Geter was no doubt told by the Chamber officials who hired him that dealings with the Authority would be “business as usual.” In other words, that it could be counted on to blindly vote in favor of whatever tax breaks and business incentives were set in front of it by the Chamber — and incredibly, to cast those votes without any public discussion of pros and cons, or, even more incredibly, counted on to approve those breaks without even knowing how much money (in the form of tax incentives) was involved.
Can you imagine a county zoning board blindly granting zoning requests without knowing what they were or who requested them or where the properties were? And in zoning cases, large sums of public money aren’t immediately involved, unlike the tax breaks the Authority doles out.
SO WHO CAN BLAME GETER for leaving the lifeless Authority board out of the loop as the Chamber agreed to have the Authority offer $50,000 to Republic Property Company to encourage Fabric.com to move into Republic’s Jiles Road building in Kennesaw? (The deal was also helped along by an additional $50,000 from the Kennesaw Development Authority. And Republic has sought another 50-grand payday from the Cobb Authority, but that bonanza is still up in the air.)
Chamber officials ballyhooed the Fabric move at their recent monthly meeting, but it didn’t go down well with at least one member of the Cobb development authority, former Cobb Commissioner Thea Powell, who complained to Geter at that board’s meeting on Tuesday that the Authority had been blindsided.
“Why are the Development Authority members reading about (the move and incentives) in the paper?” she pointedly asked. “You report to us, right, Mr. Geter?”
Two other members, Bob Morgan and Clark Hungerford, also agreed the Authority should have been clued in.
Believe it or not, Geter’s reported response was to say that he didn’t trust his board and didn’t want the pending move to become public knowledge.
Retorted Powell, “I guess what somebody is saying is that ... we can’t keep our mouths shut.”
Of course, we suspect the real reason Geter acted as he did was that he was following the marching orders from those who hired him, Chamber President David Connell and Chief Operating Officer Demming Bass. For reasons best known to Chamber insiders, the Authority does not hire its own executive director, a highly unusual arrangement that gives the Chamber brass subtle leverage over the Authority director. Geter’s hiring was a surprise and came with little fanfare. And it coincided with the decision that then-director Brooks Mathis would focus on his other job as VP of economic development for the Chamber.
Keeping the Authority board out of the loop was standard operating procedure for the board long before the arrival of Connell and Bass. And the only reason things are now slowly starting to change is because the MDJ began asking questions that board members should have been asking.
Also helping to unearth the shenanigans of recent years was Powell, an appointee of east Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, who for the past year or so has also been asking questions about the commission-created Development Authority and its modus operandi. Powell’s appointment came despite the strenuous objections of Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who disliked her independence of thought and tongue when she was serving on the commission’s budget oversight committee. She and fellow new appointee Donna Rowe have been gusts of fresh air on the Authority board, signaling that the board’s long snooze-fest is over. You can be sure that longtime Authority Chair Don Wix is about as excited about the changes as he is about a trip to the dentist.
Boat-rockers are never popular, and an indication of that could be found in the snarky comment left by someone writing anonymously as “Careful Observer” on the Reader Comment site on MDJonline.com. “Observer” complained that if Powell had attended training sessions when first appointed to the board, she would know much more about how it operates and “what is expected of its members.”
The main attribute demanded of members, “Observer” apparently thinks, is “silence.”
But in point of fact, Powell did attend the all-day session for new authority members held at the University of Georgia after her appointment. That session was led, incidentally by Authority bond attorney Dan McRae (McCrae claims the board does not grant tax incentives. He describes them as “tax savings.” Yes, they are tax savings to the recipient, but not to those granting them. McCrae also has the unusual distinction of representing both the Authority and some of those who come before it seeking incentives.)
THE FABRIC SAGA is the latest twist in the efforts by the Chamber to take full control of the Cobb government’s economic development apparatus — especially its budget. Those efforts can be traced back to at least early 2010.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that Cobb needs to occasionally hand out tax incentives or cash to remain competitive in the game of trying to lure new business here. It’s also true that a certain amount of secrecy comes with the territory. Such incentives and tax breaks can only be granted by development authorities, not by chambers of commerce. But that’s not to say that Cobb’s Authority has to continue to be a handmaiden of the Chamber.
The Authority pays the Chamber $96,000 a year in public money for staffing and overhead. But in essence, the Chamber uses those funds as a piggybank to cover items that should be paid for by Chamber dues.
The Chamber claims to be working to boost the local economy, but many critics suggest its biggest priority is helping its insiders feel like “players” and keeping local politicians happy. The Chamber and politicians can claim to have done things that “brought jobs” — even when, in the case of Fabric, it just amounts to “moving the food around on the plate,” i.e., shifting jobs from Marietta to Kennesaw and possibly tacking on a few extras.
What we’ve been seeing in recent years is constant jockeying among the Chamber, Authority and county economic development department, with spongy lines of authority and responsibility. That, along with the lack of transparency, makes it hard for the public to figure out whom to hold accountable.
The Chamber has been working steadily behind the scenes for years to get more public money and take over more and more of the county’s economic development efforts. The most recent evidence of that was its planned EDGE program, which would be heavily funded by local government entities. It is modeled on a similar program in Gwinnett County, but the Chamber has found it a tougher sell here in Cobb. But you can be sure that if the EDGE program ever really took off that Cobb government would quickly be cut out of the loop, and public transparency along with it.
The county — in view of the confusion and controversies of the past couple of years — should cut the strings that now bind the Authority to the Chamber. The county also should get the Chamber out of the economic incentive/development business except on a voluntary basis. A beneficial side effect of those changes would be greater transparency and less confusion, and less embarrassment for companies negotiating with the Authority, which sometimes have gotten caught in the crossfire.
At present there are too many cooks in the kitchen. The county’s economic development/incentive efforts should become the sole responsibility of the county government.
Then, and only then, can the public be confident that its economic development dollars are being well spent.
POLITICS:. U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta) and state Attorney General Sam Olens will cohost a fundraiser for state Rep. Judy Manning (R-Marietta) from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at United Community Bank in Marietta. … Anne Alder will host a “Meet & Greet” for Commission Chair candidate Bill Byrne on Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. at her home, 4200 Mirkwood Place in Roswell.
KUDOS to Dan Oliver, president of Vinings Bank, which has hosted a series of informal lunches over the past few years featuring some of the state’s movers and shakers. Recent speakers have included Newt Gingrich, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and this week’s guest, Gov. Nathan Deal, who delivered a crisp 30-minute update on the state’s economic recovery efforts. Several wags noted to Around Town, though, that the biggest draw — and most compelling speaker — thus far at the lunches was football legend Herschel Walker.