MARIETTA — Cobb commissioners approved Chairman Mike Boyce’s proposed property tax increase of 1.7 mills by a 3-2 vote after more than two hours of public and commissioner comment.
Boyce proposed a fiscal 2019 budget of $966.1 million. Its proposed general fund budget of $454.1 million included a general fund property tax hike from 6.76 mills to 8.46 mills. This increase, coupled with the rising digest, would generate $283.5 million in property tax revenue, an increase of about $65 million over fiscal 2018.
He found support for the higher millage, as expected, from Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who had advocated for the tax hike and expressed a desire in past months for an even higher increase to support county services, as well as Commissioner Bob Weatherford, who in past weeks had been a softer “yes” in favor of some increase. While Weatherford previously said he had hoped to see the county make cuts to spending to reduce the increase, he gave his support to Boyce’s full measure.
“The chairman’s proposal of 1.7 (mills) gets us where we need to be in the next five years. It’s a restoration budget,” Weatherford said. “I think it’s time to invest in Cobb’s future — I think it’s time for all of us to step up so our kids and our grandkids will have a better place here than when we got here, and my goal has always been to make Cobb a better place than when I got here, and to do that, you have to invest in Cobb’s future.”
Weatherford’s vote came a night after the Republican incumbent was defeated in the GOP runoff by challenger Keli Gambrill for his District 1 seat, which covers northwest Cobb. While commissioners normally would have met Tuesday night, the meeting date coinciding with the runoff led Boyce to postpone the meeting by a day.
“After I lost the election last night, I reflected and said ‘What did I do wrong?’ I decided it’s what I did right that people don’t like,” Weatherford said, to applause from some in the audience. “I made the hard choices that I did what I said I was going to do. I stood up for the county.”
All five commissioners had made hard choices in the monthslong budget process, Weatherford added.
“The slings and arrows we have endured, we shouldn’t have to do. There should be some respect out there. … I’ve been challenged to a fist fight, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been called every name in the book — why? And I’m not alone,” Weatherford said. “Whether you’re for or against this, people, you need to start respecting these people up here, because if you think we’re up here for the money, you’re crazy. I have done this for 16 years, and the only thing I’m running for now is the hills, but I will not leave this county worse off than when I got here, so I completely support this.”
Weatherford’s “16 years” comment alluded to his time as an Acworth alderman, a role he held before seeking his commission seat. He will serve the remainder of his four-year term through December.
Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Bob Ott voted against the increase.
“Before this board is a budget not begun from cuts or reductions in duplications of services, but instead it began from a $21 million infusion of one-time money. Added on top of this is are more employees, bloated contingency funds and additional library hours, which adds more personnel,” Ott said.
Birrell’s vote against the 1.7 mills came after she had offered a compromise — a “more reasonable” 1.2 to 1.3-mill increase, adding that she could not support Boyce’s proposed “arbitrary raise.” But the proposal was never officially brought before her fellow commissioners as Weatherford went on to voice his support for Boyce’s proposal, ultimately providing the deciding vote.
“There’s been a lot of talk of how we got here. In 2016, all members of this board, with the exception of the chairman, voted to roll back the millage, and every one of us on here agreed to that, it was a 5-0 vote, and we’ve all said we wish we hadn’t,” Birrell said. “It was a mistake.”
Birrell and Ott also voted in the negative on Boyce’s budget, which passed by a 3-2 vote.
RESIDENTS WEIGH IN
Nearly four dozen citizens addressed commissioners for close to two hours on the tax hike, with a majority in favor of the increase but a significant number in opposition.
“My family has enjoyed the services of libraries, parks and aquatics centers and arts centers. I am here today with others who value these services,” said Shelley Callico, a west Cobb resident and proponent of the increase. “As a fiscal conservative, I have never in my life actively campaigned or voted for a tax increase, (but) I am standing here today to ask that you vote for the 1.7 millage rate increase so we can preserve our quality of life in Cobb County.”
But Pamela Reardon, a Realtor and first vice chair of the Cobb County Republican Party, said proponents of the tax increase had been the target of the county’s “media campaign that you have to cut libraries, parks, senior citizens’ facilities and animal control” if the millage rate increase was not approved.
“Everyone has to understand that these facilities are not going to be cut — it was just a campaign to get you up and arms about it,” Reardon said. “There seems to be a mysterious hole that has never really been explained, and the numbers keep changing magically.”
The crowd remained civil during most of the public comment, though Boyce admonished attendees who interrupted one of the final speakers of the night.
“One thing you may not be aware of is how deep-seated and unpopular this tax increase is among the citizens of Cobb County,” said Lance Lamberton, chairman and founder of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, which drew a response of “No” by several in the crowd. The interruption led to the rebuke from the chairman, who then apologized and allowed Lamberton to resume after restarting his three-minute time limit that all speakers had been granted.
“I don’t think that what you’re hearing at hearings like this is representative of the popular opinion regarding this tax increase,” continued Lamberton.
During a break in the meeting following the vote, Boyce said he was relieved his millage rate was approved. He had told those in attendance he believed the new rate would sustain Cobb “well into the future.
“Maintaining this lifestyle in Cobb will be an investment for you, your children and your grandchildren,” he said.