Hyperlocal control on the ballot as voters decide whether to carve three cities from Cobb

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
May 6, 2022

The first week of early voting for the May 24th primary is nearly complete, and many residents of Cobb County are casting their ballots not just to decide who will represent them in state government and Congress, but to choose whether to create a new local government.

Voters in three areas of unincorporated Cobb County can choose to create new cities to join the county’s existing six. Residents of east Cobb, west Cobb and Vinings in south Cobb are set to decide whether to bring on mayors and city councils or continue with the five-member Cobb County Board of Commissioners as their local government representatives.

Pro-cityhood residents say forming a new government will bring people closer to their representatives.

“No. 1 on the list is local representation,” said Scott Sweeney, chairman of the State Board of Education and a member of the East Cobb Cityhood Committee at a Wednesday debate. “Today, in this community, you vote for one commissioner and you vote for one chairperson. That is 40% of the representation of the entire county, only those two people. Conversely, with cityhood, you will have an opportunity to vote for seven of seven people, 100% of the people that will be representing you in this community, and you have an opportunity to elect each and every one of those.”

City advocates say they want to elect local leaders to ensure that high-density developments do not detract from the area’s suburban character. They often point to a line from Cobb Commission Chair Lisa Cupid’s 2022 State of the County address as a warning:

“My assertion that we need to consider housing for everyone has been an impetus for a new city forming because the concern is I am bringing affordable housing next door to you,” she said. “I can tell you that if you want grocery stores next door to you, if you want schools next door to you, if you want a laundromat next door to you, affordable housing is going to have to go somewhere, and we can do what it takes, I know we can do what it takes for us to get there.”

Cobb County was decades ago considered a destination for white Atlantans concerned about desegregation and integration, and it was for a long time considered a conservative bastion. In recent years, an influx of younger and more diverse residents has caused a political shift, ushering a host of Democrats into county offices, including Cupid.

The shift has unsettled the county’s still-sizeable conservative contingent, many of whom say changes such as increased density and an emphasis on expanded transit could ruin the vibe of their communities.

“You step back and look at the density of east Cobb that exists today, it’s pretty fair to argue that there’s not a lot of green space left,” said Craig Chapin, a technology entrepreneur and member of the East Cobb Cityhood Committee. “So when you think about what does density look like over the next 20 years in east Cobb, it’s more like, what does redevelopment look like. And while people will sell properties and buy properties, there will be reinvestments to rebuild the community, the question this always begs for me is what’s the right person to make those decisions? And when you cannot vote for 60% of the people to make those decisions, versus the ability to vote for 100% of people to make those decisions, that’s been one of the key swing factors for me.”

Opponents of cityhood largely say either they don’t mind the changes under discussion or they believe that cityhood is too extreme and hard to reverse, favoring adding more seats to the county commission instead.

Mindy Seger, who works in corporate accounting and is a leader of the East Cobb Alliance, which opposes cityhood, said she is doubtful a new city could provide services at the same level as the county without charging high taxes.

“How do you improve something that is already the best it can be?” she said. “Cobb County Fire is top notch, world class, at the top 1% of what they do. How do you improve that? How do you improve that when you only have two city fire stations? And we are already projecting that response times for some of the areas, particularly on that western border of the city, could have response times increase anywhere from eight to 10 minutes, eight to 10 minutes is going to cost you.”

Proponents say the Cobb County Fire Department’s top-tier rating helps to lower residents’ insurance rates, and a new department would not provide that same benefit. Cobb firefighters could provide backup to city firefighters if the city and county negotiate a mutual aid agreement. It’s also not yet clear whether a new city police department would provide specialized units such as SWAT and bomb disposal. Only the east Cobb proposal calls for creating a new police department.

Opponents also suggest that feasibility studies indicating the proposed cities’ financial solvency paint too rosy a picture.

East Cobb Alliance leader Bob Lax, who works for a multinational professional services company, said other Georgia cities created in the last 20 years have much higher expenses than their initial estimates indicated.

“If you look at those cities and you compare the feasibility studies to their 2022 budget, you’ll see that they’re all two to 18 (times) higher in expenses,” he said.

“These are all feasibility studies that were done by the same universities that did ours,” he added. “So given we’re going to have all these expenses, you should ask about the taxation and revenue generation authorities in the bill.”

Though voters will return to the polls in November to cast their ballots in the general election, this month’s vote is the final say for Cobb’s three proposed cities. If they pass, it’s up to Gov. Brian Kemp to create a transition committee, and citizens could vote on their new mayor and council as early as November.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.