KENNESAW — No residents spoke either for or against a proposed blight tax by the city of Kennesaw at two public hearings, resulting in an unanimous approval of the program recently.
The program establishes a procedure to identify blighted structures and sets an increased rate of property tax at seven times the normal millage rate. The increase would be applied to the next tax bill cycle, which begins Oct. 1 of each year.
After the vote, City Manager Steve Kennedy said Kennesaw residents understand the city should have an additional tool to address unsightly concerns, even though no actual properties were pinpointed during the council discussions as fitting the description “blighted.”
“I want to thank everyone for supporting the blight tax,” Kennedy said. “I appreciate you all for recognizing (the need).”
At a work session meeting April 2, Councilman Tim Killingsworth said he was initially against the blight tax ordinance, which seemed to be “taking down the downtrodden.”
But after discussions by the council, Killingsworth supported the ordinance, which is designed to encourage good maintenance by private property owners and be an incentive for community redevelopment.
Councilwoman Chris Welsh said the blight tax is a proactive, “forward-thinking” step that could help address the type of nuisance properties found in other cities.
For instance, in 2009 the Sweetwater Creek flooded, destroying many homes and businesses in Austell, which still suffers from the remaining abandoned structures yet to be cleared.
An option outside the courtroom
The Community Redevelopment Tax Incentive Program ordinance states blighted property increases a city’s budget by increasing the need for governmental services, including public safety services and code enforcement services.
Until now, Kennesaw has relied more on abatements through the court system to address slum properties if contact with the owner is unsuccessful or attempts to get the issues addressed fail.
If a judge grants an abatement, city staff or community service workers may enter the property to correct the problem.
Mayor Mark Mathews said he originally had concerns of the type of scenario when the blight tax would be necessary. He said abatement works best on overgrown yards of abandoned buildings for which increasing the property tax would be “silly.”
Mathews was also initially unsure about the need for a new ordinance since Kennesaw has always been “progressive” on code enforcement.
Recently, Mathews said the blight tax program was not installed “on a whim” but after completed studies and research.
“There has been a lot of work put into this,” Mathews said.
The new tool is not designed specifically for commercial or residential properties, he said.
“It can be used effectively in either condition,” Mathew said.
City defines ‘blight’
The Community Redevelopment Tax Incentive Program states a blighted property must meet some of the following conditions: an uninhabitable, unsafe or abandoned structure; an area with repeated illegal activity of which the property owner knew or should have known; or property that is below state, county or municipal codes for at least one year after written notice to the owner.
“Property shall not be deemed blighted solely because of aesthetic conditions,” the ordinance states.
An initial complaint for inspection of a parcel may be made by a public officer or by at least five residents of Kennesaw.
A written inspection report and an initial determination that a property is blighted will be reviewed by the city’s Board of Construction Appeals for confirmation and approval.
Councilman Leonard Church, who was elected mayor of Kennesaw and served two terms, made the motion recently to approve the blight tax.
Church said there has already been a lot of development and improvement in Kennesaw in recent years.
“There is a lot on the table and a lot more down the pike,” Church said. “I am glad to be a part of it again.”
Church did not want to comment when asked if the heavy tax would have a negative long-term impact on how a resident or business owner responsible for a blighted property views living or operating in Kennesaw. He did say the blight tax should be used only as a last resort.
“Hopefully, things can be settled without using it,” Church said. “We didn’t do it to generate revenue.”
Kennedy told the council the new blight tax is not supposed to generate revenue, but be more revenue neutral.
Revenues raised from the blight tax must be used only for community redevelopment purposes, such as defraying the city’s expense to close, repair or demolish unfit buildings and structures, according to the ordinance.
A property owner can petition to lift the blight designation once the work required has been completed and approved by a building official and zoning administrator.
Any outstanding state, school, county and city taxes, including the increased blight tax and governmental liens, must also be paid.