Cobb has a long tradition of well-run, corruption-free local government and low taxes, and Olens added to that legacy. His conservative outlook matched that of most county residents, and so did his tight-fisted approach to fiscal matters. He and his board had kept the county's budget in good shape when times were good; so that when the economy went bad Cobb was in far better shape than any of its neighbors. We have weathered the storm thus far without any tax hikes, layoffs, furloughs or drastic cuts in services and without deep dips into the reserves.
"We didn't have the fat those governments had before, and that's really protected us a lot in this process," he told the MDJ editorial board on Monday. "Short of the commercial sector taking a huge hit, that we should actually be OK. I didn't say 'fine,' but 'OK.' We'll have reasonable reductions, but I don't see the closing days of parks and libraries that others are doing. From the time we removed merit (pay increases) and did the hiring freeze and told our employees we would try the best we can for no furloughs or layoffs, they've done everything we've asked. They've stepped up to the plate and done an excellent job."
Carefully helming the county government through the worst economic storm since the Great Depression may go down as Olen's biggest achievement, but there have been many others. Under his leadership, the county has finished every budget year in the black with a surplus and has maintained the lowest tax rate in metro Atlanta. It passed an $825 million SPLOST referendum for roads, a new courthouse and jail expansion, and passed a pair of $40 million SPLOSTs for parkland acquisition. It has completed the Chattahoochee sewer tunnel, the Sutton wastewater treatment plant expansion and started construction on the South Cobb tunnel. It has completed the Hickory Log Reservoir near Canton, which is now steadily filling up to help protect Cobb from future droughts.
Also during Olens' years, the county developed the West Park Government Center on Whitlock Avenue and is in the process of developing the Powder Springs Station senior center on Powder Springs Road, completed the purchase of the Hyde Farm for parkland, created the East Cobb Park, built the South Cobb Aquatic Center, opened two regional libraries and two smaller libraries, and agreed to help fund the renovation of the historic Strand Theatre on Marietta Square, which is helping to further revitalize downtown.
And those are just the high spots of a busy tenure for the chairman. Being Cobb Commission chairman amounts to a fulltime job these days, the equivalent of being the mayor of unincorporated Cobb. Yet Olens deftly balanced those responsibilites with those commensurate with being married and the father of a pair of teenagers. And he also found time somehow to serve as one of the most effective Atlanta Regional Commission chairmen in that body's history.
Olens employed a collegial, non-confrontational style that played well with his fellow elected officials and with the public. The chairman was the antithesis of the "shoot from the lip" style of politician; and when he advocated a position or program, you could be sure he had immersed himself in every facet of its possibilities for the county.
Olens brought many skills to the job, but one of the most important was his ability as a communicator.
"We spent a lot of time, the county manager and myself, with the district commissioners, keeping them apprised of issues so that there weren't surprises at meetings and asking them for their input, and revising the agenda items before it ever came to the board so that we were more efficient," Olens told the MDJ. "No government's perfect, no government's going to be perfect, but communication is key."
Are Cobb's other public officials taking notes? They should.
We take a lot of things for granted in Cobb County, but in truth they don't come easy. They are the result of years of hard work and outstanding leadership by the likes of Sam Olens.
Olens is now moving on. We wish the Emory Law grad all the best as he seeks his party's nomination. And should it come to that, Cobb's loss would be the state's gain.