At the same meeting, Development Authority board member Karen Hallacy called for reform in the way the agency makes its decisions.
The Development Authority, an unelected board whose members are appointed by county commissioners, granted a 10-year tax abatement to the proposed $103 million “Riverwalk” apartment and office project planned for the Cumberland/Galleria area by mega-developer John Williams.
During its Tuesday meeting, Authority Chairman Clark Hungerford asked attorney Dan McRae if he had any legal updates to give the board.
“No report,” said McRae, in spite of the fact that earlier that morning the Cobb School District was objecting in Cobb Superior Court to Williams’ tax break.
Is it legal?
Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) on Monday questioned the constitutionality of the Development Authority granting tax breaks that impact school revenue when the school district has no representation on the Authority. Authority board member Bob Morgan asked McRae about that question.
“Has that been adjudicated before?” Morgan asked.
McRae encouraged discussion, but only behind closed doors.
“If this is a question about pending litigation to be discussed, I ask that it be done in executive session,” said McRae, who has also been hired by county Chairman Tim Lee to work on the county’s deal with the Atlanta Braves.
Hungerford then asked McRae to disclose what he knew about the morning’s legal hearing, at which point McRae finally revealed that the Cobb School District had filed “interventions” against the Williams’ development. The judge had continued the case, McRae said, until Dec. 30.
“We’re giving you as much information as we know, which is not much,” Hungerford told the board. “We will definitely know more and we will communicate that once we know.”
Hallacy wants reform
Hallacy, who recently announced she is challenging state Rep. Matt Dollar (R-east Cobb) in next year’s primary, had more to say about the subject.
Hallacy passed out a Dec. 11 letter she sent to Hungerford in which she called for improving the Development Authority’s decision process. Better communication was needed with the Cobb Board of Education, Hallacy said, suggesting that perhaps a new member could be added to the authority to represent the school district, a suggestion state Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna) made on Monday.
Hungerford said Hallacy’s request was legitimate, although he defended existing practices.
“I do say that everything we’ve done is open record, is on the table for everybody to look at, and we can figure out if there’s additional ways that maybe we need to communicate that we haven’t over the past for the last 30-plus years or last 40 years,” Hungerford said. “The Development Authority has worked pretty well in conjunction with all the elected bodies represented. If there’s ways to improve it as things change, maybe we need to look at those things.”
Members defend tax breaks
Board members defended their vote granting the tax break to Williams’ development after the meeting.
“John Williams has done a lot for Cobb County, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with our vote on this,” said Morgan, a CPA with Marietta-based Cerqueda, Morgan & Collins. “We voted on the project. It looked like it would be something that would be good for the county.”
An appointee of Commissioner Helen Goreham, Morgan said he was unaware when voting on the tax break that the Cobb School District faced a $79 million shortfall.
“But I think we would have done it anyway because you got to look at the long term,” Morgan said. “Ten years from now, they’re going to be getting $700,000 a year property tax instead of $40,000. I don’t know of any businessman that wouldn’t look at this deal and say, ‘I’ll take that.’”
Hallacy, an appointee of Commissioner Bob Ott, said she voted for the tax break based on the information she was given at the time.
“The question I asked is would this move forward without the tax abatements and the answer (from Williams’ consultant, Tad Leithead) was unequivocally, ‘no,’” Hallacy said.
Hallacy pointed out that when Leithead gave his initial presentation on the development in September, it wasn’t public knowledge that the Braves were planning to move nearby.
“I don’t know if he knew about the Braves. I know that we didn’t know about the Braves,” Hallacy said. “But I think that the questions that I asked were the best ones that I knew at the time.”
Communication, Hallacy said, should be done the way it was in 2005, when Sam Olens was county chairman and Kathie Johnstone was school board chairwoman.
“Years ago, when Sam was commissioner and Kathie Johnstone was chair of the school board they tried to have meetings informal — coffee, no decision process going on, no quorum, no policies being made — just what’s going on in your backyard, what’s going on in my backyard,” Hallacy said. “I think that that is critical.”
Hallacy said she hopes the Development Authority will iron out the communication problems in January.
McRae, the Development Authority attorney, declined to be interviewed after the meeting.