By Mark Woolsey
Cobb County Commissioner JoAnn Birrell has been a steady workhorse and a tireless advocate for small business, veterans, public safety employees and others during ten years on the Cobb County Board of Commissioners.
Her service milestone was recognized in May when she was the centerpiece of a surprise recognition ceremony during a regular meeting of the board. Birrell took her oath office for a third term in December of 2018.
She represents District 3, which includes the Northeast and North-Central portions of the county.
A 25-year resident of the county and veteran of the corporate world, she has served the community in many other capacities as well, including as a past chair of Keep Cobb Beautiful.
Birrell addressed her record of service and some issues at hand as she responded to emailed questions from the Courier.
Q. What are the most notable accomplishments in your career as a commissioner? What commission decisions made during that time are you most proud of? Any regrets?
A. My most notable accomplishments are: Initiating Keep it in Cobb, How to Do Business with Cobb, Zoning 101, Superior Pets for Patriotic Vets, Vietnam Veterans Certificate Program In Cobb, Korean War Veterans Recognition in Cobb, bringing the Army Field Band Soldiers Chrorus to Cobb County, the Cobb Veterans Memorial and approving steps and grade for public safety. The decisions I am most proud of: Never voting to raise the millage rate and bringing the Braves to Cobb County. I regret furloughing employees in 2011.
Q. At least so far, Cobb appears to have avoided the kind of financial crisis other government jurisdictions have experienced as the result of the pandemic. What do you attribute that to and what are the prospects for it continuing?
A. I attribute it to our leadership of directors, department heads and public safety staff who, throughout the pandemic, kept us safe and went through all the proper protocols for COVID of sanitizing, social distancing, etc. Also instrumental was partnering with the experts at Public Health, State of Georgia and WellStar Health Systems to create a safe environment for employees. Again, our leadership at the top and our employees stepped up to keep things going smoothly during the pandemic and continue to provide excellent service day in and day out.
Q. What’s the financial state of county government generally and how would you perhaps like to see it improved? What would be your stance on voting for a tax increase?
A. Considering we are still coming out of a pandemic; our financial state is very good. Our tax digest is up 5.5%; however, we have a lot of requests from all departments and we are working to keep the budget flat this year. I have never voted for a millage increase in the past, although there have been two that passed in my 10- year tenure.
Q. What’s your assessment of how county government responded to COVID?
A. I couldn’t ask for a better response to COVID than the one we received from our EMA director and her team, county manager, employees, and our public health leaders. All were on top of this from day one and kept everything going without a hitch.
Q. You moved for a mechanism to allow issuance of park bonds a few years ago-a program that had sat idle since voters OKd it in 2008. How do you feel that has worked out in terms of new parks including Mabry, which I believe is in your district?
A. The parks pond program was a huge success. I have one new passive park on Ebenezer Road (Ebenezer Downs) as a result, which is on the 2022 SPLOST list to be developed.
Mabry Park was purchased as a result of the 2006 Parks Bond Program and was a project listed on the 2016 SPLOST for development. It was in District 3 initially when we broke ground, but later moved to District 2 with redistricting.
Q. What other improvements have been made in your district in the past ten years that are gratifying? Not to put words in your mouth, but Canton Road? Is there anything you’re pushing for moving forward?
A. In 2013, the county identified 38 properties on the Redevelopment list. 17 were in my district and 13 of those were on Canton Road. Sprayberry Crossing was also on this list. At the end of 2019 pre-COVID, the only two properties remaining were Canton Road and Sprayberry Crossing. As you are aware, Sprayberry Crossing was approved on 6/15/21 after being deemed a blighted property and an eyesore for 25 years.
Q. There was obviously a major change in the composition of the commission in January. How has the relationship been between you and the new members played out and what, if any sticking points have there been?
A. It is definitely a first with 5 women commissioners. I have to say the doors have been open and communication has been the key to working together.
Q. You have worked to boost business with “Cobb First” business programs. Do you feel that has been a worthwhile effort and why?
A. Keep it in Cobb and our How to do Business with Cobb County were a huge success pre-COVID. We had high numbers of attendance at our seminars and have successfully continued them virtually for the past year.
Q. What are your plans for the future? Is another term in the offing after your current stint on the commission ends?
A. My future plans include breaking ground by the end of the year on the two SPLOST projects in District 3 that remain on the 2016 SPLOST list (Police Precinct 6 and Gritters Library).
As you are aware our lines will be redrawn this year, and I don’t know what District 3 will look like at this time. Next year, I will tell you what’s in my future as far as another term.
Q. I know you had a business career before entering politics. Have you ever looked at your adult working life as a whole and thought ‘How in the heck did I get here?’
A. Not really. I was ready to move from the corporate world and wanted to take on the challenge of being a public servant and working with the public to better my community. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve. Thank you and God bless.