Proposed Cobb government budget includes raises, 148 new employees

·4 min read

Jun. 28—MARIETTA — Cobb officials lifted the veil Tuesday on a proposed 2023 budget which features pay raises for thousands of county employees, the hiring of nearly 150 new workers, and no millage rate increase.

With ongoing workforce problems being a focus of the budget, it would raise county workers' minimum wage to $17 per hour, and cut in half the number of years (from 10 to five) employees must work for the county to become fully vested in its retirement plan. The Board of Commissioners would fund a pay increase for public safety workers for the second straight year under the step-and-grade plan adopted in 2020.

County employees not covered by the step-and-grade plan, meanwhile, are expected to see an average pay increase of 3.5%.

Cobb also plans to direct more funding to social services like the Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) and the Cobb and Douglas Board of Health.

The budget's increase — totaling some $98 million — was largely made possible by tax digest growth of 12.3% as a booming real estate market continues to drive up property values. Though the county's millage rate will hold steady at 8.46 mills, it's considered a tax increase under state law because the county will collect more revenue than the year prior.

Cobb could avoid a tax increase by "rolling back" its millage rate to 7.511 mills, which would keep its revenues flat compared to last year, but the county doesn't plan to do so based on Tuesday's presentation.

Finance Director Bill Volckmann previously told the MDJ Cobb's general fund is expected to collect $24.7 million more than last year.

In addition, the county's 0.13 mill it collects for debt service on parks bonds isn't going away, even though the county expects to pay off that debt next year. The 0.13 mills will instead be transferred to the existing fire millage rate of 2.86 mills, increasing it to 2.99 mills.

Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said the budget arose out of nearly 18 months of negotiation with staff since she took the county's helm in January 2021. Department heads have consistently petitioned the board for more and better-compensated workers, arguing they've been hamstrung by years of fiscal stinginess.

The new employees, she added, were chosen from more than 650 requests, prioritizing public-facing services that were raised as issues during the cityhood debate. Those will include workers for transportation, parks, and code enforcement.

Said Cupid of the new employee incentives, "I would like for Cobb County to be able to be competitive. I would like for Cobb County to be able to lead on this and to, again, be able to attract employees that would choose working here over working in some other industries that, to me, don't require the same level of commitment as it does to public service."

The proposal marks a significant departure from last year's budget, when commissioners signed off on just a handful of new hires amid concerns about the pandemic's fiscal impact. Cobb's finances have bounced back robustly, said Volckmann, allowing the county to move forward with new spending it put off last year.

Democratic Commissioner Jerica Richardson praised the budget for addressing "deeply systemic issues" and "extraordinary levels of attrition" among the county's workforce.

But support for the budget was not unanimous. Republican Commissioner Keli Gambrill argued raising salaries would create spiraling problems for overtime costs and the pension fund, and said the board shouldn't bank on a perpetual upward direction of tax digest growth.

"While we do have a digest growth that will cover this change and this increase this year, we might not have this digest growth in two years," said Gambrill, one of many criticisms she leveled at the package.

Fellow Republican Commissioner JoAnn Birrell added that she had mixed feelings on the budget, supporting the public safety raises and the reduction in the amount of money the county's general fund takes from its water system revenues. But she took issue with the $17 per hour minimum wage and adding nearly 150 new employees after several years of little to no staff increases.

"I think we need to concentrate on the retention, and filling the vacancies," said Birrell, suggesting the new positions should come back for review at a later date.

"What you will be saying to them, if you ask them to go back (and cut positions) ... is to do your job continuously, without the resources you need to do it," rebutted County Manager Jackie McMorris, who all but said the notion was a non-starter. "That's not fair to them."

Though the budget isn't final until adopted, McMorris said the broad outlines have largely been set by commissioners. The board will hold a series of public hearings on the budget over the coming weeks, with a final vote on both the budget and millage rate on July 26.