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.