The meeting was intended to inform voters about projects that may be funded by a potential 1 percent special purpose local option sales tax.
About 100 people attended the event at the East Cobb Senior Center off Sandy Plains Road.
Birrell was quizzed by Ron Sifen of Vinings, president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition, and Tricia Clements, the group’s secretary.
Sifen mentioned Lee’s announcement he had moved a $100 million earmark for bus rapid transit from the “Tier 1” SPLOST list to “Tier 2,” meaning the project would only be funded if tax collections exceed projections.
The initial draft list included a $100 million line item for Lee’s proposed half billion BRT project. The amount was revised to $78 million before Lee moved the BRT down to “Tier 2,” where the earmark for the transit line now stands at $72.5 million, according to county spokesman Robert Quigley.
Sifen said he predicted Lee would make this decision because the existing SPLOST, which expires in December 2015, is exceeding projections.
“This SPLOST is going to collect close to $100 million more than the $750 million that they’re claiming it’s going to raise,” Sifen said.
He suggested Lee knows it, too, which is why Lee moved his BRT proposal into the Tier 2 list.
“All of a sudden, the $100 million magically appears for Tier 2,” Sifen said.
Jim Pehrson, the county’s finance director, estimates a six-year SPLOST would collect $750 million. Pehrson said he based his projections on existing conditions, not on the new $672 million Atlanta Braves stadium and accompanying $400 million mixed-use development that plan to open in 2017.
“We’re conservative with our estimates,” Pehrson said on why he left the development out.
Sifen said he didn’t realize the Braves development wasn’t included in the $750 million SPLOST projection.
“I didn’t even include that,” Sifen said. “So you could easily be adding another $20 or $30 million on top of what we’ve already got.”
Clements, a resident of Birrell’s northeast Cobb district, also emphasized the existing SPLOST collecting more than originally projected.
“And the way things are going right now, it’s looking like this new 2016 SPLOST is going to also collect more than what they project,” she said. “Before they put this to a vote before the public they need to tell us what they’re going to do with that overage. Otherwise who knows where it’s going to go?”
Another resident in attendance was Jan Barton of east Cobb, a retired project manager for IBM, who also takes a dim view of the surplus a new SPLOST would bring in.
“As revenues go up, as home values increase, they’re going to have a slush fund for all their cronies, and you’re not going to know what’s happening,” Barton said.
Birrell made it clear she does not support Lee including the BRT line item on the SPLOST list, regardless of what tier he puts it in. Commissioners are scheduled to adopt the list July 22.
“I do not think BRT should be on this list,” Birrell said, noting she planned to speak with Lee about removing it.
Lee was not in attendance.
“I would support the SPLOST list without BRT, and there’s some other things I want to adjust, too,” Birrell said.
Birrell: No ‘set policy’ for surplus
Birrell addressed concerns over what to do if SPLOST revenues come in over projections.
“Unfortunately or fortunately, we’ve never had the problem with SPLOST before of it overreaching the anticipated projections, so we don’t have a set policy in place on how it would be distributed other than once Tier 1 has been issued and there’s money left over then it would automatically go to Tier 2, but how those are prioritized or distributed by district or by department or whatever I think the commissioners would have to decide and vote on that,” Birrell said. “We don’t have anything in place for the 2011 SPLOST and it’s already over projections.”
Carol Brown, president of Canton Road Neighbors, said she attended the meeting to learn more about the proposed projects to determine whether she will support the tax, which would go before voters in November.
“I recognize that many of the projects are needed by the county, and I want to take my time to review the list, and I will make my decision a little bit later on,” Brown said.
Brown shared her thoughts on Lee’s BRT proposal.
“I think because so many of the people that are the most politically active in Cobb are opposed to it, it should probably not be on the list,” Brown said.
And yet, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for some form of transit along the Cobb Parkway corridor, she said.
Judy Renault, who is retired from Lucent Technologies, Inc. and lives in Birrell’s district, said she initially attended the meeting convinced she would vote against the proposed SPLOST.
“I’m tired of taxes being raised, and I was looking forward to SPLOST going away in 2015 and lowering our taxes back down,” Renault said.
Yet after talking with county staff about what projects would be paid for, she changed her mind.
“They knew so much; they knew the budgets. T hey knew how it was all appropriated, so now I trust my county government again,” Renault said.
Even so, she is still not a fan of Lee’s BRT proposal.
“I don’t think that’s going to solve our problems,” Renault said. “It’s sort of like when everybody wanted light rail, light rail, light rail. Well, we don’t have the ridership to make it pay for itself, so the way they’re doing this one, my gut told me this isn’t going to solve our problems. We need to rethink this.”