While Lynn Rainey, attorney for the CIDs, says it’s legal for the two districts to give tax dollars to the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network to run advertisements about the transportation referendum, Dendy’s not so sure.
“I would certainly like to see a second opinion on that,” Dendy said. “It is taxpayer money.”
Dendy said he was thinking about the topic just the other night as he was opening up a mailer about the July 31 referendum while at the same time listening to a TV ad about the topic.
“It’s pure advocacy,” Dendy said.
Dendy said the ad uses “a little bit of a scare tactic” regarding what would happen if the referendum to raise the sales tax by 1 percent fails, “along with all these grandiose things that will happen if you do pass it.”
“For the general population who does not look deeply into things, it’s going to affect their vote,” Dendy said. “That’s politics, although it doesn’t mean it’s right.”
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley of Dacula and several candidates for county commission chairman said Friday they agreed with Dendy that the MAVEN ads are advocating passage of the tax, not simply serving as education pieces, as Cumberland CID Chairman Tad Leithead claims.
“The ‘education’ that they’re doing is all one-sided,” Tippins said. “They’re not talking about any of the downside that I mentioned, which is the long-term financial commitments. I think if you have education on any issue, you give people the pros and the cons and let people make their own (decision).”
For example, Cobb’s project list in the Transportation Investment Act does not contain sufficient funding to cover the operating expenses of a possible light rail line from Cumberland Mall to Midtown, Tippins said.
State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation, said there is no question that $2.1 million in non-profit donations and CID tax dollars are being spent to secure a political victory.
“If spending money for the purpose of winning at the ballot box is not political speech, then I’m not sure what is,” Setzler said. “If candidate Newt Gingrich had established a 501(c)3 nonprofit that spent millions of citizen’s tax dollars leading up to the March primary to fund ‘voter information’ about the former Speaker’s record of balancing the federal budget, reforming welfare and lowering taxes, the person responsible would be on their way to jail.”
While Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said in Friday’s MDJ that the community improvement districts’ “money comes from their (business) members,” that is not entirely accurate.
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 county, state and federal tax dollars for their projects, taxes paid by everyone.
Rainey pointed this out in a Tuesday letter to the commissioners, noting that in its 24-year history, the Cumberland CID’s commercial property owners “have contributed $100 million of their taxes to procure $500 million in matching funds for improvements.”
Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, is calling for an investigation into the matter by either Cobb District Attorney Pat Head or Attorney General Sam Olens, saying the CIDs are engaged in unlawful behavior in violation of the Constitution.
“It’s just money laundering,” Dooley said. “It’s money laundering to give to an entity to use taxpayer money to ask taxpayers to raise taxes on themselves so these CIDs can have more money, and I think there needs to be an investigation into that.”
Dooley also believes the CIDs’ boards need to get a second legal opinion.
Even if the CIDs’ actions turn out to be legal — the matter has yet to be decided in a court of law — Dendy said there are moral implications.
“There’s a difference between what’s legally right and wrong and what’s morally right and wrong,” Dendy said. “You have to look at what’s morally right and wrong. I can’t look at myself in the mirror the next morning if I don’t look at things that way, but for a lot of people it just doesn’t seem to bother them. If it’s legally right, they’re going to do it.”
Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee believes the CID board members are engaged in proper behavior, but his opponents disagree.
On Sunday, Larry Savage, one of the candidates for county commission chairman, emailed Cobb’s five commissioners, calling on them to stop the CIDs from funneling money into the advertising campaign. Fellow candidate Mike Boyce of east Cobb also believes the ads are one-sided.
“I think the louder they say they’re not using this kind of educational program to advocate for TIA, the less credibility they’re having,” Boyce said. “The material that I have seen doesn’t reflect both sides of the argument, which is what you want to do on an impartial approach. All the material I’ve seen through my mail clearly indicates that there is nothing except good that comes out of the TIA. That’s clearly not the case.”
At the same time, Boyce said it’s important not to lose sight of all the good the CIDs have done for the Cumberland and Town Center areas.