So what almost happened during the current session of the state Legislature? The exact opposite, that’s what.
A bill passed the Senate and is in the House that would sharply limit the ability of school boards to contest such money-grabs by development authorities and also give those authorities the power to grant tax abatements for a broader array of items in the name of “economic development,” while simultaneously making it much harder for the public to contest them, according to critics.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), the CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the North Fulton Community Improvement District, one of whose members is Tad Leithead, who also served as the consultant to developer John Williams on his controversial $103 million “Riverwalk” project in the Galleria area. Williams was handed a 10-year-tax abatement by the Development Authority of Cobb County, with the bulk of those funds (about $4.3 million) to have come out of the Cobb School Board’s budget, because the bulk of local property tax revenue goes to education. Yes, the school district — which was blindsided by the Authority’s abatement decision — would have benefited in the long run once Riverwalk was built out and taxes were finally being levied at the “full freight” weight, but by that time, almost all of today’s K-12 students would have graduated. And the controversy played out against the background of the Cobb School District facing a projected $79 million budget shortfall for next year. Williams eventually pulled his application for the tax abatement, and there the matter rested — or so it seemed until this week.
That’s when it was learned that the pro-development authority forces (there are 150 such authorities in Georgia including eight in Cobb) had gotten behind Beach’s bill and lined up sufficient votes to see it pass the Senate.
For starters, critics contend Beach’s bill would allow abatements for the construction of hotels, motels, nursing homes and office buildings, rather than restricting them to big-scale projects that would have a clear economic impact. Moreover, while the public conceivably might think such abatements are worthwhile for big projects, it’s doubtful they want their school-tax dollars being frittered away to build more motels and hotels, etc.
“My greatest objection is that this bill has the potential to further defund education in Georgia by extending the exemptions from paying school taxes to selected parties,” explained state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, (R-west Cobb), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “We’re already in a funding crisis in education and this further exacerbates the funding crisis that we have by exempting additional properties by statute.”
Very significantly, it also would let unaccountable, unelected authorities use tax dollars to play winners and losers, reward favored developers and thereby give those developers a substantial and unfair financial advantage over their competitors.
Beach’s bill also would remove the current responsibility of the district attorney to attend bond validation hearings in Superior Court in connection with the abatements to attest that certain guidelines have been met. In place of the D.A., the authority would be the one assuring the court the guidelines had been met. One more layer of protection for the taxpayer would be removed, in other words.
And while at present the ruling by the Superior Court judge in such cases can be appealed, under Beach’s law, it cannot be. Another layer of protection for taxpayers gone.
All in all, Beach’s bill as written tilts the table steeply in favor of developers and against taxpayers and public schools. And it’s proved controversial enough in the House that the powerful House Rules Committee sent it back to the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee on Monday for further study. And that’s where it belongs.
“Sometimes the most important thing we can do in the final days of the General Assembly is not pass a law rather than allow a bill to slip through that has unintended consequences or raises concerns in a local community and certainly there have been a lot of concerns that have been raised,” Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Buckhead) told the Marietta Daily Journal on Tuesday. “It sort of begs the question of ‘Why push this bill through?’ Why don’t we simply let this debate work its way out another year?”
Why not, indeed?