ATLANTA — Legislation calling for the formation of a city of East Cobb cleared a committee in the Georgia House Thursday despite concerns raised by representatives of Cobb County.
The Republican-controlled House Governmental Affairs Committee approved House Bill 841 mostly along party lines and sent it on to the House Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.
The bill calls for a referendum this November to let East Cobb residents vote on whether to form a city.
Supporters of cityhood told committee members their goal is to create a level of government as close to them as possible.
“This is not a criticism of Cobb [County] or its leadership,” said Craig Chapin, a member of the Committee for East Cobb Cityhood. “Where we’re coming from is an ability to have local control over issues that are closest to us.”
But Cobb County Commission Chairman Lisa Cupid and county department heads who accompanied her to the committee meeting said cityhood for east Cobb would have financial and service impacts residents should know about before they vote.
While the legislation calls for the new city to provide zoning and code enforcement services, other related services including business licensing and permitting would stay with the county, Cupid said. That could mean longer wait times, she said.
“Without having these included in the city of East Cobb, there’s dependency on the county to cooperate with the city,” she said.
Cobb Public Safety Director Randy Crider said fire protection in east Cobb could suffer because the proposed city’s fire department would only have two fire stations, compared to six in Marietta and five in Smyrna. Fewer than 1% of fire departments in the country have the level of certification of Cobb’s department, Crider said.
“I’d be curious to know how their residents are going to have a better fire department than the one they currently have,” he said.
Bill Volckmann, Cobb’s chief financial officer, said the rest of Cobb County would lose significant tax revenue from the county’s general fund, fire fund and 911 fund if east Cobb becomes a city.
Some committee members questioned the proposed structure of the East Cobb city government, which calls for six council members who would elect a mayor among themselves rather than let the residents vote.
“As a former mayor, I always like to see the executive branch elected separately from the legislative branch,” said Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica.
But Rep. Matt Dollar, R-east Cobb, the bill’s chief sponsor, said some cities have seen mayors elected by voters independently of city councils become too powerful and try to force their agendas through without consensus.
“I really wanted this to be a true city council,” he said. “The mayor would be first among equals.”
Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said he supported the bill because it would give east Cobb residents a chance to decide the issue for themselves.
“We’re not going to be the final say-so on this,” he said. “The people of this area will vote on whether or not they want to become a city.”
Prior to the hearing, Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson, who represents the area, stepped into the debate after keeping her cards closely held for most of the last year.
In a letter Thursday to the Georgia General Assembly subcommittee considering the proposal, Richardson questioned one of the core assertions of cityhood proponents — that incorporation would lower taxes and stop the alleged urbanization of the area.
“No city in this country,” has succeeded in reducing taxation and density — in fact, she argues, they do the opposite.
Her second point addresses the city’s fiscal feasibility. In November, advocates released a study commissioned from Georgia State University which found the city could operate with a $3 million budget surplus, buoyed by property tax revenues from one of Cobb’s wealthiest enclaves.
At a hearing Wednesday, State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, who is co-sponsoring the proposal, argued residents would get more bang for their buck when it comes to public safety.
“If you’re a resident of east Cobb, you are paying for police who are not patrolling your community,” he said. “You’re going to get a demonstrably better level of service.”
But the commissioner questioned whether the 2.86 mill tax rate proposed in the study would be sufficient to cover those services at a higher standard than they’re currently receiving.
“For example, the tax base would likely require the use of part-time employees such as firefighters, or special public safety teams, meaning there would have to be some reliance on unincorporated Cobb to produce the community’s desired quality of service,” she said. “Without such answers to structure, I can only say that the city’s services may be feasible but inadequate without increasing the tax rate.”
Dollar, meanwhile, told the MDJ he was pleased to see the bill advance. Following its passage by the House Governmental Affairs committee, it will advance to the Rules Committee for further consideration.
“It went better, or as well as, any cityhood bill effort I’ve ever seen in 20 years,” he said. “We’ve gotten incredible feedback from the community, and I think the bipartisan passage today … that’s kind of representative and evident of how much support (there is) in the community of east Cobb.”