Georgia State Senate District 33
Packed house for Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce's first senior fee town hall
EAST COBB - Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce faced a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 300 senior citizens Friday morning for the first of five town hall meetings focused on the county's impending fee increases for senior services.
The fee increases come as Cobb leaders begin addressing what is expected to be a $30 million shortfall in the fiscal 2019 year. Cobb's fiscal 2018 began Oct. 1, with the current budget utilizing one-time funds to cover a $20.8 shortfall.
"It's not a one-time thing, it's not just, 'Let's see who we can make unhappy this week.' - we should have picked a better crowd if we were going to start that way - but the bottom line is you're all a part of the bigger issue," Boyce said of the senior fee increases.
Boyce reminded attendees that the year prior, Cobb used 10 percent water system transfer to balance its budget.
"There's no more buckets (of money) to raid," he said.
The chairman's remark drew a quick retort from an audience member.
"So we are the last bucket?" one crowd member asked, which earned laughs and claps from many in attendance.
Boyce responded that the audience member's quip was "unfair," pointing to other "across the board" fee increases that were approved alongside those affecting seniors. Cobb commissioners in mid-November approved increases for a number of services offered within the county's libraries and parks in addition to its senior services department.
Among the increased senior fees were higher hourly rates for art, computer and exercise classes, with nonresidents paying one-and-a-half times the rates residents pay.
Though seniors had previously paid no membership fee to use county senior centers, the county starting Feb. 1 will begin charging county residents $60 a year should they wish to use those facilities, while non-residents will pay $90 annually. Included in the yearly membership are free, evidence-based health programs, access to workout facilities and free coffee.
Boyce opened his remarks with an apology to those in attendance, saying that while the county had followed standard procedures to propose and enact the fee increases, the changes had been communicated "very, very poorly."
"There's no getting around that. That's why you're all here," Boyce added.
But the chairman faced pointed questions from several audience members.
"Why are you Mickey Mousing around with fees rather than addressing the current $8.5 million problem with the Braves?" asked John Brenner, an east Cobb resident retired from the entertainment industry.
Audience members grumbled over mentions of the county's expense to the Braves throughout the meeting.
Boyce said county expenses total $8.6 million "coming out of your wallet and my wallet to pay for our obligation to the Braves deal." Of that amount, $6.4 million in property taxes go toward paying off the bond for SunTrust Park, while another $1.2 million goes toward stadium maintenance and about $1 million to public safety personnel around the stadium and The Battery Atlanta, its neighboring mixed-used development, on game days.
"The Braves did not create this hole," Boyce said, which drew a handful of jeers from the crowd. "All they did was accelerate the inevitable. If we never had a Braves deal, we would have this same discussion next year."
Boyce said the county is also facing other sizable expenses as it works on its budget for the next fiscal year.
Among the funds that filled Cobb's fiscal 2018 budget hole were $10.4 million in one-time funds that had been previously set aside to fund implementation of the county's pay and class study recommendations. Commissioners in February approved a pay plan that increased the salaries of about 45 percent of the county's workforce, or about 2,400 employees.
Another $17 million is needed to purchase new vehicles to replace those within the county's aging fleet, Boyce said, adding that some of those vehicles, including senior services buses, are exceeding 350,000 miles.
"Do I want to continue not to buy new vehicles, or do I want to see a headline that (says) 'Senior services bus collapses on road and spills senior citizens on Dallas Highway'?" he asked. "These things collectively add up to the $30 million hole."
Prior to the meeting's start, attendees were given handouts from the county showing how the incoming senior fees compared to those in Forsyth, DeKalb, and other metro Atlanta counties and cities.
Forsyth County, according to the comparison sheet, also charges residents a $60 membership fee to use senior centers, though non-residents are charged at the same rate. But higher rates are found elsewhere, with residents within DeKalb County paying $120, while $144 is the rate paid by senior center users in both Clayton County and the city of Roswell.
Operating costs for Cobb's senior centers, Boyce said, aren't being covered by current revenues.
"The reality is it costs $250,000 to keep each of these centers open every year," Boyce said, adding that current revenues leave more than $150,000 of each of the six centers' operation expenses unfunded.
In addition to membership fees, the county is also implementing higher fees to rent its senior centers.
Marieta Dailly Journal
AROUND TOWN: Cobb judges provoke wrath of parents
COBB STATE COURT
Judge Eric Brewton has stirred up a firestorm when he allowed 30 drivers charged with illegally passing school buses to leave the courtroom without penalty on Friday. Brewton told the motorists their tickets were unenforceable and they could leave.
"This is not a proceeding that is proper," Brewton told them. "You are free to go."
Cobb Solicitor General Barry Morgan said because the fines are sent by mail and are civil and not criminal in nature, many Cobb State Court judges have interpreted the statute to mean they are unenforceable. Morgan said his team is more than willing to work with violators to negotiate their ticket prices down by as much as half, but when judges dismiss everyone at once, they never get that chance.
The decision has outraged parents, among them west Cobb mother Ginny Ehrhart, wife of state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who has formed a group of citizens concerned with the lack of consequences for drivers who pass stopped school buses.
"Drivers who endanger our children should be held accountable," Mrs. Ehrhart said. "I applaud the actions of the Cobb County Commission in signing the contract to renew the use of school bus cameras, which are vital to our children's safety. However, they will only be effective if our judges uphold the law."
Mrs. Ehrhart said she has spoken to a number of mothers who are incensed by Judge Brewton's actions.
"We have, tragically, seen a (Cobb School District) crossing guard killed by a careless driver this year. We must do all we can to ensure the safety of our school children both near their schools and while they are on buses," she said.
Mrs. Ehrhart said the group, Moms On Bus Safety, will have an organizational meeting soon and plan to use whatever means necessary to ensure the safety of schoolchildren, including lobbying elected officials and working for candidates who promise to follow the law on this issue.
African Methodist Episcopal Day
Celebrating Mr. Shelton for his service in the community!
Osborne High School at the Capital for Q&A with the senator.
Yes we will put up a bill to support the cost for AP testing in our community high schools
Austell Community Taskforce's strategic planning session
Pebblebrook High School Robotics team