Eyeing the Authorities: Bill would enhance public’s scrutiny of tax breaks
February 09, 2014 04:00 AM | 2000 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Last fall’s tempest over plans by the Cobb Development Authority to award a 10-year property tax abatement to developer John Williams for his $103 million “Riverwalk” office/apartment project planned in the Galleria area did not go unnoticed by local legislators.

A bill has now been introduced in the Golden Dome with bipartisan support aimed at reining in the ability of such authorities to dole out such tax breaks with virtually non-existent public oversight or scrutiny.

The Riverwalk abatement would have fallen most heavily on the Cobb School District budget, toward which the bulk of local property taxes flow. Yet the board had no say, not even indirectly, in the awarding of the abatement, and did not even know of it until after the fact. The covert “raid” on the school board budget took place even though it was public knowledge the board was wrestling with how to deal with a $79 million budget deficit this year.

The board ultimately filed suit against the Authority in an attempt to preclude it from issuing the bonds involved. Meanwhile, other property owners in the Galleria reportedly started requesting county commissioners grant them similar tax abatements.

Ultimately, Williams chose to withdraw his application for the incentives.

With this year’s legislative session just under way, state Rep. Steve Dollar (R-east Cobb), has introduced a bill aimed at avoiding a repeat of such events. Titled “The Development Authority Transparency and Accountability Act,” it would require development authorities to provide quarterly reports to their county government, local municipal governments and school boards. That would go far to prevent them from being blindsided like the Cobb school board was.

“People in Cobb County were shocked, and rightfully so, that an unelected and completely unaccountable board could approve a sweetheart deal to a single developer, that the county’s own professional staff had recommended not go forward, thus giving away millions of dollars of the county and school system tax revenue,” Dollar said.

In addition, Dollar introduced a resolution that would create The Development Authority Study Committee, which would consider the relationship between authorities and their governing bodies around the state. The Riverwalk case, you see, was being closely watched by other authorities — and school boards — around the state. Among other things, the committee will digest a state audit released in December that suggested development authorities need better-defined ethics policies and greater transparency.

Never was that made more clear than in the Riverwalk controversy.

“The taxpayers need more accountability from the appointed boards and the economic development community needs to know Cobb’s word can be trusted,” Dollar said.

And added state Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell), a co-signer, “Anytime another governmental entity is being impacted by a tax reduction or a reduction in their revenues, I think it’s important that they know.”

Unless the Legislature wants to see a repeat of what we recently endured, it should focus its attention on the issues and suggested solutions embodied in this proposed bill and pass it or something very similar.
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