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Live with the Citizen Oversight Committee

We're at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre to hear what people have to say about Cobb County government operations.

Cobb County's new Citizen Oversight Committee is meeting with the public tonight at 7 at the Cobb Civic Center's Jennie T. Anderson Theatre to hear people's suggestions about government operations and improved efficiency as the panel prepares to report recommendations to the Board of Commissioners on June 28. We're covering it live.

8:45 p.m. And we're done.

8:44 p.m. McClung: We are not looking at the task as trying to find the most cuts possible or targeting one area to cut or eliminate. “We’re trying to take an overall, objective look.”

8:38 p.m. Next speaker is a man who says Cobb has been known for customer service and infrastructure. “What are we willing to give up?” The customers of Cobb County don’t want to give up their services. He says county employee morale is low, but people are still doing their jobs. “You don’t want to see services to the community suffer.”

8:36 p.m. Next is Mary Rose Barnes, concerned about her fellow seniors. She says it’s not a good time to be a senior. “We’re now making the people who will be using that center charity cases,” she says of the unopened senior center on Powder Springs Road. She says history will judge how we treat our seniors.

8:35 p.m. Nancy McGowan is next. She asks how many middle managers have been furloughed and wants to be sure the furloughs are spread fairly.

8:32 p.m. Next speaker: The county is doing a 10-year transportation plan and in conjunction looking at what the county will look like and what it will build. And that all works with the Atlanta Regional Commission and its 2040 planning. He’s a member of the CCT Transit Advisory Board. He says the board doesn’t want to cut but has to for economic reasons. He understands the complaints from South Cobb about transit but says, “I live in an area that doesn’t have bus service. It’s in the northern end of Johnson Ferry.”

8:29 p.m. Next speaker: Who is it in Cobb County who’s thinking about a cellphone alert system, for example. There are lots of things out there. “We need somebody managing the electronic world for us as well.” He says nobody at the county level is looking at technology, cable and other ways to look ahead and see how to meet citizen needs. “Are you supposed to be looking at the future? … Who is looking at 2020 and 2030?”

8:25 p.m. Pat Murphy, a swim coach, is next. He wants the committee to know that almost every community in the state finds it necessary to teach kids to learn to stay alive in the water. One of the gems in the county is the aquatic system, he says. The parents on my team voted to tax themselves to get the aquatic centers built. They pay user fees. Now, because of cutbacks, I have to go back to 50 or 60 of these families and tell them they are out of the sport because we’re closing the aquatic center from 8 to 9 p.m., while it’s open midday with few people there. That wasn’t a thoughtful way to apply the cuts, he says.

8:23 p.m. Kent Gildersleeve is next. He’s talking about savings in insurance.

8:22 p.m. Next up is a high school senior who has suggestions for the Finance Department. He wants to increase spending and increase taxes to spur the economy.

8:17 p.m. New speaker: "You can learn from other counties," such as Fulton. Make sure other jurisdictions are paying their fair share for the inmates Cobb holds. Look at transit: "If you call yourself the best, you don't go dark for a day and a half," meaning cutting off Sunday and some Saturday service. Consider midday express service, not just rush hour. Look at where employment centers need people to buld your bus system, not just the residential areas. Put a little money into marketing all over the county, especially transit. "Get rid of the perception that anyone who rides transit is poor and doesn't own a car." The county government also has to find a way to work closely with the schools, especially after-school activities that are active centers of learning. Make this county better, north, south, east and west. "Look at these issues: What are others in this metro area getting awards for?"

8:16 p.m. "Those of you who have spoken or will speak on the topic of transit ... please grab one of those comment cards and put down the word transit and your name and an email address or phone number so I can subsequently make contact with you," committee member David Weldon says in response to the many comments about transportation, from buses to roads.

8:15 p.m. We began this with a soft three-minute limit per speaker, but McClung hasn't tried to enforce it.

8:07 p.m. A woman from Austell is next. Benchmark operations to other counties. Look at best practices elsewhere and see where Cobb has the best practices. “I’d like to see some external agencies take a look at our operations,” and don’t forget to seek input from employees. We could do more to partner with universities in the area. Cobb could grow in the way that it uses youth in the county. Also, “I would like to encourage us to think of ways that we can engage the public better.” She says she didn’t see any signs in the Six Flags area about tonight’s public meeting, but she did see them elsewhere. She cautions against going too far with privatization without looking at the different missions of the private sector and a government. "We need to make sure that we're managing how Cobb County provides services not only with the best bang for our dollars." She also is concerned about cutting Cobb Community Transit routes and effectively segregating people to having access only to their own part of the county.

8:05 p.m. Brett Bitner from the Cobb County Taxpayers Association is next. Ask whether it is the proper role of government for each service the county offers. Make CCT a break-even system. Eliminate double-dipping by retirees who collect pension and salary. Consolidate local libraries into regional libraries.

8:03 p.m. New speaker: “Cobb is doing the right things. We’re the best.” He suggests looking at government structures in nearby jurisdictions to get a better perspective. “You may find out that we are a very lean and efficient government.” Highly motivated employees make an organization efficient and effective. “Don’t just say cut, cut, cut. What’s wrong with raising the millage?” He gets applause.

8 p.m. Next speaker: Our concern this evening is about the transportation infrastructure. The county needs to look at transit in underserved communities, including weekends. The transportation needs to be in communities where people would actually ride the bus. She also says the committee should represent the community better. There’s no African-American woman on the panel and no “young person.”

7:55 p.m. Amy Barnes is next. She thanks the committee for its help and says the county is doing the right thing. “We are on the way to a much better government through transparency.” But she doesn’t think the county government is structured the right way. Million-dollar salaries should be cut out, and contracts should be restructured. Fire services are outstanding. As far as the senior centers go, the ultimate goal is privatization, but a short-term approach is needed. What you really are doing is taking the first steps toward planning for the next 10 generations. Come up with a long-term privatization announcement as a goal. Come up with a contingency plan for further cuts in each department in steps as necessary, “like a 12-step program.” She says $6,000 of the $3 million for nonprofits went to a group that doesn’t exist because it changed its name in 2007. “This 12-step program should apply to these charities, and we the people should vote on which of these charities should get our money.”

7:55 p.m.  McClung: Remember that we’re looking for suggestions for change.

7:52 p.m. Vicki Morrow, the CEO of a local nonprofit, is next. Board chair of the Cobb County Collaborative, which represents more than 100 nonprofits and a few other agencies. We’ve been here almost 15 years. We collaborate the resources and talents of the groups. Why should the county fund nonprofits? We provide that safety net. Without the group, many people would be homeless or in the criminal justice system. It’s less than 1 percent of the county budget and serves as an investment to save on future expenses from county problems that are avoided. “This is something that is needed. … We have been very good stewards of the county dollar.”

7:47 p.m. Craig Harfoot is next. He wishes some private citizens were on the board. McClung is pressing him to get to his suggestions instead of rambling on or attacking the committee members. We don’t need to be funding nonprofits. “You’re good at rattling people when you want to, Brett,” Harfoot says. He says a lot of developments are two or three years delinquent in property taxes. Take our delinquent tax reports and overlay them with the liens recorded in the courthouse because what’s happening is the banks are not foreclosing. By not foreclosing, the banks are hiding their responsibility to pay those taxes, Harfoot says.

7:42 p.m. Lance Lamberton of the Cobb County Taxpayers Association is next. He has many suggestions. First, don’t make donations to nonprofits. That’s a $3 million savings. Cut pay for top executives and the board chairman, at least on a temporary basis. Avoid tax increases at all costs because money must be kept in private hands to create wealth. Get employee benefits in line with the private sector. Look at eliminating services that compete with or replicate private or nonprofit services. Any service that can be provided outside the county government is something you need to look at. The Barnes Amphitheatre and the Cobblestone Golf Course need to be sold. Reduce or eliminate subsidies in recreational activities. Try a needs-based fee structure. The two most important things: contracting out services and privatization.

7:37 p.m. Second speaker doesn't give his name but says he is impressed by the committee. He calls for concentrating on the county Finance Department for improvement. He says the media have been the county's only oversight committee until now. He says the report of a good 2010 audit followed by the report of the defiict of more than $31 million in this fiscal year left the appearance of intent to confuse the county's citizens. "Please allocate some of your valuable time and scrutinize the Cobb County Finance Department for any shenanigans."

7:34 p.m. The comments begin. First up is Ron Siphon (we'll give names if we get them, but the spellings will be a guess). He's already submitted comments through the website. He says the county has a long history of not clearly defining what a hiring freeze means. He wants the commissioners to draft a clear directive for the departments. "I think that will result in some major savings." Stop initiating new projects and new studies, he says, and delay anything that can wait. “We need to stop spending.”

7:32 p.m. It looks like about 100 people in the crowd, plus nine of the 10 committee members. James Rhoden Jr. is absent.

7:26 p.m. We're running through the bios of all the committee members at the request of an audience member.

7:23 p.m. The target for the committee is $25 million to $30 million in savings.

7:20 p.m. McClung: “We’re not here to talk about the past. … It doesn’t really matter how we got here. The only thing that matters is how we go on from here.”

7:20 p.m. McClung: Finances, management structure, operations and community needs vs. revenues cover the committee's scope of review. Three main questions: Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing it the right way? Are we paying the right amount?

7:15 p.m. Bob Barr: Thank you already for the many emails. 

7:10 p.m.First committee Chairman Brett McClung, then each of the four teams of the Citizen Oversight Committee is giving an overview of the panel's operations. McClung says the June 28 target is completely unrealistic to do the job properly. "We’ll give them what we have at that time, then ask if they want us to continue."

7:03 p.m. It looks like we have 50 or 60 people here so far.

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