Where have the city taxes gone?

To the editor:

When bond-rating agencies tell us Atlanta has a fundamental financial problem going well beyond the recession, we need to be asking better questions of our local politicians. It’s high time the mayor and council explained to long-suffering residents and taxpayers why the city’s rapid growth this decade has not resulted in higher tax revenues. Property tax revenue was $140 million in 2002 and only $138 million in 2008. Yet the property digest was way up over these years, and we have 25 percent more residents, according to the mayor. Sure, there have been millage rollbacks, but half the digest growth is from new construction, which should have resulted in new revenue. So where did the tax growth go?

Some money has gone to the tax allocation districts (TADs), disingenuously sold to residents as a free lunch. We now learn that to replace those revenues we all have to pay higher taxes. Yet so far “only” $13 million per year of city tax money is going to the TADs. TADs are not yet a big reason for revenues going missing, but as a higher proportion of future growth occurs in the TADs, the budget bleeding will become more severe.

Some revenue may have disappeared as tax deferrals to developers, but finding the truth on that seems next to impossible. We know the Fulton County Development Authority has awarded massive tax favors to high-rise developers, but do those deferrals also apply to city property tax? The Atlanta Development Authority does not seem to report anywhere what its and Fulton’s concessions cost the city. The lack of transparency and accountability should worry residents.

A lot of tax seems lost to nonpayment. The city reported $30 million of unpaid tax in 2007. Yet the state’s figures show that Atlanta should have received $202 million in property tax in 2007, against $125 million actually collected, according to the city, a far wider gap. Why are tax liens not working to recoup money owed to the city? Sure, the Fulton tax commissioner is in charge of collections, but how is the city working with him to rectify these enormous losses? Failure to collect tax from deadbeats leaves the rest of us to pay more than our share.

We also need an explanation of the relative stagnation of sales tax revenue, up only 9 percent from 2002 to 2008. Consumer price inflation alone was higher than 9 percent over the period. The influx of new residents, more prosperous than average, and the consumer binge of the Bush years should have pushed retail sales growth far above 9 percent. Where did the sales taxes go?

A fair test of whether candidates for city office deserve our vote will be whether they answer this elementary question: Why is the city starved for revenue after the growth surge we experienced this decade, and what will you do to change that?

Julian Bene

Station 23 not being maintained

Editor’s note: The following e-mail was recently sent to Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran and is reprinted here as information for Buckhead residents who for years were served by Fire Station 23 on Howell Mill Road at Chattahoochee Avenue.

Chief Cochran, it has been some time since we last talked, and I hope all is well with you. When Station 23 was blacked out in December, I asked how the station would be maintained while it was inactive. I was told that the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department (AFRD) would maintain the property inside and out, ensuring that the property would be kept up and secured from vagrants.

To my knowledge, the building remains secure; however, the property has been left to grow wild, with trash in the city trash cans dating back to that last day back in December.

I wanted to inform you that on May 9, the Berkeley Park Beautification Committee, led by Elizabeth Sears, coordinated a Clean Up Day where numerous Berkeley Park residents cut the grass, removed the weeds from the sidewalks, and picked up trash around the entire property. We also spruced up the Berkeley Park Neighborhood sign that sits on the corner, and we have plans to plant additional greenery in the space.

This gave us a great sense of community, but at the same time we did this with a great sense of loss for our station and our firefighters.

We still have hope that our station will soon be reactivated, but at a minimum, it would be nice if AFRD would keep their word and maintain Station 23 out of respect to Berkeley Park, District 8, and the brave men and women who have served us and Atlanta Fire Rescue.

Michael Wagoner, president
Berkeley Park Neighborhood Association

Postscript: After Cochran received Wagoner’s e-mail, Fire Rescue Department personnel showed up at Station 23 with Cochran and the media, which prompted this second e-mail from Wagoner:

Nice job on the news this evening, chief, but I have to express my disappointment. I purposely kept this morning’s (May 19) meeting quiet in good faith, hoping you would use the station visit as an example of the commitment this community has for AFRD. Instead, you used it as an opportunity with the press to push the mayor’s budget as the magic fix to AFRD issues.

It would have been nice had you invited the surrounding neighborhoods, or at least mentioned the fact that the community you are here to serve was responsible for cleaning the station you held your meeting in. Station 23 had not been properly maintained since it was blacked out on Christmas Day, so Berkeley Park cleaned it up for you. I hope our work was up to your standards, and I hope the other blacked-out stations are not overgrown and littered with trash as Station 23 was.