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Byrne floats idea for an East Cobb city

2012-08-09_2123

Bill Byrne has proposed creating a city of East Cobb to let the area determine its own growth.

“Cobb County is driven by the Board of Commissioners with regard to growth issues,” he said. “If you create a city … the city council determines the growth policies, and when the economy comes back, east Cobb is going to explode again, and I think they should be the ones to determine what they’re going to look like.”

Cobb, which has a population of just under 700,000 in its 345 square miles, according to the 2010 Census, has six cities. By comparison, Gwinnett County, with 825,000 residents over 437 square miles, and Fulton County, with 950,000 residents over 535 square miles, have 16 and 14 cities.

The boundary lines would be drawn by the Cobb Legislative Delegation, and the east Cobb voters who live in that district would then decide whether to become Cobb’s seventh city, said Byrne, who is challenging incumbent Tim Lee in the Aug. 21 runoff to serve as county chairman.

Under the proposal, which Byrne made Wednesday, the county government would continue to provide water, sewer, police and fire services to the new city for a nominal fee of one dollar per year.

The proposed city would be governed by an elected mayor and five City Council members, with wards drawn by the Cobb Delegation.

Byrne said the county government would provide $1 million from its capital improvements budget for the design and construction of a city hall and provide temporary meeting locations until construction is complete. The design, construction and location of the new city hall would be determined by the new mayor and city council, he said.

“East Cobb County has always been the fulcrum around the growth for all of Cobb County,” Byrne said. “It’s the biggest success story of the county for the last 20 years, and will be for a long time to come.”

Byrne said he’s watched with interest as cities in Fulton County across the river have formed, along with Brookhaven, DeKalb’s newest city.

“East Cobb has always been enormously involved in the decision-making process, particularly with regard to infrastructure and zonings,” he said. “Once the market comes back, it’s going to start in east Cobb, so I thought that this was a very good time and timing to energize a discussion to create the city of east Cobb and allow the people there to say yes or no to it.”

If voters say yes, they would define their own future rather than having to rely on the Board of Commissioners, a board they have 40 percent representation on, he said.

“It’s a concept to begin the discussion, not to end it, and obviously the two district commissioners — Bob Ott and JoAnn Birrell — would have to buy into it or it doesn’t fly, and the Delegation would have to buy into it or they won’t create it,” Byrne said.

Byrne said there is no significant cost involved because the county is already providing the public safety and infrastructure for the area.

“The county itself does not lose a single tax dollar because every city resident pays property taxes, and they would have to create a funding source as they choose to manage their affairs,” Byrne said. “When you take off the table the two most expensive government liabilities — public safety and infrastructure — then they can look at facilities that they choose and hopefully do much like the city of Sandy Springs did and privatize most of it.”

Assuming everyone agreed, the city could be formed as soon as next year, he said.

Byrne said he hasn’t discussed the idea yet with Ott or Birrell because it’s a campaign issue, and he “didn’t want to draw them into it and make them responsible for anything.”

Ott said he was receptive to listening to what Byrne had to say.

“Obviously the discussion will need to consider the cost implications to the people in East Cobb, because a city in Georgia has to provide a certain number of essential services to be classified a city,” Ott said. “I have a good relationship with the Legislature, and if we can find a workable solution that does not increase the cost to the citizens in the proposed area, I’m willing to explore this idea.”

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) said the motivating factor behind the creation of the cities in north Fulton and DeKalb counties has been dissatisfaction with the county governments.

“It’s born out of frustration of not having a government that works for you, and people when that happens they tend to want to localize it,” he said. “That’s a smart thing, to make sure that your government working for you is closest to home, so that’s what we saw with those (cities of Sandy Springs, Milton and Johns Creek). I think that’s what we saw with (newly formed) Brookhaven.”

Rogers said he doesn’t get the sense that east Cobb residents are frustrated by their county government.

“The local government seems to work pretty well,” Rogers said.

Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin said there are advantages to living in a city rather than an unincorporated area.

“The smallest form of government is the best form of government,” Tumlin said. “Even though we’re 56,000 people (in the city of Marietta), I think the people that you see at the grocery store, Marietta High football games, there’s a direct correlation of seven representatives (on the City Council) to 56,000 (Marietta residents) versus, I mean (west Cobb county commissioner Helen Goreham) has people she could never know. (Marietta Councilman Grif Chalfant) can almost name everyone in his ward, so the representation is so good that it works. To me, that’s the strength of it.”

Told of Byrne’s proposal, Tumlin admitted surprise.

“He would give up power,” Tumlin said.

Another attractive aspect about being a city is that cities can collect franchise fees whereas counties cannot, Tumlin said.

“Everything that Southern Bell does, we get to charge 4 percent on them,” Tumlin said. “Atlanta Gas Light — 4 percent franchise fee. Cities can do it, but counties cannot. So they pick up 4 percent right off the bat. That has always been a major advantage of a city. Counties hate it. It just the way the law was originally drawn up, and they can’t do it now because it would look like a tax increase.”

Tumlin also has noticed the demand for the creation of cities in the metro region.

“Maybe Byrne has raised a good point,” Tumlin said. “East Cobb, some of our big areas, they don’t have the sense of community that I think we do.”

Tumlin pointed out one thing that could not be done is for east Cobb to create its own school system, because that would take a constitutional amendment.

Former county chairman and current Attorney General Sam Olens of east Cobb, who is supporting Lee over Byrne in the race, opposes the idea.

“East Cobb is a great place to live, just like many other incorporated and unincorporated areas of our county,” Olens said.

(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal, August 9, 2012. Written by Jon Gillooly. Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Byrne floats idea to create seventh city)

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