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Gainesville school board still questions TAD participation

POSTED: April 16, 2009 12:04 a.m.

The Gainesville Board of Education is still unsure whether it wants to contribute to a redevelopment district in the city.

The board voted for a second time Wednesday to back out of an agreement with the Gainesville City Council to help fund redevelopment projects in Gainesville’s Midtown and downtown.

The school board’s decision cuts nearly 65 percent of the Gainesville redevelopment district’s funding, but does, however, leave open the possibility of future school board participation in Gainesville’s tax allocation district.

Gainesville officials and city school officials hashed out the pros and cons of the school’s participation in the city’s TAD for more than an hour of the school board’s work session Wednesday.

School board Chairman David Syfan was the most outspoken opponent of TAD participation. He made a motion to clarify a previous vote to back out of a 2006 agreement to forgo incremental increase in tax value in the blighted 270-acre district to help fund redevelopment projects there.

Under their 2006 agreement, city and county governments and the school system still would get property tax revenue from the 270-acre district, but revenues above the Dec. 31, 2006, taxable value would fund redevelopment projects in the area. Redevelopment usually increases property values and therefore tax revenues.

In November, Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing schools to fund the districts at their discretion; the ratified amendment now awaits Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature.

Gainesville school board officials are expressing concerns with forgoing available property tax revenue — at this point, about $130,000 — when they recently approved teacher layoffs as a cost-saving measure.

Syfan also cited numerous issues with the 2006 agreement, including the school board’s representation on the committee that would dictate the use of TAD funding. Two school representatives would serve on the nine-member committee.

"I’m sort of bothered that we’re paying 65 percent of the money and only have 18 percent of the representation on the advisory committee," he said.

City officials, however, focused on the benefits of the school board’s participation and tried to answer all the school board’s questions about the district.

TAD Advisory Committee Chairman Tim Evans told the board if it participated, the board would be able to benefit from a "halo effect" from Midtown redevelopment. Redevelopment in the tax allocation district might spur redevelopment in areas nearby where the school board is not forgoing incremental increases in tax value. Those redevelopments would have an immediate impact on the city school system’s budget, Evans said.

"But if we do nothing, then nothing’s going to happen in this district," Evans said.

City Manager Kip Padgett said Midtown redevelopment might also immediately impact the school board’s budget by increasing sales tax revenues. Commercial development in the area could increase revenues for the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, he said.

"When you get more development, you get more buying power," Padgett said.

School Superintendent Merrianne Dyer asked whether Midtown redevelopment plans would add students to the city school system. Syfan and Sammy Smith have expressed concerns that the TAD might bring more students but would leave the school system without the property tax revenue to pay for those added students. Smith asked that city officials respond to the school board’s questions about the district in writing.

"We’re groping in the blindness," Smith said. "We have not seen a master plan for the Midtown area. ... Is there some sort of master vision?"

Padgett responded: "Yes, we’ve had one for 10 years."

Padgett said the plan was updated in 2006 when the city entered into the original agreement with the school board to fund the district.

Dyer said she had provided copies to board members that she had been given by Planning Director Rusty Ligon. The plan allows for some residential development in Midtown, but only for loft-style residences geared toward "empty nesters" and young professionals, Padgett said.

Syfan wanted a guarantee that no redevelopment in Midtown would place a burden on the school system — a guarantee that city officials did not offer.

"(Evans) can’t promise you that no one will have a baby in the Midtown area," said Mayor Myrtle Figueras.

Syfan repeatedly said that the board needed to take a second vote to clarify its March 27 vote to back out of the 2006 TAD agreement. Syfan cited advice by the school board’s attorney to back out of the agreement before Perdue signs the constitutional amendment.

However, TAD consultant Ken Bleakly said the school board could back out of the agreement at any time if no bonds had been issued on redevelopment projects no matter whether the governor had signed the amendment, and read that portion of the state law to the school board.

Still, Syfan moved forward with the motion, saying he would rather take his attorney’s advice. Board member Willie Mitchell, who voted to approve the TAD in 2006, had asked Syfan if the board could wait to decide whether to back out until the city answered all the school board’s questions about the TAD.

Syfan’s motion passed with a 3-2 vote, with Mitchell and Maria Calkins opposing.

"I’m still in favor of the TAD," said Mitchell. "...I think it’s great for the city of Gainesville. I absolutely think it would be great for the school system."



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