of heaping more ways of getting money from us?
Is it the truth?
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September 05, 2012
How does hiding taxes in the water rates fit with the sunshine laws and our right to know what government is doing with our money?

The Chairman's heart is in the right place, but this budget switching is not a fair and forthright process. Let's be known for our integrity as well as our low taxes.
Tim A
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September 05, 2012
Hey RINO. Here is a novel idea. Reduce water rates!!!!
Pat H
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September 05, 2012
What about the street lights funds? Is the county still following the Sam Olens raid on the street lights tax and using it for a slush fund or will we actually be receiving a credit for this money?
Cobb Voter
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September 05, 2012
I feel like we just elected Barack Obama as our Cobb County Commission Chairman
Kennesaw Resident
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September 05, 2012
What do you mean "we?" I didn't vote for Tim Lee. Now, Bob Ott I probably would vote for.
Big Shanty Girl
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September 05, 2012
I demand a recount!
@big shanty girl
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September 05, 2012
Good luck with a recount, the board of elections is so out of their league with innacurate maps, incorrect absentee ballots etc. Eveler and Litchfield are just covering up their inadequacies.
Gringo Bandito
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September 05, 2012
There goes Tim "The Taxman" Lee with another backdoor tax increase.
you clearly
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September 05, 2012
did not read the article. I believe it may have been a little too confusing for you Gringo Bandito.
Cobb Watcher
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September 05, 2012
@you clearly, you clearly did not understand Gringo Bandito's post. Raising water rates is a backdoor tax increase.
Gringo Bandito
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September 05, 2012
You clearly don't understand what the term "backdoor" means.
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