Real estate magnate John Williams is financing a mega-development, called Riverwalk, which will include 236 condos, 14 three-story townhomes and a 10-story office tower by the Cumberland Mall.
The development didn’t meet the county’s requirements of creating 25 jobs and contributing $500,000 to the tax digest and was denied a waiver of permit and licensing fees, but the Development Authority of Cobb County is moving ahead with a waiver of property taxes.
The committee that denied the fee waiver was made up of high-ranking staffers, including County Manager David Hankerson and Faye DiMassimo, director of transportation, along with Lee.
But in the same letter in which Lee denied the request for permitting waivers he encouraged developers to continue their quest for tax abatement from the Development Authority. That authority’s board is appointed by the commission.
“To that end, I want to express the county’s support of your efforts as they relate to working with the Development Authority of Cobb County as well as the Board of Tax Assessors to secure other incentives for this project as they determine are appropriate,” Lee wrote.
Lee said his letter was a “courtesy” and he doesn’t know what criteria the Development Authority used to judge the tax abatement it has promised.
“I don’t know what they looked at,” Lee said. “I wasn’t at the meeting. I have no idea why they did what they did.”
At least one commissioner says Lee wasn’t speaking for him when he suggested developers should seek property tax abatement from the Development Authority.
“We were never consulted about it,” said Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents southeast Cobb. “So I think it’s his opinion, I don’t know if it’s necessarily anybody else’s because we were never asked.”
Ott had not seen Lee’s letter until it was sent to him by the MDJ. The MDJ obtained the letter by requesting the incentives application from the county.
Southwest Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid said she thinks refusing to waive fees was appropriate if the criteria wasn’t met, but she along with two of her colleagues aren’t criticizing Lee for supporting the developer’s tax abatement request from the Development Authority.
“I also have no evidence that the chairman’s suggestion to the developer to seek other incentives was an atypical response from him to applicants that do not meet county criteria for relief,” Cupid said. “Thus, without knowing the history of the chairman’s responses, I cannot be critical of his response in this instance.”
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb, also supports Lee’s denial.
Birrell said she wanted to learn more about the incentives deal before she commented specifically.
The same for Commissioner Helen Goreham, of northwest Cobb.
“I don’t have the information at this point,” Goreham said.
Goreham has called both of her appointees, Authority Chairman Clark Hungerford and Vice Chairman Bob Morgan, to learn more about how the deal was made.
“They operate at arm’s length,” Goreham said.
When asked if the Authority should have more oversight, Goreham said that’s a question for Cobb’s local delegation because the agency was created by the Georgia General Assembly.