By John Schaffner
Eugene Walker, who became the focus of an ethics discussion that brought down the Sembler Co.’s bid for a $52 million 100 percent tax abatement for its Town Brookhaven development, announced Aug. 18 that he would resign immediately as chairman of the DeKalb County Development Authority to shield the agency from criticism directed at him.
Walker drew complaints from residents and public officials alike earlier this year when he championed the unprecedented tax break for developer Sembler Co., which had donated $18,000 last year when he successfully ran for the county school board.
The proposal was charged with controversy as DeKalb residents, mobilized by Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), decried the authority for even considering the abatement.
In announcing his resignation from the Development Authority, Walker said his presence on the board was a “distraction” for other members.
“I don’t want to get in the way of any development that would be positive and strong for DeKalb County,” he said. “That includes Sembler.”
DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis said no successor to Walker had been selected as of Aug. 19.
Sembler’s request has been temporarily withdrawn, but not until after the Development Authority deferred a decision on the tax abatement pending a review and revision of the authority’s policies. That action came at the suggestion of CEO Ellis, the Board of Commissioners and the authority’s own underwriting adviser.
The Development Authority uses tax incentives and issues bonds to promote economic development and attract investment to the county. When Sembler announced Town Brookhaven, it promoted the upscale demographics and proximity to Buckhead. But at a recent community meeting organized by Jacobs, Sembler President Jeff Fuqua suggested the Peachtree Road corridor is blighted.
Because of the controversy, the authority’s June meeting was unusually crowded. While Brookhaven residents generally have expressed a desire to see Town Brookhaven completed, most who have spoken on the issue opposed subsidizing an existing project so substantially with tax dollars — especially without the approval of officials accountable to voters.
At June 18 Development Authority meeting, Walker, recused himself from the discussion and vote to defer action on the Town Brookhaven issue. Many residents charged there was a conflict with Walker being a member of the Board of Education as well as the Development Authority. The school system could have been the biggest loser if Town Brookhaven’s 1,000 residences pour children into the public schools while the development’s property taxes are abated.
Dist. 2 County Commissioner Jeff Rader presented an anti-abatement resolution signed by most of the commission at the June 18 meeting. Questioning their motives in considering such incentives for a business already invested, Rader told authority members that some of the projected sales tax revenues would be displaced from other businesses.
Town Brookhaven was granted a 10-year tax abatement Dec. 29 of last year. Estimated at $20 million, that abatement is a graduated tax exemption: Owners pay 5 percent of property taxes the first year, and the percentage rises annually to 100 percent in the 11th year. As the economy continued to falter, Sembler sought to enhance its abatement. Under the proposal, Sembler would have deeded the Town Brookhaven properties to the authority, which would finance the purchase with bonds and lease the tax-exempt property to Sembler for 20 years.
Jody Steinberg contributed to this article.