Attorneys and officials representing The Development Authority of Cobb County are slated to appear before Senior Judge Mike Stoddard on Tuesday morning in Cobb Superior Court for a bond validation hearing — the final step before the Authority awards tax breaks for the $103 million “Riverwalk” apartment and office project planned for the Cumberland/Galleria area by mega developer John Williams.
The county (and many of its counterparts around the state and nation) has quietly been offering tax abatements and incentives for years to help lure new development. Nothing new there.
What’s new is that this is the first time, as far as known, that Cobb County has offered tax abatements to a developer to help build multi-family housing. Williams plans 236 rentable condos and 14 three-story townhome apartments as part of his development.
If Stoddard signs off on the plan, the Development Authority would sell bonds to underwrite Williams, who would enjoy 10 years’ worth of tax breaks on the property, paying taxes on only 10 percent of its value in 2015, then 20 percent the next year, 30 percent the following year and so on.
Williams has a reputation as a top-of-the-line builder. But Cobb is not exactly suffering from a dearth of rental housing, and many wonder why the county would spend tax dollars to create more of it and the challenges it tends to create (schools, traffic, etc.). And we’re all familiar with examples of apartments that were “the place to be” when built, but which decades later have the opposite reputation.
ADDING FUEL to the doubts about the pending development is the way the incentives were approved. Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee sent a letter to Williams rejecting his subsidy request for failing to meet eligibility requirements — but in the same letter, urged Williams to continue seeking “other incentives.” And the Authority ultimately approved Williams’ request despite Lee’s ostensible opposition. If Lee was upset about being overridden by a subordinate board, he has yet to make a public peep about it.
As we noted here last week, Authority Director Nelson Geter has said his board follows the county requirements 90 percent of the time.
But if there is a clear policy or criteria for judging the other 10 percent of proposed deals, the Authority has yet to make it public.
If the Authority and Lee want to build public confidence in the process by which they spend tax dollars to encourage local development, they’re going about it “bass ackwards.”
SOME DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY MEMBERS are saying this will be a good deal in the long run for the schools. That may well be, but AT and many others fear they are missing a critical point: that Cobb might be setting a terrible precedent.
An unelected body, with no clear policy or procedure, without the support of the County Commission, in Cobb’s hottest business district, uniquely awards Cobb’s most well-known and best-connected developer a lavish tax abatement on a multi-family project. The number of jobs being created is a moving target at best and the need for tax incentives to do business in what’s often called “The Platinum Triangle” is even more questionable.
For years Cobb leaders would gripe that Gwinnett was “eating our lunch” by landing major corporate relocations and the Braves’ minor league team and seeing booming developments across that county. Today however, after indictments, convictions and ongoing investigations, we find Gwinnett’s reputation tarnished and its government’s credibility eroded because unscrupulous developers, business leaders and some commissioners were joined at the hip.
COBB has been fortunate through the years to avoid the kind of scandals that plague many metro counties. We sincerely hope the “Cobb way” does not become synonymous with “the wrong way.”
Whether the bonds for this deal are validated next week or not, the taxpayers of Cobb deserve better from our elected officials to ensure Cobb — not Fulton or DeKalb or Gwinnett — remains the county that most of its peers in Georgia want to emulate.
SPEAKING of Tuesday’s bond hearing, Around Town hears it’s such a potential political “hot potato” that Cobb’s Superior Court judges were eager for Stoddard to hear the case. Why? Because Stoddard, as a senior judge, never has to run for office again. In addition, some are hoping public input does not cause Stoddard to delay the validation hearing.
Why? If delayed, it goes on the “wheel” and is randomly assigned to one of the 10 Superior Court judges. It is rumored some of them are not eager to win such a “lottery.”
THE COBB CITIZENS FOR GOVERNMENTAL TRANSPARENCY delivered and read aloud a letter to the Cobb Board of Commissioners on the steps of the Commission Building just off the Square on Friday morning, protesting the county’s support for the pending move here of the Atlanta Braves.
Group spokesman Rich Pellegrino says the Memorandum of Understanding the county signed with the Braves “fails to pass even a rudimentary smell test as the basis for committing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
As reported in Around Town before, his group consists of a strange-bedfellows coalition of environmentalists, civil rights groups like the Cobb SCLC, Open Borders advocates like Pellegrino and tea party groups, including the Cobb Taxpayers Association (Lance Lamberton), The Madison Forum (Michael Opitz) and the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots (Debbie Dooley of Gwinnett).
The letter argues that the stadium will bring only “modest” economic development at best to Cobb. There’s no mention of the 9,000 jobs expected, nor is there any mention of the Braves’ plan to also build a $400 million mixed-use development on the 45 acres adjacent to the stadium. That all sounds a bit more than “modest.”
THE GROUP’S SIX-PAGE LETTER poses dozens of questions, many covering familiar ground. But the tea partiers in the group apparently got hornswoggled by the others, or maybe just out-shouted, considering that the letter argues that the Braves’ stadium project should have been submitted to the Atlanta Regional Commission for “review” prior to its approval by the Commission and strongly implies that the county’s sovereignty is subordinate to the ARC’s. We can’t imagine a conservative group knowingly arguing that the United States’ sovereignty is subordinate to that of the United Nations, to cite the most obvious analogy.
ONE FINAL NOTE: The group’s letter also declares — rather remarkably — that the group has been “unable to find the names of the people” who sit on the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority, the board that will issue the revenue bonds used to build the stadium.
“What other projects is the Authority involved in?” the Pellegrino / Lamberton / Opitz / Dooley letter adds.
Well, for starters, the Authority built the Cobb Galleria Centre convention hall, then later built the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and helped finance construction of the Marietta Conference Center on Powder Springs Street.
As for its mysterious membership, it is chaired — as noted on its web site, as Around Town confirmed in the course of an arduous 45 second search Thursday — by Jerry Nix, former CFO and VP of Genuine Parts Co., who was elected in May, as the MDJ reported at the time. Its other members are former Cobb Commission Chairman Earl Smith, Cobb Commission Chair Tim Lee, Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, developer Johnny Gresham and Robert Voyles, CEO of the Seven Oaks Co. Former chairs have included such little-known local figures as developer John Williams, founder of Post Properties.
The Citizens group is demanding Lee provide answers to all its questions by Dec. 27 — or at least answer the ones we haven’t already answered here, we suppose.