Tax Increase, TSPLOST Slammed at Chairman Forum
With primary elections almost a month away, incumbent Tim Lee's opponents continued their criticisms of 2011's hike in property taxes, as well as the proposed transportation tax.
The three Republican challengers vying for Cobb commission chairman continued to blast incumbent Tim Lee at a forum Tuesday for 2011’s property tax increase, and offered firm opposition to the proposed transportation tax.
One of the three, financial consultant Mike Boyce, led the attack on the current administration in his opening comments, saying cuts should override tax increases as the solution to financial woes.
“I’ve spoken to businessmen across the county, and anyone who runs a business or their family budget knows that if you have a 10 percent shortfall, you find a way to cut back your expenses,” he said. “I’ve spoken to no one in this county who says what you do is go out and borrow money and have a stimulus program or raise the extra funds by taxes.”
Turning his focus to SPLOST and the proposed TSPLOST that will appear on July 31 primary ballot, Boyce questioned why light rail is being considered as part of the transportation tax when it’s something “Cobb County traditionally says it does not want.”
Another challenger, former 10-year Commission Chairman Bill Byrne, started with his endorsements from the county’s first public safety director, Bob Hightower, and the Cobb Fraternal Order of Police.
Public safety is “government’s primary responsibility,” he said. “However today in Cobb County, that’s not the case.”
Byrne said the furloughs of police, firefighters and other county employees in 2011 to balance a “failing budget … is not leadership.”
Lee, a two-year chairman and former eight-year Northeast Cobb commissioner, didn’t respond directly to the criticisms, but did acknowledge Cobb’s “tough times in the last two years.”
The incumbent turned to favorable points about Cobb: reduced spending from the county government, which has the lowest number of full-time employees in the region; the lowest millage rate and sales tax in the region; a fully staffed police force resulting in a low crime rate; three years straight being given the Sunny Award for transparency; “very competitive water rates”; and the county government’s focus on job growth.
Cobb holds one-third of all jobs in the metro area and one-tenth of Georgia’s economy, Lee said.
The last of the four candidates to provide opening statements, retired businessman Larry Savage said: “I should by now be enjoying my hard-earned retirement, but instead I’m running for chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. I’m not doing this because of ambition, nor for the joy of the spotlight. I’m doing it because Cobb government has lost its way.”
Savage noted “anomalies” of the county’s “conservative government”—the current general and education SPLOST programs, as well as the proposed TSPLOST. He contended that the first two have seemingly turned into permanent taxes and believes the third will do the same.
Continuing on transportation tax, he said the costly advertising campaign promoting yes votes has been “financed illegally, in my opinion, by involved interests who stand to benefit if the TSPLOST’s passes.”
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The first question, from moderator Jim Galloway with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, pertained to whether “cooperation and coordination” on a regional level was good for Cobb.
First up, Byrne said such efforts were “essential but not mandatory,” and he doesn’t want Cobb to “lose (its) concept of local control.”
“We have to focus on what’s best for Cobb first, and the region second,” he said.
As “we fight for jobs across this country,” Lee used an analogy to demonstrate a balance between the county and regionalism—taking care of his own home while working with his neighbors.
“It’s not to say that I get into my neighbors’ business; it’s not to say that I tell them what to do,” he said. “I take care of my responsibility and my home … but I also ensure that my community, which is part of the bigger portion of Cobb, is also taken care of.”
Savage, who ran against Lee in 2010 in the Republican race to succeed Sam Olens, was perhaps the most vocal in his opposition to regionalism, noting that the Atlanta Regional Commission has evolved from a “coordinating group” to a “super government.”
“I wholly object to that,” he said of regional governance. “I object to every element of it.”
Boyce offered an approach similar to Lee’s, saying that “Cobb’s not an island” as it depends on the region, country and world. But the county needs to be “very, very careful to preserve our local identity,” he added.
Galloway's next question returned the discussion to TSPLOST, a 1-percent sales tax increase that will appear on all July 31 primary ballots in the 10-county metro region. He asked the candidates whether they supported the possible commuter rail portion of the tax.
A $1.8 million transportation study will be finished by September, and its results could change the current plans for bus service—stretching from Acworth to the MARTA Arts Center Station—to light rail, The Marietta Daily Journal reports.
Lee said his support of the light rail would come only after the study and only if it is affordable.
“If that report comes back indicating that any kind of rail system is worth looking at, then I believe it’s at least something we need to look at,” he said.
The challengers slammed the possibility, pointing to low ridership, costs and subsidizing.
Savage said his view of commuter rail stretches farther than the one proposed, like from Canton to Kennesaw to Marietta to Atlanta. The transit option should take passengers from “long-distance origins to their final destination as quickly as possible with as few stops as possible,” he said.
But that presents a flaw in a rail system, he said: “You either stop frequently and access a lot of people, or you don’t stop very frequently and provide fast service—but you can’t do both with the same route.”
Describing how all public trains in the U.S. are subsidized, Boyce said: “If you think subsidizing (Cobb Community Transit) is a big deal, wait till you subsidize this train.”
“Cobb has a long, constant heritage of not wanting a train,” he said. “What part of this don’t people in government understand? They don’t want a train.”
Byrne said rail systems are appropriate for urban areas but not suburban areas like Cobb. Only 3 percent of commuters will ride it, which doesn’t justify the amount of money that would be paid in, he said.
“Where are those funds going to come from? … It’s called a tax increase,” he said.
About 40 people were in attendance at Tuesday’s forum at the Cobb government complex in downtown Marietta. It was the third and final forum hosted by the Cobb Republican Women’s Club.
Since no Democrats qualified for the July 31 primary, it appears whichever Republican takes that vote will also be victorious in the general election.
Voters should be registered by July 2 to participate in the July 31 primaries, non-partisan elections, and TSPLOST vote.
For the Nov. 6 general election, which includes voting for president, citizens should be registered by Oct. 9.