Savage, who lives in east Cobb and is a candidate for county chairman in the Republican primary, wrote to the commissioners on Sunday.
“The issues cannot wait, as the CIDs from around metro Atlanta, with leadership from the ARC and Cumberland CID, are fueling a massive effort to bend public opinion in favor of the TIA referendum to be voted on July 31,” he said. “The entire TIA is massively corrupt and it would be intolerable to allow this process to be influenced further by CID money. I believe the CID funding is illegal and that you have the authority and the responsibility to stop it now.”
On July 31, voters across metro Atlanta will decide whether to increase the sales tax by 1 percent for 10 years to pay for transportation projects.
Cobb’s two CIDs have together given more than half a million dollars to the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network for education purposes ahead of the referendum.
Savage is not alone in believing that MAVEN’s efforts are more advocacy than pure education. State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Powder Springs Republican, has also ridiculed the idea and accused Tad Leithead, who chairs both the Cumberland CID and the Atlanta Regional Commission, of playing word games.
“No matter what lipstick you want to put on a pig, it’s still taxpayer money for a ballot deal and that’s wrong,” Ehrhart said.
But attorney J. Lynn Rainey, who represents both the Cumberland and Town Center Area CIDs as well as 11 other CIDs in metro Atlanta, countered “Mr. Savage’s erroneous assertions and requests” in a letter sent to commissioners on Tuesday and defended the contributions to MAVEN.
“Mr. Savage has the right to free speech, but he does not have the right to have you place a muzzle on the free speech of others,” Rainey writes. “The activities of MAVEN are no different than the traditional role governments play in informing the public about bond issues or SPLOSTs. … It would be irresponsible for the voters to be asked to consider a tax but not be informed of the reason it is on the ballot.”
Rainey also defended the CID board members, who he says, “… are now being castigated for faithfully discharging their obligations to improve the district, by contributing to the education of the public so it can make an informed choice whether to support or oppose a complicated ballot question. Surely an informed electorate is preferable to one that doesn’t have a clue, as is only too common when the voters consider down-ballot referendums.”
Savage said he is trying to effect change without going to court.
“It really disturbs me to think that a private citizen has to hire a lawyer and go to court to get people in responsible positions to do the right thing, particularly when those positions are close to or inside government,” Savage said. The commissioners, he said, approved creation of the CIDs, and “if they’ve got the power to create them then they have the responsibility to make sure they behave.”
He is also disturbed that no county commissioner has responded to his letter themselves, and he characterized Rainey’s response as “kind of stern.”
“It’s probably expected to intimate me a little bit,” Savage said.
He’s also well aware that his stance may appear as a campaign publicity stunt, but denied that is his motive.
“I started composing this letter months ago and sat on it for that very reason. I thought, well surely somebody else is going to get into this. People talked about it but nobody acted,” Savage said.
He believes the transportation tax discussion is so one-sided “that it doesn’t matter if you’re one little guy or 5,000 little guys, unless you want to try to raise enough money to try to compete with them dollar for dollar you have no chance.”
“There’s all kind of people running around and complaining, but there’s no rallying point, and I keep coming back to the idea that the organization that is supposed to represent the people is the government.”
Community improvement districts are formed when commercial property owners inside a geographic area agree to tax themselves. They then “leverage” that revenue to win larger grants of state and federal tax dollars for their projects.
“It is a property tax,” Rainey said. “It’s just placed upon the commercial properties (in the district).”
In both the Town Center and Cumberland CIDs, commercial properties are taxed the maximum five mills, Rainey said. The tax brings in about $5.5 million a year in the Cumberland district, and about $3 million each year in the Town Center district.
Rainey, the attorney, believes CIDs have the right to advocate, but he advises them to be more cautious since the question has never been litigated.
“My opinion is that it could probably be used for advocacy, but my advice is that you stick to the conservative end,” Rainey said. “You inform the public of what is on the ballot and let the public make the decision.”
Ehrhart, the state lawmaker who believes CIDs do a lot of good, said Rainey “is an excellent lawyer.”
“Every politician in the world will call their advocacy ads or their mail or anything else ‘education.’ That’s a nice out. ‘I’m just educating the voter. I’m not asking them to vote for me as long as I don’t say please vote for me in it.’ That’s dancing on the head of a pin. As I’ve said, it is spectacularly inappropriate to spend tax money, no matter if it’s CID money.”
In a separate letter to the commissioners also dated Sunday, Savage objects to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s role in the transportation referendum. The ARC is governed by a 39-member board that steers the planning and development for the 10-county Atlanta region.