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Projects awaiting results of TAD amendment vote

'Yes' vote on No. 2 would let school tax go for development

POSTED: October 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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In addition to electing a new leader for our country, the Nov. 4 ballot is asking Georgia voters to make a decision about a complex tax issue that affects the use of local school board funds.

Amendment No. 2 is asking voters statewide to determine whether they want to grant public school districts the opportunity to contribute a portion of their property tax revenues to tax allocation districts.

Tax allocation districts, or TADs, are typically implemented by city governments to spur redevelopment in blighted areas in hopes of increasing property values that will ultimately generate more tax revenue for cities and schools.

Tax allocation districts were a popular means for cities to entice developers to redevelop rundown areas until a state Supreme Court ruling made in February left many municipalities in Georgia reeling, bringing dozens of development projects around the state to a halt.

The ruling, which prohibited the use of school taxes for noneducational purposes, presented a major setback for the active TAD in Gainesville's midtown project and for the TADs planned to fund Flowery Branch and Oakwood sewer projects and downtown revitalization efforts.

Now the state is asking voters to determine whether they want to give school boards the option to participate in the tax allocation districts.

Richard Higgins, chairman of the Hall County Board of Education, said if voters agree to allow school board funds to be used in city's redevelopment efforts, each school board will be able to determine if the projects in the TAD are ones they believe will benefit property values and ultimately the education of children.

"What you're basically doing is putting off taxes now for more funds in the long term," Higgins said. "It's up to us to agree or disagree with the plans."

The Flowery Branch TAD was estimated to generate $11.2 million over a 25-year period, 64 percent of which was planned to come from Hall County school board revenue funds. And Oakwood officials planned for the school board to contribute roughly 64 percent of $9.9 million to the city's tax district over a 25-year period.

The Gainesville tax allocation district funds designated to develop the midtown area were also dramatically diminished as a result of the ruling.

When the ruling was made in February, Flowery Branch and Oakwood officials were preparing to meet with Hall County government and school officials to negotiate the terms of the tax districts. The districts originally intended to freeze a portion of county and school property taxes on under-developed or blighted property, issue bonds to improve it and to use tax revenue generated from the new development to repay the bonds.

In Gainesville, the TAD enacted on Dec. 31, 2006 would have collected $146,662 from the Gainesville school board for the 2007 tax year if the state Supreme Court ruling hadn't interfered.

While city officials in Gainesville, Flowery Branch and Oakwood largely support TADs, local educators have mixed views on the issue.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said he's glad it's up to school boards to decide if they want to participate in TADs because he is undecided on the issue.

"I could argue both sides of it, that it would make sense if you could afford to give up some tax revenue today so that you would make up for that and more in the future," he said. "I could also make the argument that schools are not supposed to be in the business of loaning money, and under no circumstances should you do it.

"If the decision were mine, I'd think long and hard before forsaking any current tax revenue that we may gain back in 10 or 15 years. It appears that we are going to be in a situation for the next several years that we need our revenue now," he said.

Schofield said, however, that he's seen TADs that have helped cities to greatly increase property values in a very short period of time and return may times over the tax dollars as well as some that were more marginal.

"As a private taxpayer, I could see how I might be against it," Schofield said. "As a person who works with the school system, I can see where it may be wise to forego a little tax money today in hopes of much more tax money in the future."

David Syfan, chairman of the Gainesville City Board of Education, said he would not support using school board funds to finance a tax allocation district in Gainesville.

"I'm more worried about how I make budget this year and how I make budget next year, and you've got to worry about making budget for the next 25 years," Syfan said. "I've got to worry about making budget now so it's real hard for me to see the benefit of that 25 years from now."

Syfan said if the school board were to participate in a TAD, he would like the TAD to take place over a shorter time period than 25 years, so the financial benefits of it could be reaped sooner.

Although the incremental change in increased property tax revenue generated within the specific tax allocation district would be pooled into a TAD fund, property tax revenue in areas of the city outside the TAD would continue to be funneled into the local school system and government, according to Melody Marlowe, chief financial officer for Gainesville.

Syfan said he believed the school board's participation in a TAD would be contingent on what TAD bonds were being used to build. He said he would prefer a TAD that supported commercial or manufacturing development rather than residential, which would draw more children to the school system.

Higgins and Schofield said the Hall County school board would likely not support a TAD that would bring in lower-end housing.

"Inexpensive housing tends to be very expensive for schools because it produces very little tax revenue and produces an awful lot of extra children," Schofield said. "If it were going to be used for commercial and for ... manufacturing or industrial, certainly that is much more appealing to those of us who provide social services."



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