Why ‘Riverwalk’ went down the drain
by Joe Kirby, Otis A. Brumby III and Lee B. Garrett, - Around Town Columnists
January 18, 2014 12:00 AM | 7114 views | 4 4 comments | 90 90 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“RIVERWALK” came up dry Thursday after Cobb School Board members made clear in a low-profile, high-impact summit meeting that they were not going to roll over and let the Development Authority of Cobb County use school tax dollars to underwrite part of a 10-year property-tax abatement for developer John Williams. Williams contended the abatement was vital to his plans for the $103 million office/apartment project along I-75 and loudly threatened to build Riverwalk in Fulton if he didn’t get it.

But the authority’s efforts hit a wall after the request was successfully recast by the school board as a debate about school funding, not economic development. It became an argument over whether the authority could appropriate the school board’s tax revenues without the board’s say-so. And the authority got things wrong right off the bat, blindsiding the board with the abatement rather than working ahead of time to try and get its buy-in.

It didn’t help Williams’ cause that MDJ reporting showed the authority — with the quiet concurrence of Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee and most of his board — had granted the developer’s request even though it failed to meet the county’s job-creation / economic impact guidelines for winning such an abatement.

Public opinion was quick to shift to the board’s side, encouraging it to stand its ground.

“I have been stopped everywhere I go,” new board Chairwoman Kathy Angelucci told Around Town on Friday. “The response has been overwhelming, people cheering us for doing our job, and our job is to protect the interests of the district.”

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BUT THERE WAS MORE AT STAKE than just the Riverwalk project itself.

“Other school districts have been watching what happened with this very closely — and so have the other authorities,” she said.

There are 150 development authorities in the state, including eight just in Cobb, she said. The fear was that the Riverwalk request could become a precedent for development authorities dipping into school board budgets at will, like the DACC did. That’s why the board chose to contest the validation for the DACC’s bonds in Cobb Superior Court.

“So when you consider that, this is the only thing we could have done,” she said. “We felt unanimously about this, and that’s why it was so important for us to get schooled on this, big time, and understand the process.”

Moreover, with a groundswell in recent months for an increase in school funding — and with support seemingly growing even in parts of conservative Cobb for higher taxes for education — the authority was effectively asking school board members to commit political suicide by supporting the abatement.

Yes, the Riverwalk project would have resulted in increased revenues for the school board in the long run, but not until nearly all of today’s K-12 students had graduated. Their parents are looking at ways to increase school funding now, not a decade from now.

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THE BOARD STUCK TO ITS GUNS, even after an unpublicized powwow Tuesday of a “Who’s Who” of Cobb political and business figures, including state Attorney General Sam Olens, former Gov. Roy Barnes, Lee, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), Cobb Chamber of Commerce CEO David Connell and VP Brooks Mathis and Cumberland Improvement District (and former Atlanta Regional Commission) Chair Tad Leithead, who was there in his capacity as Williams’ consultant on the project.

Also in the room were Development Authority Chairman Clark Hungerford, Angelucci, vice chair Randy Scamihorn, Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa and board attorney Clem Doyle.

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THE MEETING took place at a Galleria-area office building — that is, on Williams’ and the Development Authority’s home turf.

Angelucci and Scamihorn said they were not informed ahead of time there would be so many big guns on hand, and told AT on Friday that they felt “pressured” while there, adding it felt a bit like Daniel walking into the lions’ den. Scamihorn, though, said that neither Olens nor Barnes nor Tippens took sides, “and I don’t think there was any malice or hidden agendas on anybody’s part.”

Olens emailed the Journal late Thursday to say that the point of the meeting was not to prevail on the Authority to drop its legal challenge to the tax abatement, but to encourage settlement negotiations.

“I have concerns with the positions of all of the parties,” he said.

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MANY, including this newspaper, have suggested changing the law in the name of transparency and accountability so that elected officials, not unelected authorities, have the final say on tax abatements and incentives. Gov. Nathan Deal reportedly has said he has no appetite for such a change, at least not this year. So what can be done in the interim to prevent future such standoffs?

Some have suggested adding a school representative or two to the authority board. But Angelucci is not in favor of that.

“I think what would happen is that you’d have school board candidates who’d run and be backed by those that want to influence the development authority, and that’s not good,” she said.

“What sticks out for me is the absolute need for better communication. We are obviously a part of the county and when things occur or proposals come up that would affect us, we should be part of that.”

Her comments were echoed by Scamihorn, who noted as an analogy that the board’s high-profile Facilities & Technology Committee makes recommendations, but does not act as “a parallel school board.”

“I believe we can have more of a spirit of cooperation and notification,” he said. “‘Here is what we want to do and why.’ And I think that would go a long way.”

No doubt.

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POLITICS: Software company exec Kevin Nicholas of east Cobb will run against Post 6 Cobb School Board incumbent Scott Sweeney in May’s Republican Primary.

Nicholas is senior director for business development for PGi (Premiere Global) in Buckhead, the third-largest audio conferencing company in the world. He is a 19-year resident of Cobb, 14-year resident of Post 6 and with wife Denise is parent of three children in Cobb schools.

Nicholas has an MBA from the University of Rochester and is founder and past president of Atlanta Telecom Professionals. He also serves on the Chairman Committee of the Atlanta Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

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MORE POLITICS: Bill Byrne, who’s running to succeed Northwest Cobb Commissioner Helen Goreham, will hold his kickoff fundraiser from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 upstairs at Shillings on Marietta Square. … Bert Reeves, who’s hoping to unseat state Rep. Charles Gregory (R-Kennesaw), will hold his kickoff fundraiser from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at The Strand. ... State Rep. Ed Setzler will have a town hall meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 21 at Summit Baptist Church, 4310 Moon Station Lane in Acworth. ... Syndicated columnist Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a fixture on MDJ Friday editorial pages, will be the keynote speaker at the Association for Corporate Growth Atlanta’s annual Capital Connection Conference Jan. 29 at the Cobb Galleria Centre.

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THE RIVERWALK controversy did not go unnoticed at Thursday’s meeting of the Marietta Kiwanis Club. Owens’ Florists owner Paul Conyngham announced to the club that he was offering floral bouquets to members at a special price in conjunction with the group’s annual Valentine bake sale/fundraiser. And, he coyly added, there was something in the deal for fellow club member Clark Hungerford — who chairs the Development Authority of Cobb County, which had approved the tax abatement for the Riverwalk project.

“I’m donating a portion of the proceeds from the bouquets to Clark because he promised me a tax incentive,” he quipped.

That prompted a quick rejoinder from Club President Judge Mary Staley.

“Oh no — we’re not going to be selling any bonds in this club!” she declared.

Comments
(4)
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LoneAnt
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January 30, 2014
big money fat cats working behind the scenes to rip off taxpayers and get money for "special projects" to make them even richer! deals that need tax money to make a profit? not a good deal. take it to fulton---they'll load on all the money needed!!!
Diamond Jim
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January 20, 2014
I wholeheartedly agree with Craig in Smyrna. I'm not a fan of corporate welfare, and was really put off by the steamrolling tactics and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering of Mr. Williams, the Authority, Tim Lee, et al..but at the same time had Williams been more open to a compromise one might have been found. Instead, it was a "give me what I want, or I pick up my marbles and go home" situation, and all that does is raise tempers and bruise egos. Unfortunately,a school board put on the defensive is not open to alternative solutions either. That said,it would have been a big, big mistake to let such a precedent-setting, outside-the-boundaries deal go forward, as the MDJ editorial writer pointed out.



Craig in Smyrna
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January 18, 2014
While I commend the board for voicing their displeasure over this abatement, I would have counter offered with a plan to allow Williams to continue to pay the current property tax portion for 3 years while the construction is occurring and then have a graduated increase similar to what was proposed. Remember, the school board will not see an increase in tax dollars on a piece of property unless it is developed/built into a higher use. It is a delicate balancing act to help encourage development but also not to give away the store.
west Cobb3
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January 18, 2014
This is yet another reason I will support a conservative challenger to Tim Lee. He promised no increase in property taxes if Cobb residents supported the SPLOST again and a few months after that led the Commission to increase the property tax rate, he was a big supporter of the failed Transportation SPLOST, and now this.
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