Jun. 2—MARIETTA — When Realtor and Cobb County Development Authority board member Donna Rowe asked Commissioner Monique Sheffield Wednesday whether she would support a property tax increase during her term, the freshman commissioner smelled a trap.
"Who asked that question?" Sheffield said, to laughs and applause from the Cobb Association of Realtors (Rowe allowed it was, in Cobb, something of a loaded inquiry).
"I'm very cautious in saying what I will and will not do," Sheffield continued. "What I don't like to do is commit to something which I would not have the sole power to control ... and I'll be candid with you guys, I don't know what's going to happen with taxes. As it stands, I think we're pretty OK."
As such, Sheffield's comments evoked the tenor of a panel discussion with her three fellow commissioners JoAnn Birrell, Keli Gambrill and Jerica Richardson, as well as Chairwoman Lisa Cupid before the Association of Realtors at the Marietta Hilton Wednesday.
Cobb, mercifully, has been spared a fiscal crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic. A frantic housing market has pumped up home sales and valuations, with property values rising alongside them. The result is an estimated 5.5% tax digest growth over 2020, and Cupid said last week she doesn't see a need for a millage rate hike this year.
Commissioners conceded that housing market boom has produced some unsavory side effects. Affordable housing remains a growing concern, with Cupid and Gambrill suggesting tweaks to county regulations and incentives. Sheffield, herself a real estate broker, noted there was only so much to be done at the board's level.
"I don't know what zoning laws we can relax that would match the increasing price of lumber," said Sheffield. "The cost to build a home is the cost to build a home."
On the tax question, Birrell touted her fiscal conservative bona fides by saying she's never voted for a millage rate increase before and wouldn't support one now. Cupid reiterated her position defending, if not new taxes, the principle of taxation.
"We have not been able to invest in the way that I believe we deserve. Now does that mean we continue to increase taxes? Taxes are a means to an end ... but we're asked to commit to providing you with the least amount of resources for what you say you want. I don't see how that matches with what we want in Cobb County," she said.
Gambrill, meanwhile, afterward told the MDJ the county's fiscal state is so good, it should not have to take out any tax anticipation notes this year. The notes are short-term loans generally used to cover expenses until the year's digest revenues begins to roll in. Given the robust health of the county's coffers, she's interested in passing a millage rate rollback this year.
As the discussion went on, Rowe delved into another hot-button issue: the various cityhood pushes proliferating around Cobb County. Commissioners seemed to agree while the pushes were coming from a place of genuine frustration with county governance, the balkanization of Cobb would be a detriment to the county. Each offered their own suggestion for how to address those frustrations.
"They all have one thing in common, and that's zoning," said Gambrill. "And it's the threat on the sense of character of their community ... So if it truly is about the zoning, and keeping character intact, then let's address that in our zoning code that comes up. Maybe that will address most of the fears that are driving folks to consider cityhood."
Sheffield likewise called on the county to meet the demands of cityhood proponents. In her district, she said, zoning, sanitation and code enforcement remain the largest concerns of advocates for a city of Mableton.
"Let's figure out — how can we satisfy, or how can we solve this sanitation problem? That will require perhaps increasing the number of employees at code enforcement or at DOT ... Where do we find the funding to pay for additional staff so that we can satisfy these three areas?"
Echoing her comments last week to the Kiwanis Club of Marietta, Cupid said she found the rash of proposals "a little frustrating." She noted Cobb is famous for its ever-present refrain to keep taxes low, but the dissatisfaction from cityhood advocates with the level of service provided by Cobb seem to cut against that refrain.
"I believe this is for the citizens to decide. But I do believe we can provide as much information as possible when they're making that decision ... this provides us with an opportunity to talk about what services we want," she said.
"Getting back to that last question — what do you want? We can help give you what you want if you let us."