Georgia State Capitol

ATLANTA – Local governments and school districts should have a say at court hearings on proposed property tax abatements for development projects that would cost cities, counties and schools tax revenue, a lobbyist for Georgia counties said Thursday.

A bill introduced in the General Assembly last year called for giving local governments and school districts the legal right to participate in hearings on tax abatements but failed to get through either legislative chamber.

Now, a state Senate study committee has begun meeting to consider what changes might be needed to make local development authorities more accountable. Whether to give cities, counties and schools a say over the tax abatements development authorities offer business prospects to create jobs is among the issues the panel is weighing.

“We do value development authorities as an extremely important economic development tool,” Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, told the committee. “[But] we still have to provide services.”

Mueller said tax abatements to lure housing and/or retail projects are of particular concern because they bring children who need to be educated and require communities to beef up public safety. While providing those services requires additional tax dollars, tax abatements force counties to pass along those added costs to existing taxpayers, he said.

“All we want is the ability to make our case to the superior court,” added DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who appeared with Mueller at Thursday’s hearing.

Giving local governments and school districts a say at court hearings on tax abatements got some pushback from members of the study committee and from some of those who testified before the panel.

Ed Wall, managing director of the financial services company Piper/Sandler, said most of his development authority clients are reluctant to involve school districts because they’re afraid the schools will reject tax abatements because they don’t want to lose the revenue.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said the current system helps protect the identity of prospective developers averse to premature publicity about their plans, while letting school districts into the discussions could jeopardize a project.

“We don’t need to fix what’s working,” Gooch said.

But Sen. Michael Rhett, D-Marietta, said the Cobb Board of Education was given an opportunity for input before the Development Authority of Cobb County approved an estimated $77 million in tax breaks this week for Lockheed Martin in connection with a series of federal projects it is seeking, and the deal went through with no problems.

Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association, said there needs to be more transparency surrounding local development authorities to make it easier to track the impact of tax abatements.

“There should be a database where the information is entered in a uniform manner,” she said.

The study committee is due to make recommendations by Dec. 1.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.