By Jody Steinberg
“Taxpayers need to make a ton of noise,” or they will soon be the owners of Town Brookhaven, state Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) told about 50 people April 30 at Oglethorpe University during a town-hall meeting he co-sponsored with Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody) to discuss the recent legislative session and citizen concerns.
Developer Sembler Co. might get a $51 million tax abatement over 20 years from the Development Authority of DeKalb County to help attract business to the Brookhaven project. Sembler presented its proposal to the authority May 12, and the authority is expected to consider the abatement at its next meeting, which has not been scheduled.
“The proposed Sembler program is as squirrelly as you think it might be. It’s a bad, bad deal for taxpayers, but it’s allowed, and it’s constitutional,” said Jacobs, chastising the Development Authority.
The Development Authority is negotiating a proposal to purchase Town Brookhaven from Sembler, then lease it back to the developer for 20 years, at which point it could be sold to Sembler or put on the market. The county would lose the property tax revenues that traditionally pay for services and infrastructure, shifting the burden to the county.
The county would still get sales taxes generated by retailers and restaurants and property taxes on the residential sections.
Jacobs questioned how Sembler, a financially sound company with a strong presence in metro Atlanta, could be entitled to such a sweet deal. If it goes through, other developers will clamor for the same perk, he said.
“I feel strongly about transparency in government, and this is not,” Jacobs said.
Angelo Fuster, a consultant to Sembler, said the abatement proposal included a detailed, conservative financial analysis that showed the county would get a net benefit over the life of the abatement through the sales taxes, business license fees, taxes on business equipment and other revenues Town Brookhaven would generate.
Since Sembler acquired the 54-acre site in 2006, he said, it has generated a maximum of $400,000 a year in property taxes. That amount will more than triple to nearly $1.4 million when the two residential portions under construction are completed, Fuster said, and the abatement would not affect those residential areas.
Among the other issues Jacobs and Weber addressed during the meeting:
• Transportation. They agreed on the necessity of a reform bill that didn’t pass this session. The Senate plan would allow regional planning, while the House plan details a long list of specific projects. Both would add a penny to the state sales tax.
The state Department of Transportation “likes to plan and plan, but they don’t actually put pavement to the ground,” Jacobs said. More projects will need legislative approval, and the state Transportation Board’s power has been decentralized with the addition of a governor-appointed planning director.
• Vehicle taxes. A proposal to replace the “birthday tax” with a one-time sales tax for all vehicle registrations didn’t pass, but it’s not dead, Weber said. “It’s designed to spread the tax burden on more people. Some call it a regressive tax policy. Since it takes away a deduction, it’s also a hidden tax increase.”
• Property taxes. Two pieces of legislation froze the valuations of homes against increases for two years and required counties to consider nearby foreclosures when valuing properties.
“That is one the thing we did that was worth the price of the 40-day admission,” Jacobs said, referring to the length of the legislative session. “In this neck of the woods, there are always increases.”