Forum set for concerns over developer tax break
by Nikki Wiley
December 14, 2013 11:56 PM | 2056 views | 1 1 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — Cobb’s legislative delegation is ready to listen to school officials’ concerns about the bevy of tax breaks being offered to corporations and how that affects the school system’s bottom line.

The delegation has scheduled a Cobb County forum for Wednesday from 9 to 10:45 a.m. at the YWCA of Northwest Georgia, 48 Henderson St., Marietta.

Cobb’s delegation will sit down with the school board next week during the routine meeting before the start of each General Assembly session. The session begins Jan. 13.

Members of the county’s school board didn’t take any official action during last Wednesday’s meeting against a tax break for real estate tycoon John Williams’ $103 million mixed-use development near the planned new Braves stadium.

Still, officials expressed disapproval that the school system wasn’t informed when negotiations began about the incentives deal.

How much will school system lose?

The system would lose $46,433, the amount paid to the county school district in 2013, in tax revenue annually. More importantly, it would miss out on the $756,000 that a $103 million development would be expected to pump into the district’s coffers annually, over the 10-year tax abatement. Developers would start paying taxes once the buildings are occupied with full ownership gradually taking shape over 10 years.

The project didn’t meet the county’s requirements of creating 25 jobs and contributing $500,000 to the tax digest, but the Development Authority, which is chaired by Vinings Bank executive Clark Hungerford, husband of Cheryl Hungerford, a deputy superintendent for the school district, is moving ahead anyway with a 10-year property tax abatement.

Should Development Authority be required to inform?

School board member Tim Stultz said at Wednesday’s meeting he would like to see the Development Authority be required by law to let the school system know when it is negotiating with tax revenue that funds schools.

School Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn said that idea may come up during an “informal discussion” next week with the delegation.

“I haven’t formed an absolute opinion on that, but my inclination is that if we can’t keep each other informed, then maybe (through legislation) we should be required to keep each other informed,” Scamihorn said.

Some members of the Development Authority have reached out to him, Scamihorn said, and he’s hopeful that future conversations will be productive. Nelson Geter, executive director of the Development Authority, could not be reached for comment.

The Development Authority was created by an act of the General Assembly and is governed by its enabling law and another state law that pertains to development authorities statewide.

Delegation willing to listen

State Sen. Judson Hill (R-east Cobb), chairman of Cobb’s delegation, said he wasn’t aware the school board thinks a change is needed.

“This is the first I’ve been made aware of it, so I’d want to reach out and talk to the rest of the delegation before I make an opinion on their behalf,” Hill said.

But he added that while the General Assembly created the Development Authority, it’s not tasked with oversight. That, he said, is left up to the Cobb Board of Commissioners which appoints members to the authority.

“Once we’ve delegated authority, I’m sure they hope that we won’t get involved in their decision process … unless we are made aware of abuse,” Hill said. “I’m not going to speak for or against most items without having first a discussion with the school board or the commissioners to make sure I’m speaking with full knowledge.”

State Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell) says leaving tax dollars in the hands of elected officials who are accountable to voters is the best way to ensure transparency.

“I’m fine with a non-elected board making recommendations,” Wilkerson said.

He also wonders if Riverwalk, which includes rentable condos and townhomes along with an office tower, is an appropriate recipient of a tax abatement.

“There seems to be a question as to whether or not the incentives should have been given based on the guidelines that are in place,” Wilkerson said.

Once one incentive is given, Wilkerson said, it opens the door for other requests.

“Do we need incentives to build more condos? I don’t know if that’s the right place,” Wilkerson said of Cumberland, pointing to the Atlanta Braves’ plan to open a stadium in the area in 2017.

At the same time the Development Authority was negotiating incentives for Riverwalk, Cumberland-based The Weather Channel was asking the Cobb Chamber of Commerce for a laundry list of perks including property tax waivers on new construction and tax credits on 200 to 300 jobs with an average salary of $75,000.

The final step before the tax waiver is approved is a bond validation before Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge Michael Stoddard at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, which will give critics an opportunity to voice concerns.

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December 15, 2013
The real forum should be over whether or not the Development Authority should have the right to give away future tax income for anybody.
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