Development Authority Chairman Clark Hungerford acknowledged Tuesday that a conversation needs to take place involving the school board.
He plans to have a summit inviting the school board, county commissioners and local lawmakers to help them understand the Development Authority’s role in encouraging economic development.
“You ought not to change stuff until you understand how it works,” Hungerford said Tuesday about the Cobb Legislative Delegation.
Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) takes exception to that statement.
State legislation governs the Development Authority and Cobb’s legislators are well-versed in that law, he said in an email Wednesday.
“We also understand that it would be a good idea for the Authority to examine its processes and to make some changes regarding best
practices, transparency and communication — changes that seem to be sorely needed,” Golick said.
“We understand that while we certainly have no desire to endanger future economic development, we also understand that there is a potentially systemic problem with the Cobb Development Authority as evidenced by the condescending and arrogant comments of the Authority’s Chairman (Hungerford) that clearly demonstrate an unwillingness to accept the reality that the authority has no one to blame but itself for its current predicament.”
Golick says he shared his point of view with the Development Authority’s attorney during a meeting at the Capitol and there are either communication problems or “there is simply an unwillingness by the authority to look in the mirror and answer the question honestly of how things got to this point.
“The people of Cobb County deserve better than all of this dysfunction, arrogance and hypocrisy,” Golick said.
Birrell offers proposal
Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell’s answer to the problem is to dedicate two seats on the Development Authority to representatives of Cobb’s school system.
Birrell’s plan comes the day after Development Authority board member Karen Hallacy offered to step down from her post so school officials could be represented on the board responsible for fostering economic development, often by giving out lucrative tax breaks.
The makeup of the authority’s board, appointed by the Cobb Board of Commissioners, fell into criticism following a controversial tax break offered to the Riverwalk mixed-use project proposed by developers John Williams and Tad Leithead.
Though Leithead’s planned 250 apartment units and 10-story office tower didn’t meet Cobb’s requirements for incentives, including creating 25 jobs and contributing $500,000 to the tax base, Hallacy and her colleagues on the Development Authority still offered the $103 million development a 10-year graduated tax break.
That drew sharp criticism and a legal battle from the Cobb Board of Education, which wanted more say over incentives that impact its bottom line.
Leithead and Williams ultimately withdrew their application for the tax break. The future of the 7-acre Riverwalk site near the new Braves stadium is now unclear, though Williams had threatened to build in Fulton County if he didn’t get the tax break he wanted.
The Development Authority and school board have not reached any agreements yet about how to consider future requests for tax incentives.
Chairman Hungerford’s wife, Cheryl, is a deputy superintendent for Cobb Schools. Hallacy, a former lobbyist for Cobb Schools, is challenging state Rep. Matt Dollar (R-east Cobb) for his seat in the State House.
Birrell says schools need representation
Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb, said the school system deserves representation because two-thirds of the property taxes residents pay goes to fund schools.
“I just feel that it would be appropriate for them to have a seat at the table when it’s affecting them and their tax base,” Birrell said.
She suggested two seats on the board be designated to school system representatives.
Each member of the Board of Commissioners makes an appointment to the Development Authority, but there are seven seats on its board and just five commissioners.
Both Commissioners Bob Ott and Helen Goreham now have two appointees on the board.
Birrell wants commissioners to make one appointment each and have the school board make a recommendation on who should fill the remaining two slots. The final say on who gets the school board’s seats would still be in commissioners’ hands.
Development authorities statewide are governed by Georgia law. Local legislation creates those authorities and lays out their powers and the makeup of their governing boards.
Typically, any changes to an authority’s composition would need the support of local lawmakers.
Still, Birrell says it wouldn’t take a change to state law to make her proposal possible.
Commissioners are already tasked with appointing the members of the authority’s board.
“It wouldn’t need to go through the Legislature since we already make the appointments,” Birrell said.
To state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), it’s not about having designated seats on the Development Authority board for school representatives.
He wants the school board to be given the power to dedicate or withhold school revenue for economic development projects, like Riverwalk.
Tippins, a former chairman of the Cobb Board of Education, says the school system should have the chance to evaluate the merits behind developments seeking costly incentives. He did exactly that during his tenure on the board when it came to evaluating tax allocation districts.
“As a school board member, I would never say never toward committing those funds, but I believe it should be the decision of the school board,” said Tippins, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Hallacy can’t give away her seat
Ott, who represents southeast Cobb on the Board of Commissioners, says he appointed Hallacy to the Development Authority to see if tweaks or improvements could be made, but it’s not her place to decide who gets to succeed her.
“It’s the Board of Commissioner’s seat to fill, not the individual appointees. So I’m not going to speak for the board,” Ott said. “But I think the important thing to point out is it’s not her seat to determine who goes into it.”
Golick echoed Ott’s sentiments in an email Wednesday.
“As to Ms. Karen Hallacy, the seat that she holds on the board of the authority is not something that she has the discretion to transfer to someone else,” Golick said. “Ms. Hallacy is an appointee of Commissioner Bob Ott, and I really don’t know how she could not be aware that the seat doesn’t belong to her.”
Golick also said Hallacy voted against the financial interest of Cobb’s schools despite being the registered lobbyist for the district, “which is nothing short of bizarre.”