Going into the weekend before a crucial vote on the fiscal 2020 budget, one Cobb commissioner was questioning Friday whether the county could afford lowering the millage down to the rollback rate.
Another, meanwhile, is seeking a different path toward addressing salaries of the county’s public safety personnel.
Chairman Mike Boyce’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget totals $998.9 million — an increase of 3.4% or $32.8 million over the county’s fiscal 2019 budget.
Boyce is proposing the general fund, which serves as the primary operating fund of the county, at $475.7 million — an increase of about 4.7% or $21.5 million more than fiscal 2019.
Boyce’s budget is based on maintaining the county’s general fund millage of 8.46 mills, which exceeds the “rollback” millage rate, or the tax rate the county would have to levy in order to collect the same amount of revenue as it did the previous year. Under state law, maintaining the millage means the county is required to hold three hearings to give the public a chance to weigh in; the third and final hearing is during the commission’s 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, at which commissioners are scheduled to vote on the budget and millage rate.
“When I made a commitment last year I wouldn’t raise the millage rate (this year), the millage rate reflects just that,” Boyce said Friday. “I get the part of the fact the technical issue involving the rollback rate, but what that law doesn’t take into account for is the homestead exemption and the floating exemption resulted in $41 million being left in the wallets of the taxpayer.”
But Commissioner Keli Gambrill says the county may be collecting too much in property taxes, pointing to about $82.2 million in total expenses listed under the categories of “general fund administration” and “general fund contingency.”
She says budget documents don’t break down how those funds would be allocated, and calls the total $82.2 million “questionable.”
Meanwhile, Gambrill says a budget presentation given earlier this month by county Finance Director Bill Volckmann breaks down a nearly $18.5 million figure listed as “total general contingency” which includes earmarks for a 7% merit increase for certified and sworn public safety employees, and 4% merit increases for other county employees.
“If we’re going to be giving those salary increases, it should be allocated to the specific departments — we can figure that out right now; it shouldn’t be in contingency. I think the contingency fund is being abused,” Gambrill said, saying the information that has been presented on the budget does not justify a vote in favor of the chairman’s proposal.
“Contingencies shouldn’t be at $82 million,” she added.
Previously raising objections to the budget was Commissioner Bob Ott, who, instead of a 7% increase for public safety, has pushed for implementation of a step and grade system that would group employees with equal years of service within a grade into pay classes, creating a system where such employees could accurately determine both current and future wages.
“I believe step and grade should be put in place this year,” Ott said Friday. “There’s been some discussions that it needs to be studied more — the county’s been looking at it for the entire year, and my concern is that the 7% raise, if it’s put in place, it may make step and grade not affordable next year, so my thoughts are step and grade should be put in place this year.”
Ott also previously proposed decreasing or eliminating proposed spending increases in Boyce’s proposal, with one of the largest moves resulting in the cut of nearly $1.5 million in additional spending to cover personnel adjustments and additional positions.
“They’ve had (the cuts) for a month, so it should be no surprise to people what I think,” Ott said.
Expressing a bit more favorably to Boyce’s proposal was Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, though she was noncommittal on how she would be voting on the budget and accompanying millage.
“We still have one more public hearing before the vote Tuesday night, so there could be a few changes, I don’t know. But all-in-all, I think this is a good budget, it addresses the concerns with public safety that we’ve been saying is a priority for a while, and it addresses the salary increase, the benefits and incentives for retention and recruiting,” Birrell said. “And public safety is on board supporting it.”
Commissioner Lisa Cupid did not return calls from the MDJ by press time Friday.