MARIETTA — In a wide-ranging interview with the Marietta Daily Journal this week, Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid discussed her transition from serving as a member of the county’s governing board to leading it, early successes, an upcoming sales tax referendum and renewed efforts to create a new crop of cities in Cobb County.
In November, Cupid, a Democrat, unseated Republican Mike Boyce in the race to chair the county’s Board of Commissioners, the five-member body that oversees the operations of county government.
Prior to her taking office as county chairwoman, Cupid served eight years on the board as the commissioner representing south Cobb.
Cupid is the Board of Commissioners’ first Democrat chair in almost 40 years. She is also the first woman and the first African American to lead the board.
On the campaign trail, she put equity at the center of her campaign: equity for the county’s four districts but also for members of the board itself, blaming often contentious meetings, in part, on her predecessors’ top-down management style.
“As a commissioner, I felt like I played my part as a commissioner — to be an advocate for the citizens of District Four,” she said. “But as a chair, I find myself feeling more as a conductor than playing a part. … I may know my policy bent, but I want to ensure that each person that’s sitting on that dais has the ability to contribute.”
Nevertheless, Cupid shared her personal take on several issues percolating in the county, including one that can be traced, in part, to comments she made on the campaign trail concerning district equity.
At a campaign forum in December, Cupid said more affordable housing is needed but cannot be concentrated solely in Cobb’s low-income and majority-minority communities.
“We’ve had some challenges in the district where we’ve had affordable housing introduced, and more stable Black communities have said, ‘Yes, we think this should be considered, but this should be considered for all of Cobb. All of Cobb needs to share this burden in how we address development,’” she said.
A trio of Republican lawmakers recently filed a bill that would ask some 70,000 west Cobb residents whether they want to create their own city, dubbed the city of Lost Mountain.
The “city-lite,” as the lawmakers have dubbed it, would offer few services. Chief among them, however, is control of zoning and land use decisions.
“There’s been candidates campaigning countywide that have clearly said, ‘my campaign’s based on more industrial in west Cobb, higher-density development, … (a) countywide transit focus,’” state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said. “It’s absolutely within someone’s right to have that vision. Is that the vision for west Cobb? We believe the answer is no.”
Cupid said their fear that she would turn the last patch of semi-rural area in the county into a sea of milquetoast subdivisions or a booming urban area are misguided.
“I would ask people to think a little bit more critically about their reaction and response,” she said. “If south Cobb can’t be the only one to shoulder something, does that necessarily mean anyone should shoulder that?
“On this board for eight years, I have been mindful of the unique character of west Cobb and have supported efforts to help maintain that character,” she continued. “If they were aware of how I’ve served, they would know that. When it comes to land use and zoning, a lot of those decisions hinge off of the interest of the commissioner for that area. And so, if an area has experienced more growth, less growth, more than likely that has been driven by that district commissioner, who has a lot of sway in how the board responds to a zoning matter.”
At a retreat in January, commissioners agreed they would like to put a referendum on a new, transit- and transportation-focused special-purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, before county voters.
This week, Cupid said the goal is to have county residents vote on the so-called “mobility SPLOST” in November 2022.
Cobb is one of 13 counties in the metro area that can impose a 1%, 30-year sales tax for transit under House Bill 930, which became law in 2018. It can also impose an additional 1%, 5-year sales tax for transportation projects under HB 170, which passed in 2015. Both taxes can be less than a penny, or “fractional,” and can run for fewer than 30 and five years, respectively.
Currently Cobb’s sales tax is 6%: 4% goes to the state, 1% goes to the county’s existing general-purpose SPLOST and the final penny is for an education SPLOST collected by the Cobb and Marietta school districts.
The size and duration of the tax and the projects a mobility SPLOST would fund will likely be decided after the county completes its Comprehensive Transportation Plan later this year. A series of town halls seeking feedback for the plan will begin in April and end in June.
Cupid said she would prefer asking voters to approve a one-penny tax to fund transit projects. But has yet to decide how large she thinks the tax funding transportation projects should be.
“Because Cobb County has already done so much by way of roadway, and (because) we have so much opportunity by way of transit, I think if there’s anywhere to moderate that (tax), it could be in the transportation projects,” she said.
She said a recent survey of county residents proves there is an interest in new transit options. She has personally heard people say they would like the county to build trains connecting Cobb to MARTA’s heavy rail network.
But heavy rail is expensive, and a rail line could limit new transit options elsewhere in the county.
“We have to look at how (transit projects) integrate the entire county and be very mindful that, if we consider those heavier types of rail, that it’s just going to limit that,” she said. “If it does, we’d have to probably do more to make the case as to why all of the eggs need to be in that one basket (of rail).”
The board’s commissioners gave hints as to what they might support at the January retreat.
East Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson said she thinks her community could support a 1% tax. But she wanted to see proposals funded by a 1.5% tax, to show constituents what’s possible and determine what appetite, if any, they may have for a more ambitious initiative.
North Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said she was opposed to a new tax above 1%. But she was willing to put more of that penny on the dollar toward mass transit than transportation, as the latter will receive hundreds of millions of dollars through the county’s general SPLOST through 2028.
The county’s existing general SPLOST, set to expire at the end of this year, reached its goal of collecting $750 million over six years earlier this year. Excess revenues the tax will collect through the remainder of the year were used to fund a handful of initiatives Cupid cited when asked to list the board’s successes four months into her term as chair.
Among them was a one-time, 3% bonus for county employees. At the January retreat, department heads told commissioners they were dealing with high turnover, with employees leaving for greener pastures.
Figuring out how to better retain experienced employees will figure heavily in upcoming negotiations over next year’s budget. In the meantime, the bonus was a way to show employees the board has their back, Cupid said.
“We’re hoping that we encourage our employees to know that we do value them, that we do recognize Cobb’s success … (that) it was because of their contributions to this organization,” she said.
Excess SPLOST revenue funded other things as well. The board used it to reimburse the county, which had fronted the money for a couple SPLOST projects as it waited for the promised revenue to come in, and the board was able to put other excess funds toward capital maintenance, another issue department heads cited at the retreat.
Cupid touched briefly on the recent controversy over Cobb County School District’s accreditation. The three Democrats on the district’s Board of Education sent a letter to the district’s accrediting agency asking for its help resolving their differences with their Republican colleagues. The accrediting agency also received a number of other complaints from district residents, some of which cited acrimony on the board.
The accrediting agency, Cognia, recently announced it would conduct a special review, the likes of which has led to the full or partial revocation of accreditation in other metro Atlanta school districts in the past. Loss of accreditation — though not guaranteed or, even, likely — could have a cascading effect in the district, lowering property values and driving away businesses.
Cupid said she was hesitant to respond to inquiries about Cognia’s review immediately after it was announced.
“I’m serving on this board for eight years, perhaps in a comparable role to those (school board members) that brought this challenge,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be in a difficult position, where you feel as if you can’t influence what’s going on but yet you’re charged to serve those within your care.”
She said the consequences of accreditation loss have been made clear enough by others.
“I think (board members) know what’s at stake. For me, what I can do is lend my support as chair,” she continued. “I’m in a unique position where I serve on boards with the superintendent. I’m also in a unique position that I live in the community of some of those board members that have had challenges. I’m here to help and support, if there’s opportunity to bring them together.”