At an Oct. 22 special called session, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission got its first look at the plans for creating two tax allocation districts in ACC. Despite being in the works for more than six months, the commission had several qualms with the report.
The plans propose to create two TADs surrounding the “Downtown River District,” consisting of areas directly north and east of downtown and other property along North Avenue, and the Newton Bridge Area.
Under the TAD, those areas’ property taxes are withheld from general use, along with the Clarke County School District Board of Education’s property taxes each year, for 20 years, and funneled back into redeveloping that area. The school board must consent to its property taxes being included in the TADs, according to both plans.
If approved, the 20 years of would-be property taxes that will instead be used for the TADs are estimated to total $400 million.
With the vote to approve the plans slated for Nov. 5, some commissioners were concerned about the reports’ failure to outline specific uses for the money, citing lack of community input and the majority of the costs being placed on CCSD.
“We’re operating on faith here,” District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson said. “I want to have some kind of idea of what we’re getting into before we jump into it especially since it’s going to run through 2039.”
District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby felt the process is being rushed.
“This is the first day that we’ve had a chance to read it,” Hamby said. “We’re being asked how we’re going to spend $400 million dollars over the next 20 years. We just got through allocating $300-something million dollars for a SPLOST program that took a year-long process and several public meetings and a citizens’ committee to determine what those projects are going to be.”
ACC’s two TAD plan
According to the proposal, a tax allocation district is a “tool used to publicly finance redevelopment costs in a redevelopment area.”
However, the school board property taxes, which could be used to fund other projects, are planned to be solely directed to these two TADs for 20 years, comprising about 60% of the estimated $400 million in TAD revenue.
As stated in the final report, “ACC does not anticipate that many or most of the private and public Redevelopment Projects being considered will be financially feasible without Board of Education participation in the TAD.”
The County Manager’s Office contracted Daniel McRae, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP to create the two TAD plans.
District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link views this plan as a way to help the areas’ lack of stormwater infrastructure and boost commercial interest in the ara, saying Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes “can only do so much.”
“I look at this as a great way to harness that revenue from that interest and redevelopment to kind of spread the love a little bit to areas of town that have been neglected,” Link said.
Questions, comments and concerns
Despite ACC Manager Blaine Williams saying “nothing is out of the ordinary” with this report and Mayor Kelly Girtz assuring that this is the “first step in a series of steps that will follow,” commissioners raised several issues over the report.
“That is a lot of money, and we don’t know what we are going to need next year, or the year after or the year after that. If I saw we were attracting [specific investment] with this money, it would make a lot of sense,” District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said. “We’re rolling the dice in many ways.”
Moving forward, Denson wants to see a citizen advisory committee established to seek community input. During the session, he pointed out how the report makes no estimate of the potential revenue to be made as the redevelopment efforts attracts new commercial interest, leaving the estimate of $400 million subject to change if the TADs result in more commercial investment.
“I don’t think the community understands how big of a project this is and how much revenue we’re dealing with,” Denson said.
In order to take effect next year, the plan must be approved by all parties by Dec. 31. District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod fears the Mayor and Commission are “running out of runway” if they want to meet that deadline.
Hamby, disconcerted with the report after seeing other TAD reports with greater detail, suggested postponing accepting the project until next year. Although concerned about the lack of community input, Hamby supports TADs but wants to see more clearly how the money is benefitting the county and the school system before agreeing to sign-off on the plans.
“For 400 million dollars, I think we probably needed a bit more specifics,” Hamby said.