My colleague, MDJ Columnist Don McKee said, “There are bad bills and then there are really bad bills in the Georgia General Assembly. Senate Bill 353 is a really bad bill.” Hopefully, as you read this SB 353 is a really bad dead bill this session.
Beach’s bill would increase the power of unelected development authorities around the state — including the Cobb Development Authority — to grant tax abatements for such projects as hotels, motels, nursing homes and office buildings and potentially deprive school systems of much-needed revenue streams for years to come. The legislation would also sharply limit a school district’s ability to challenge those tax breaks.
But wait, as they say on the TV infomercials, there’s more. SB 353 would replace the district attorney’s role in assuring certain guidelines have been met in bond validation hearings in Superior Court and would allow that role to be assumed by — are you ready? — the development authorities. And while under current law the ruling by the Superior Court judge can be appealed, under Beach’s bill it could not be.
What is going on here? Connect the dots. The author of the legislation, Brandon Beach, is CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the North Fulton Community Improvement District. One of the members of that group is Tad Leithead, chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement District and former chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission. Oh, and did I mention that Leithead was the consultant to mega-developer John Williams and his “Riverwalk” project?
Riverwalk was a proposed development in the Cumberland area that would have included 236 rental condos, 14 three-story townhome apartments and a 10-story office tower, despite the fact the project did not meet the county’s requirement of creating 25 jobs and a $500,000 economic impact.
The Cobb school board objected to the proposal because the 10-year tax abatements promised to Williams would have cost the cash-strapped school system an estimated $4.3 million, which no one thought to tell the Cobb County school board beforehand. The blindsided school board challenged that decision in court and Williams and consultant Leithead dropped the project. So what happened? SB 353, that’s what. Dots connected.
The bill might have made it through the Legislature this session had it not been for the alertness of Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) and some legislative maneuvering by Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Buckhead) to bury the bill deep in the recesses of a House Committee.
Sen. Tippins, who is chairman of the State Senate Committee on Education and Youth, told the MDJ one of the reasons he opposed the bill is “We’re already in a funding crisis in education and this further exacerbates the funding crisis by exempting additional properties by statute.” Which makes you wonder: Where were the local school boards? Shouldn’t they have been raising a high-profile stink about the bill? After all, we are talking about the very real possibility of school systems around the state taking major hits in their pocketbook.
In my opinion, SB 353 was a clumsy attempt to appease developers while penalizing public school systems in the process. Inexplicably, two of Cobb’s senators — Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna) and Steve Thompson (D-Marietta) — voted for the bill. Voting against the measure with Tippins was Horacena Tate (R-Atlanta.). Sens. Judson Hill (R-east Cobb) and Bruce Thompson (R-White) were marked “excused.”
To the advocates of SB 353, please don’t go getting righteously indignant on me and claim the bill was merely a “housekeeping” measure. In politics, perception is reality. The perception emanating from SB 353, rightly or wrongly, is that Williams, Leithead, et al didn’t get their way playing by the rules so they decided to quietly change the rules. They evidently thought they could tiptoe the measure past a group of clueless or complicit colleagues in the General Assembly.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Joe Adcock, a teammate of Hank Aaron with the then-Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s. Of the future Hall of Famer, Adcock said, “Trying to sneak a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise by a rooster.” May the crowd who tried to sneak SB 353 through this legislative session remember that story before they try this kind of stuff again next year. The roosters will be watching.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.