The first problem is that the authority is a law unto itself. It can and does decide on tax breaks for a given project. Period. That’s what happened in the case of the $103 million Williams development known as Riverwalk. The project will be huge — 236 condominiums, 14 three-story townhouses and a 10-story office tower to be located by Cumberland Mall.
It’s the sort of project that chambers of commerce and political figures salivate over. Usually, as with the new Atlanta Braves stadium and adjoining mega-development, business leaders and politicians trumpet the number of new jobs and tax revenues that a new project will generate.
Not so for Riverwalk. The project does not meet the county’s requirement of 25 new jobs and $500,000 in new taxes. Thus, most appropriately in keeping with that entirely unambiguous requirement, the developer’s request for a waiver of permit and licensing fees for the project was turned down by a Cobb committee that includes County Manager David Hankerson, Commission Chairman Tim Lee and Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo.
Yet the development authority has approved an issue $103 million in bonds for the project. This will allow the tax-exempt authority to buy the land and lease it back to the developer who has requested an abatement plan with no property taxes to be paid in year one, 10 percent in year two, 20 percent in year three and so on until the 10th year, when the developer gains total ownership of the property.
Here’s the rub for critics — notably Cobb schools superintendent Michael Hinojosa: This year, the undeveloped land where the project will be built produced $46,433 for the school district and $26,803 for the county government. If the $103 million development did not have the tax abatements, it would generate $756,000 for Cobb schools and $436,400 for the county, per estimates by the Cobb finance office as the MDJ has reported.
But the development authority does not have to get approval from the Board of Commissioners in this case because the bonds will not be tax-exempt. So even if the commissioners disagreed with the authority, apparently their hands are tied — although they appoint the authority members under state law creating the agency. Any change would have to be proposed in the General Assembly by the Cobb legislative delegation.
The authority members decided that Riverwalk deserved the tax breaks, presumably based on information, facts and persuasion by the developers. But the authority members, even though they are appointed by the commissioners, do not have to make the case to anyone, including the commissioners. This situation cries out for transparency and accountability.
The duly elected commissioners of Cobb County should have the right to review every decision by the authority. If not, why not? This is the time for our legislators to fix this problem in the name of good government.