Last Wednesday evening Cobb County government held a wide-ranging one-hour town hall meeting about the three cityhood initiatives that will be on the ballot May 24 (East Cobb, Lost Mountain and Vinings) plus one that is not yet scheduled for a vote (Mableton).
The topics covered included the effects on police and fire response times in the event cities are formed, whether taxes would be increased, and how existing and planned parks will be handled in the event of cityhood, among other questions.
A hefty portion of the meeting was taken up with questions on how the decision by East Cobb cityhood proponents to form their own police and fire departments will affect those services.
Cobb County Communications Director Ross Cavitt opened the meeting with an explanation of why it was being held.
“The county government is not directly involved in these particular cityhood proposals, but we have been getting a lot of questions about them, and wanted to answer some of those questions,” he said.
Questions were taken from emails Cobb residents had sent to an address provided by the county, and from note cards from people who attended the meeting in person.
Police and Fire
One of the most controversial decisions by cityhood advocates was the plan of East Cobb proponents to add the expensive and critical police and fire departments to its list of city services.
Cobb Finance Director Bill Volckmann was the first member of city staff to bring up the cost of shifting the service, as he spoke on the financial impact of cityhood to the county.
The table below shows which services the proposed cities plan to pick up.
“The city of East County is proposing police fire and 911 services,” Volckmann said. “And with those services do come a financial impact.”
“So we have two slides that we’re going to go over with you today the revenue impact to the county as well as any expenditure savings that would come to the county as well. So with the proposed services for each of the proposed services that we just showed you, starting with the city of East Cobb, it would have an adverse impact or negative impact to the county’s revenues of roughly $7.8 million to the general fund and $13.9 million to the fire fund,” he said, “this city being unique as the only one offering public safety services.”
He said East Cobb was also the only city planning to take on emergency 911 services, for an overall impact to the county’s budget of $23 million.
Since Lost Mountain, Mableton and Vinings are not proposing the expensive and high-impact public safety services, their overall budget impacts are less. See the table below:
The Mableton and Vinings proposals also propose raising revenue from a hotel and motel tax, which would impact the county government’s current collection of those taxes.
Cavitt asked Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Lisa Cupid what the numbers presented by Volckmann would mean for the county.
“Well, being on the Board, when we see financial impact, we tend to equate it as far as the millage is concerned, because that’s how we’re able to help pay for a lot of our general fund services,” Cupid said. “And so I believe there is both the general fund and fire fund impact that would be realized if this moves forward from a general fund perspective would be about 0.7 mills.”
“And then a fire fund impact which would equate to about 0.38 mills to our county millage. But needless to say, there is going to be a financial impact at the end of the day.”
“And certainly we recognize there are some savings by cities providing services,” Cupid said. “But they’re also just uniformity of services that the county is going to provide, whether there’s a city or not, that we will still need to cover.”
And something that I think is not reflected in these numbers is the financial impact of the coordination that would be needed to work with all of these cities,” she said. “And these are quite unique compared to our current cities that are full cities. But these are referred to as “city light”, because they’re only providing just a fraction of the array of services that a full city can provide.”
Why did the cityhood votes move so quickly?
Cavitt said one of the most frequently ask questions bout the cityhood votes is “Why is the county doing this?”
He said that the county did not initiate the placement of the cityhood initiatives on the ballot.
Cupid agreed, and said there were a lot of questions about why it is moving so fast as well.
“That’s just the way it went through the legislature,” she said. “And it’s really kind of kept us a little bit off-balance, and we were trying to figure out the effects on county government as well, just because it has moved so fast.”
“So we anticipated that if the cityhood proposals were to move forward that they will be on the November ballot,” she said “But we’re well aware that it moved very quickly for this legislative session. And now at least three of the four cities being proposed will be on the May ballot.”
How will cityhood affect the existing parks?
Parks Director Michael Brantley was asked to talk about how cityhood would affect existing programs at parks within the limits of any new cites that are approved.
“That’s one of the questions that we get pretty frequently at the parks department,” he said.
“Just looking at the feasibility studies, there’s not a lot of operational ideas of how the department is going to be created and how it’s going to function,” he said. “So that’s one of the things that we looked at. A lot of the feasibility studies actually said that the cities may run very similar to the county.”
“So we actually looked at that and hope that those programs sort of at least crossover a little bit,” said Brantley. “But we can’t guarantee that those programs will still be there.”
There’s a multitude of ways to run a city or county recreation department,” he said. “And it’s just gonna be one of the ways that they decide as a city to do that.”
Did the county hire a lobbyist to work against the cityhood proposals?
Cavitt brought up the question of whether the county hired a lobbyist to work against the cityhood proposals.
Cupid said that while a lobbyist was hired to represent the county at the legislative session to address a “myriad of issues,” the lobbyist was not told to take a position on the cityhood initiatives, as the county itself hasn’t taken one.
“We just knew that in dealing with cityhood, redistricting and the dozens of other bills at the state that they were contemplating … that we couldn’t do this alone,” she said.
Zoning and the preservation of suburban character
Community Development Director Jessica Guinn talked about an issue that comes up often in connection with the proposed cities about whether the new unified development code will change the nature of the county from suburban to high density.
Guinn said, “So we recognize that Cobb County has a broad range of development types and lifestyles. And we want to ensure that that’s protected throughout the county; that the quality of life is preserved moving forward.”
Guinn said she had heard rumors circulating that medium to high-density development was planned for West Cobb in the Lost Mountain area.
“That’s absolutely not what’s planned and what’s intended,” she said. “So I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”
She said that if a new city forms, it will set up its own zoning procedures and maps, but initially until the city gets its zoning department underway, the county zoning maps will stay in place.
For more of the discussion watch the video below
Other things were discussed at the meeting, including:
- How the transition between county police services and East Cobb would take place
- Whether response times for police and fire would become slower for East Cobb residents
- Whether having cities with council members representing fewer residents would create more reponsive government
- Whether taxes will go up
- The role of franchise fees in the proposed cities.
For these and more, watch the video embedded below.