By Joel Hall
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) has pledged to donate a portion of ad valorem taxes to Forest Park's Main Street and Fort Gillem Tax Allocation District (TAD).
Forest Park officials believe the county's cooperation will give the city more leverage to use bonds to revitalize Fort Gillem and the city's downtown area.
The BOC voted 4 to 1 on Tuesday -- with Commissioner Michael Edmondson opposed -- to contribute its ad valorem taxes to Forest Park's TAD. The decision freezes the county tax collections within the district at 2008 levels, and any incremental tax increases above the 2008 levels go toward the Forest Park/Fort Gillem Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA), to fund redevelopment.
The Forest Park TAD encompasses most of the city's Main Street corridor, as well as all of Fort Gillem, which the city hopes to purchase from the Army once it closes the base in 2011.
Forest Park officials present at Tuesday's meeting expressed excitement about the county's decision. "It means quite a bit to the city that they consider themselves to be partners working on this," said Rosalind Rubens Newell, an attorney overseeing the TAD for Forest Park. "Their commitment assists us in doing this targeted, critical development. You can go out into the bond market, and people will loan you money, today, based on the increment, tomorrow."
"What would take the city 15 years or 20 years to do on its own, with the help of the county and the partnership, we'll be able to do it in half that amount of time," said John Parker, Forest Park city manager. He said, with the county's support, Forest Park will be able to give Main Street and Fort Gillem "the character and characteristics that will make people feel comfortable [and] feel at home. They'll want to work, play, shop, and raise their family in our city."
According to Newell, the city's 2008 millage rate is 10.343, compared to the county's 8.962 millage rate. She said the city has yet to convince Clayton County Public Schools to donate its portion of ad valorem taxes, which are presently collected at a millage rate of 19.836.
Edmondson, who voted against donating the incremental tax increases to Forest Park's TAD, expressed concern that the county may lose a "substantial portion" of its tax revenue, during a financially-difficult time.
"[Participating in] the TAD freezes the portion [of ad valorem taxes] that can be raised for general purposes," Edmondson said. "When any portion of the taxes is frozen ... it limits your ability to balance the budget. I would argue that their plans are now being placed on the backs of my taxpayers.
"Right now, Fort Gillem is owned by the government," Edmondson said. "It is tax exempt. Until they begin vacating, there wouldn't be any discussion of what their property taxes would be. I don't understand what the urgency is to freeze that portion of our property taxes during such an economically-trying time."
Fred Bryant, executive director of the Forest Park/Fort Gillem LRA, said the city will submit an economic-development-conveyance application to the Army in July. He said the city must demonstrate it can pay for the redevelopment it has in mind, before the Army will cede the property.
"In order for us to purchase the property from the Army, we have to make a business case that is commercially viable," Bryant said. "[Ad valorem taxes are] a guaranteed source of revenue, so you are not waiting for someone to pass a general obligation bond. When there is a guarantee from the county, the city of Forest Park, and the school system ... other investors will be more likely to get involved, because the risk has been spread out.
"The base closing happens in 2011, so we have to be able to accept property no later than the day after they close," Bryant added. "In order to do that, we have to continue to move forward."
Commissioner Sonna Singleton said she supports donating the county's ad valorem taxes to Forest Park's TAD, because it will aid the area's redevelopment. She said the project has the potential to create thousands of jobs, which she believes will generate revenue for the county.
"Fort Gillem is closing," Singleton said. "We have to do something with that land. Forest Park has come up with a good idea and we are supporting it. If it is done right, it can really become an economic engine for the area."
Bryant said the city's LRA will approach the school system in "June or July," in an effort to win the school board's financial support.
"We have had discussions with the interim superintendents, but they are not the school board," Bryant said. "We want to make sure that when we go to them, ahead of time, we have given them all the information they need, and that they understand what we are asking them for."