Editor’s note: This is the prepared text of Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce’s State of the County address, delivered Monday morning at the Cobb Chamber’s monthly breakfast meeting. Boyce deviated somewhat from this text, which was given to the MDJ in advance of the speech.
It is with great pride that I stand here today to share my thoughts about the State of the County. We are truly fortunate to live in a County with so many blessings. Our motto for Cobb County Government is “Expect the Best.” But this year we kicked it up a notch and also provided the best.
You just viewed a video reflecting a representation of the Cobb County workforce. During 2017, we recognized 781 employees representing nearly 11,000 years of service to Cobb County. This kind of commitment cannot possibly be attributed only to compensation and benefits. I believe the main reason so many loyal and dedicated employees make a career with us, whether it be on the County staff, or the offices of Constitutional officers and elected officials, is that they know they are part of a family which works every day to take care of each other. They are led by a management team which seamlessly has seen the appointment of many new leaders this year. The County is the beneficiary of retired County Manager David Hankerson’s vison in implementing the EXCEL leadership development program. His emphasis on training a cadre of future leaders is one of the reasons for our smooth transition of the management team this year.
Whether you are a resident, a business owner, a visitor, or a student, the one thing you want to know about your local government is we are carrying out a commitment to make this a County a choice destination where everyone can safely work, live, play and pursue their dreams.
Our Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs department plays an important role providing a high quality of life for families and individuals. In 2017, we gained more greenspace and parks land. The Board of Commissioners approved a $27M bond to purchase green space. We have already acquired 7 parcels totaling more than 200 acres with several more contracts under review. We have upgraded or are upgrading existing parks. Aviation Park opened in November and Mabry Park is coming on line next year.
Thanks to a grant by the Atlanta Regional Commission in December, the last uncompleted segment of the West Atlanta Street Trail will be completed in 2020. The County will then be connected in the north at Town Center to the south at the Silver Comet Trail. From there you can keep ride to the Stadium and battery or to the Chattahoochee via to the Bob Callan Trail.
April 14th was an important date as it was the opening home game for the Atlanta Braves at the new SunTrust Stadium. The inaugural season of the Atlanta Braves and the associated Battery has exceeded revenue expectations in almost every category. The County lived up to its obligations by completing roads and traffic management projects, infrastructure improvements, the new bridge across I-285, and the widening of the Bridge over I-75. I am growing increasingly confident that this pubic private partnership will ultimately stimulate the development that will generate the necessary revenues to fulfill the projections made when the project was initially proposed.
However, we should be mindful that many remain wary about the promise that revenue projections from our partnership will offset the public taxes needed to fund the bond for the stadium. This large body (as evidenced by emails and other correspondence and comments that I read and hear) believes that fees that the Board passed last year are directly related to funding the bond. There is no doubt that the Stadium and the Battery have stimulated economic development in and around the Cumberland CID. But the residents on Mars Hill, Factory Shoals, and Jamerson Roads reasonably ask how the use of their property taxes for the bond has benefitted them. The larger question is how the voters will respond to any proposals of a similar magnitude requiring public funding. Regardless any such proposal will be subject to a referendum by the voters. As always there are consequences in circumventing the voices of the people.
My highlighting this point is a nice segue into honoring my commitment to increase the level of transparency in County government. We have implemented a new budget process which provides for more work sessions that allow the Board and public to hear presentations from the departments about their issues. We have revised our SPLOST policy. The changes included identifying a new single point of contact for SPLOST programs and including the SPLOST Oversight Committee earlier in the review process for SPLOST projects. At Board meetings, work sessions, and town halls residents heard about County plans and asked questions. We listened to their concerns took actions on many of their proposals.
There is always a fine line to determine how many services one can provide at what cost. We are committed to providing 5-star services while remaining fiscally conservative. Nowhere is this more evident than in our maintaining the County’s Triple AAA bond rating which we were awarded for the 21st straight year. This kind of financial strength is critical in attracting new businesses and keeping current ones. For example, along with the Atlanta Braves and the Battery, 2017 saw the openings of the Omni Hotel, corporate headquarters for Synovous, the Delta Community Credit Union, and Comcast regional offices. We welcomed back John Williams with his Encore development. Joining Lockheed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base will be the Georgia Tech Research Institute. As corporations as large as Amazon and Apple know, Cobb continues to attract the best.
With businesses come new employees and residents making transit, traffic management and transportation of vital importance. We are working with our legislative delegation to find remedies that address some of our traffic problems. However, our SPLOST dollars continue to make an incredible difference in the quality of life in this county and especially in regards to our transportation infrastructure. This year we used SPLOST funds to address traffic management issues such as the Wade Green and Windy Hill diverging diamond interchanges, the Barrett reliever, improved intersections, and traffic signal updates. McCollum International Airport remains an essential component of attracting business. It will soon begin a modernization to accommodate the latest models of private jet aircrafts and to expand the footprint of its hangar capacity. The approval of the Defense Authorization bill by the President last month designating Dobbins Air Reserve Base as a joint use airfield is warmly welcomed but it will in no way diminish the importance of McCollum.
But SPLOST is not just for transportation projects. Your tax dollars have funded projects such as the revolutionary and state-of-the art Sewell Mill Library, Mable House improvements, expansion of the North Cobb Senior Center, and the new Jim Miller Park Master Plan. Not to be overlooked is another jewel in our community crown: The public health services provided by the Cobb Douglas Board of Health. The use of General and SPLOST funds is critical to the health and welfare of this County. 2018 will see the upgrading of 2 facilities in Kennesaw and Smyrna. Sadly, we’ll be losing one of the unsung heroes in public health with the retirement of the director of our Board of Health, Dr. Jack Kennedy. He has demonstrated extraordinary leadership and purpose and I join his legion of admirers in wishing him all the best in his retirement.
I am going to get personal for a moment. This is a picture of my youngest granddaughter, Penelope Clara. She symbolizes for me the importance of ensuring that not only my family is safe but all families, residents, and visitors to Cobb County. This year I participated in Police Ride Alongs where I spent many hours sharing time with police officers and sheriff deputies during their shifts. I have also toured most of the offices of the judicial branch and met their hard-working employees. In short, I have seen up close and personal the challenges facing our incredible men and women who represent public safety. We must do more than talk about making public safety our number one priority; our actions must also reflect this priority. Accordingly, we are using funds from the General and Fire Funds and SPLOST to replace Fire and Emergency Management Services equipment, plan for future 911 capabilities, provide kits for evidence vans, modernizing police precincts and construct new fire stations. Recognizing the success in changing lives, I shall be asking the Board to provide more funding to support our accountability courts. Most importantly the Pay and Class Study, which the Board approved in February, increased the compensation for 1200 members in public safety and judicial positions. We shall continue to address the issue of compensation for our public safety officers in the 2019 budget, beginning at tomorrow nights Board meeting.
In my first year in office Cobb County faced four inclement weather events: the snow/ice event last week plus the ones last January and December and Hurricane Irma in October. We were very fortunate in avoiding the damages that occurred in neighboring counties. Our Cobb management team worked closely with State agencies in clearing roads of snow and debris, sanding the road against ice, and keeping the public informed through our web site and social media. The potential financial burden associated with reacting to these natural events is the reason why I have asked the Board to approve a Disaster Relief Fund in our annual budget.
I have a smartphone—at times, I think it is smarter than I am. But the truth is technology is a driving force in our world. Cobb County is working hard to keep pace with this dynamic world. Many of you have used travel apps such as Google Maps and Waze. We have a GIS department that is expanding the use of mapping and transportation tools which assist county residents as well as our police and fire units. In a world connected that is 24 hours a day, we have expanded our Wi-Fi capacities at our parks and other government buildings. We are updating our website to make it more user friendly and a medium for paying bills.
But the greatness of a county does not lie just with the government and how it functions. It also depends on other businesses and institutions that enrich the lives of the residents. The Cumberland and Town Center Community Improvement Districts; the Cobb Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority including the fabulous Performing Arts Center; the South Cobb Development Authority; the Development Authority of Cobb County; 6 Flags, nd the many Chambers of Commerce, all been forces for economic growth. I intentionally have omitted the Gateway CID because I did want to take any “thunder” anyway from Mayor Tumlin. The County has two amazing public school systems and several institutions of higher learning. I truly value our relationship with the municipalities in the County. Thank you Tommy Allegood, Max Bacon, Derek Easterling, Joe Jerkins, Steve Tumlin, and Al Thurman for all that you done to preserve the close partnership that we have. They have their own success stories which they will be conveying at their own forums later this year. We all work together so issues can be addressed as a whole, not just in relation to a geographic boundary. I also look forward to the duel of parking garages with Mayor Tumlin. I have a fee structure that you might be interested in.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an unheralded but vital source of human capital in Cobb County—our volunteers. The use of their time and talents is priceless. For example, the efforts of supporters of Keep Cobb Beautiful and the 4-H Club have resulted in national and State recognition. When we say that in Cobb County you can expect and receive the best, this includes the efforts of such bodies as the Planning Commission, various boards and programs too many to mention. I want to thank all of these marvelous people who do so much to make this County great.
The residential tax digest continues to rebound from the recession as the Board approved in unincorporated Cobb nearly $480M in new developments generating more than 1400 new homes ranging in price from $126K to over $1M encompassing. They encompass single houses, townhomes, multi-use developments, and apartments. On the business side 5 Class A office buildings worth nearly $370M and housing 2270 jobs were added to the inventory this year. 3247 new business were registered in 2017, an 11% increase from 2016. Certainly, the Cobb Chamber’s EDGE initiative has contributed significantly to this business expansion. I would encourage the members of the Chamber to support strongly EDGE 2.0.
It has been said that “the crucial role, the most vital function of government is to establish conditions under which the free enterprise system can operate most effectively.” We are doing our part by streamlining many of the functions of Department of Community Development including offering the ability to renew, apply or request services on line. We have reorganized the County’s Office of Economic Development, given it a larger staff. We have tightened the bond between it and Cobb Tourism and Travel, so ably led by Holly Quinlan. Who would not want to close friends with someone connected with an industry that has an economic impact of $2.75B in the County—a number projected to reach $4B by 2020. Finally, the Board passed in 2017 the 2040 Comprehensive Plan which lays out in detail the future direction of the County. It has the unique feature of providing each District Commissioner with an appendix that allows them to address in a timely manner the changing dynamics of their areas. No longer will the Board have to address the whole body of the plan to make revisions but can focus attention on specific areas, legislatively and otherwise.
The foresight in the Board approving Michael Murphy as the Board’s Assistant for Special Projects is bearing fruit as he guided us through the new criteria for funding nonprofits and oversight for SPLOST projects. We can no longer ignore the implications of a hot housing market, two major effects being a growing population of homeless people and prices that prevent our public safety officials, teachers and service workers from renting or buying in Cobb. Michael is working closely with municipalities in a combined effort to address affordable housing and the plight of the homeless in County. He will be equally adept in guiding us through the revision of the County’s Strategic Plan.
My major effort during the first half of 2018 will be the formation of the 2019 budget. The deficit that we face is well advertised and the Board will begin discussions this month framing the budget. The retreat that the Board held last October provided insight into how the Board intends to approach the budget. The staff has been pricing out the various proposals that emerged from that 2 day meeting. Public safety is our number one priority and there are various thoughts that are being floated to fund this priority. But they are only thoughts lacking any Board approval. On equally many minds is the County’s commitment to supporting public services such as parks, libraries and senior centers. More than half century ago Cobb County voters approved overwhelmingly bond issues providing for the expansion of libraries, and parks and recreation areas. The Marietta Daily Journal endorsed the bonds with an editorial declaring an “absolute and critical needs for the(se) public improvement bonds”. The support by the public for these bonds elevated many public services from the “nice to have” to the essential category. These kinds of services constitute valuable elements of the quality of life that make Cobb attractive to people and businesses alike. In the coming months, we shall engage the voters through town halls to hear their thoughts on continuing to fund these amenities.
The Board has completed its review of the 2013 Citizens Oversight Committee and adopted many of its recommendations. Acting upon these recommendations in combination with the other measures has either generated cost efficiencies or savings of nearly $10M. I am also asking the Board to consider competing some County services but with the provision that the corresponding County staff be allowed to submit their own proposal to any request for information. 2018 will also see the curtailment of certain expenses among the County staff that, while being collectively a relatively nominal amount, will signal our commitment to austerity. As the chart demonstrates we ARE the most cost efficient County in the north metro area when compared against other similarly populated counties.
I cannot end without personally thanking Gary Bottoms for smoothing over some rough waters and producing a relationship between the County and the Chamber that works to our mutual benefit. Gary’s thoughtfulness, professionalism, and friendship during the last year mars him as a true man of God. Judy and I wish Melissa and him all the best. Likewise, I want to congratulate both Trey Sanders and Sharon Mason on their new positions and look forward to working with them in 2018.
Saving the best for last, I want to thank my fellow commissioners for all their hard work in 2017. They have borne the burden without complaint of the added work sessions as we implemented the new budget process. They continue to have a stake in our County’s future because of their commitment to work together to shape it. I have complete confidence in them as I do in our County staff and other elected partners in addressing the challenges that inevitably await us in 2018. I believe last year has demonstrated that we are all good faith servants of the community and, most importantly, honest representatives of the people.
In conclusion, our measured and reasonable growth continues to make Cobb a great place for people to safely work, live, play and pursue their dreams. Thank you for allowing me to share my excitement about Cobb County. With the wind at our back, a staff, County and otherwise, that always delivers the best, and the Lord’s continued divine providence and manifold blessings, Cobb future remains unlimited.
Mike Boyce: Cobb is growing, but needs to address effects of that growth