Tippins (R-west Cobb) asked county Chairman Tim Lee for a legal opinion on the controversial topic during Monday’s legislative breakfast between lawmakers and the Board of Commissioners, held at the senior center off Powder Springs Street.
The Development Authority of Cobb County, an unelected board whose members are appointed by commissioners, has granted 10-year tax abatement to the proposed $103 million “Riverwalk” apartment and office project planned for the Cumberland/Galleria area by mega-developer John Williams.
“From a school board perspective, has there been a legal study done on the constitutionality of the Development Authority exempting property from the collection of taxes by the school board, who has no appointive powers over the authority nor input into the decision?” Tippins asked Lee.
Tippins chairs the Senate Education Committee and is a former chairman of the Cobb Board of Education.
Lee said he was not aware of any such opinion, prompting Tippins to ask for one. Lee said he didn’t mind ordering a legal opinion, “as long as we understand that the whole purpose of the Development Authority and what it does is to be competitive in economic development.”
Is it constitutional?
Tippins said he fully supports the county being competitive.
“But I believe local school boards are given the authority to collect taxes for the local Board of Education, and I’m not sure an authority that they have no appointment or no hand in appointing or no input into the process can take over their constitutional authority to collect taxes, and I’d like to see a legal opinion,” he said.
Roughly two thirds of the taxes collected go to the school board while one third goes to the Board of Commissioners, Tippins said.
“The county commissioners who collect a third by their action of appointing the authority (members) preclude the other party (school board) from collecting the majority of the funds. I question whether that’s legal,” Tippins said.
Just because a law is passed doesn’t mean it’s constitutional, Tippins said.
“The digest is pretty well spelled out by the county assessor, and to exempt property from that digest that the school board has constitutional authority to collect against, to exempt part of those properties without input from the school board, I’m not sure that’s in the best interest of Cobb County,” Tippins said.
State Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna), who was also at the breakfast, agreed with Tippins that a legal opinion was needed. Hill said most times the Development Authority will award tax breaks if the proposed development has met the county’s guidelines. The controversy over Williams’ development comes from Lee saying this development does not meet county guidelines for incentives, yet the Development Authority is granting a tax break anyway.
“So to the point of the school board, maybe that should be looked at too, where the school board gets to put members of the Development Authority on the board,” Hill said.
Wilkerson wants accountability
State Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell) asked to meet with Lee about the relationship between the Development Authority and commissioners and who has the final decision on granting the tax breaks.
“As an elected official I always think the best end point should be someone who is accountable to the taxpayers,” Wilkerson told Lee.
Lee said he had already been reflecting on Wilkerson’s “excellent” question.
“It’s been something I’ve been giving a lot of consideration to in the last couple weeks as (the MDJ) needs to fill pages for (its) paper. I think having a sit-down conversation is good to have,” Lee said.
Lee went on to note how Development Authority officials will appear before Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge Mike Stoddard this morning for a bond validation hearing — the final step before the authority awards the tax breaks.
“It goes to a judge who, by definition, can’t follow popular demand and say, ‘well, there’s an uproar in the MDJ about this. I’m not going to pass it through,’” Lee said.
Like Wilkerson, Hill believes the final decision to award tax breaks should rest with commissioners, not the unelected Development Authority chaired by Vinings Bank executive Clark Hungerford.
“Boy, do we ever potentially need to look at that at the state level because it offers so much authority for the giving out of tax breaks and elected officials aren’t ultimately on the hook for it when they probably should be,” Hill said. “There should be an appeals process that allows for people to at least have a chance to overturn the argument.”
Hill said there’s not a lawmaker in Cobb who is opposed to smart growth.
“But when there is a financially viable project that can take place without government subsides, then it should,” Hill said. “That’s really all we’re talking about. It shouldn’t be a situation where we’re just helping a development to be more advantageous for somebody as opposed to legitimately getting a development that would otherwise be dead off the ground.”
Lee said he planned to follow up with Tippins and Wilkerson on their requests in January.