Along with the high-profile presidential race and U.S. Senate contest at the top of the ticket on Tuesday, Georgia voters also will decide on three amendments seeking to change the state constitution.
Amendment 1, which would give tax breaks to owners of large forest tracts, has faced little mobilized opposition.
Rome’s Paul Smith pushed a similar bill when he served in the Georgia House in 2004, primarily at the request of the timber industry.
But the two others have received some criticism from groups who worry they would put too much power in the hands of developers. To their supporters, they are measures that would work hand-in-hand to give local governments more tools to restore blighted areas.
Amendment 2 centers on tax allocation districts that allow local governments to freeze property tax payments in areas where they want to encourage development. Builders have used the districts to defray the cost of investing in blighted areas and other spots around the state.
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in February that school tax money could no longer be used for redevelopment, stripping supporters of the districts of a key revenue source. Lawmakers drafted an amendment that passed both legislative chambers.
The question is of interest in Rome, where a proposed $15 million mixed use project on West Third Street hopes to make use of $900,000 offset from city, county and city school taxes.
The amendment’s supporters say that county and city taxes often can’t support these massive projects on their own, and that school boards should have the choice whether to take part in the districts.
“The public is very interested in revitalizing their neighborhoods,” said A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a pro-business group. “We’re trying to restore the issue of choice, to restore the ability of local school boards to either participate or not participate.”
Critics contend the tax money belongs to schools — not development projects.
“Are we more concerned about building nice fancy buildings or more interested in investing in the future of our state’s children?” said Jeff Hubbard, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
Robinson, though, counters that the districts encourage development in long-forgotten corners of Georgia.
“Usually the people who are against these things are folks who have never seen areas that need revitalization,” he said. “They need to take a tour of the city and look at areas that are in need of some investment.”
Amendment 3 would allow local governments to create infrastructure development districts, which could sell tax-exempt bonds to finance development of roads, bridges, parks and other infrastructure projects.
Dubbed “private cities” by critics, the districts would charge landowners fees to pay for the infrastructure and then would then issue bonds to pay for those improvements. They could be used to as a new tool to pay for badly needed projects in blighted areas, supporters say.
Some 17 others states have adopted similar schemes, and they’ve helped attract development opportunities, said Heath Garrett, who serves on the board of the Georgians for Quality Economic Development, a nonprofit group formed to support the amendment.
He said each district will be subject to Georgia open records laws. Requirements for 20 percent greenspace in the districts, he said, will also foster smarter growth plans.
“It’s an incentive for development to occur in an environmentally-friendly way by offering smart financing in exchange for better water conservation and more greenspace,” he said.
The group and other supporters have raised thousands of dollars to fund television ads urging voters to support the plan “for a cleaner, growing Georgia.”
But critics, who successfully fought a similar plan two years ago, say it would give developers a sweeping new authority to levy fees. And they warn that the counties would have to foot the bill if the districts fail.
“It’s highly problematic,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “It allows private developers to collect taxes and to promote development that otherwise would not occur — and certainly isn’t needed.”
He was also joined by the Common Cause chapter of Columbus, the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation and other groups.
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