MARIETTA — Commissioners on Tuesday reset the clock on a tax subsidy for the developer of Belmont Hills, approved a PR firm to market south Cobb and heard from residents critical of Lee’s handling of the Braves project.
Halpern Enterprises, the developer of the Belmont Hills property at the corner of Windy Hill and Atlanta roads in Smyrna, was granted a tax allocation district in 2003. The TAD works by freezing property taxes at a certain level, called the base, for the developer.
Any increase in the property’s value as a result of the development causes property tax revenue to the county, the city of Smyrna and Cobb County School District to increase. However, any revenue above the “base” rate is used to reimburse the developer for expenses related to the project, such as demolition of previously built structures or grading of the property.
The commissioners voted 5-0 to approve establishing 2013 as the new base year. As a result, all deadlines in the original agreement associated with the developer retaining the tax subsidy have been moved forward. The TAD is an incentive the county offers developers to encourage them to build on blighted properties. The commissioners also voted 5-0 to authorize contract negotiations with Charleston, S.C.based Slant Media LLC to develop a marketing and branding strategy for south Cobb after the firm was ranked first by a selection committee.
The selection was met with opposition by Lawrence King, a retired engineer and Austell resident, who said during the public comment session he was disappointed a firm in south Cobb wasn’t chosen. “Whatever happened to ‘Keep it in Cobb’?” he said. Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents the south Cobb area, addressed King’s concerns before the vote.
“I do believe that the selection of the top three ranked firms was based on merit while providing for consideration for firms that are located in south Cobb. And I understand that we do have policy in Cobb which gives local vendor preference for Cobb County. But being given additional points for being in Cobb County does not necessarily mean that firm will be selected for that particular project,” she said.
Also Tuesday, following recent media reports criticizing county Chairman Tim Lee’s handling of the Braves project, Mike Boyce of east Cobb, a retired Marine colonel, asked commissioners to call for a grand jury to investigate the matter.
Boyce addressed commissioners during the public comment section of their meeting and said the board should ask Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds to review the process by which the Braves came to an agreement with the county.
“While you may see yourselves as ordinary people, I’m asking you to do the extraordinary,” Boyce said.
“You have the power to request the District Attorney of Cobb County to empanel a grand jury to get to the bottom of this matter. And I strongly encourage you to do so. What have you got to lose?”
Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area where the stadium is planned to be built, said he would have to think about Boyce’s request for a grand jury before he could comment on whether he would pursue such a measure. Still, he said the public’s lack of trust in the board is an issue.
“I do think that something needs to be done to restore public confidence,” Ott said. “Not just because of the Braves deal, but just in general, we have more people coming to public comment talking about lack of transparency or distrust in us.”
Lee is under fire after media reports alleged he may have acted improperly when he allowed attorney Dan McRae to work to negotiate the memorandum of understanding between the county and the Braves without the knowledge of the other commissioners or the county’s attorney.
Lee said he consulted McRae as a subject matter expert and he was not paid for his services.
Boyce, who ran against Lee in the race for the chairman’s seat in 2012, said, “If the chairman can on his own volition find people to accomplish county business without oversight from the Board of Commissioners, why do we need a board? Why do we need a staff?”
Boyce went on to say the credibility of the board is at stake.
“Now, I appreciate the hesitancy of some of the members of the board to take any action that might delay opening … day for the Braves in 2017,” Boyce said. “However, my observation is that the Braves deal is akin to being a little bit pregnant. This baby’s coming. The only remaining question is who is the real father? Is it transparency or otherwise? If it is not transparency, then I ask you what is most important: the Braves at any cost or the credibility of this board?”
Cupid said the board should look into other options for restoring public trust before requesting a grand jury.
“What I would like to see, short of having to go to a grand jury or to seek some other measure, is to see … what explanation or information could be shared voluntarily with respect to what happened. I would like to see us explore that first because there’s still some outstanding questions,” she said.