Earlier this week Bartow County voters approved two ballot items with major implications for the local economy. By a 5,182-3,229 margin, Bartow residents voted to reauthorize the Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST); they also approved a measure allowing the county to create tax allocation districts (TADs), 4,590 votes to 3,564.
"The SPLOST is a renewal of the sales tax, which at 1 percent, generates countywide about $20 million a year, so we anticipate that will continue to grow as the economy grows," said Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson. "It went up about 7 percent last year and it's on track to do 5 or 6 percent this year so far — projecting that out, it might be $135 to $150, $160 million of revenue over the six-year period of that SPLOST."
Cartersville City Councilman Jayce Stepp said the SPLOST renewal relieves municipal governments of some big fiscal burdens, specifically when it comes to financing capital improvement projects such as roads, parks and recreation.
"These are projects that we have to get done for the betterment of the community," he said. "It's not just people from Bartow County and the City of Cartersville that are right here on Main Street shopping, purchasing groceries and buying cars ... these are people coming in off the interstate and supporting our community, and the SPLOST project allows other people outside of Bartow County to help fund some of the things that we get to reap the benefits and rewards of."
That, he said, was much preferable to the alternative — increasing property taxes.
Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development Executive Director Melinda Lemmon said that "quality development opportunities" follow infrastructure, such as sewers and roads.
"Each municipality has capital outlay projects on their lists that are strategically important to our citizens," she said. "We continue to be fortunate that Bartow’s strong tourism economy contributes significantly to SPLOST revenues for these projects."
She also said she appreciates that sales tax collected throughout Bartow is shared between all of its jurisdictions — "another excellent example of our community's collaborative spirit."
While the 2020 SPLOST doesn't directly impact Georgia Highlands College, Dr. Donald Green nonetheless said he expects its correlated effects to be beneficial.
"Every time we do something in the way of SPLOST it's really an opportunity for economic growth, and the formation of continued economic development of the county," the GHC president said. "Those things are simply advantageous for all of our citizens, along with the advantages we bring by helping to develop the next generation of leadership for the region."
Among other expenses, the SPLOST revenue is expected to finance about $34 million in courthouse restorations and expansions, including new parking decks; $40 million in roadway maintenance and construction; and almost $19 million for first-responder facility and equipment upgrades.
Olson described TADs as a "tool" that allows the county to use increased property tax revenue from certain projects to help support the infrastructure that makes those projects feasible in the first place.
"The projects finance the improvements that would make the project possible," he said. "If you take a property that's undeveloped now, and whatever the increase in value is from the developments, the property taxes coming off of that are pledged to go to, generally, some sort of infrastructure or other improvement connected to the project."
It's the same mechanism the City of Cartersville used to get construction underway on the Kroger Marketplace on Main Street.
"Here was a good site at a good location, but at an additional burden of having 50,000 yards or so of garbage under the ground that you can't build on top of," Olson recollected. "That TAD was like a $3 million deal, so that was the additional cost of digging all that garbage out and taking it to our landfill. But the money gets paid back by the fact instead of being a 50-acre site that's just dirt, now it's a 50-acre site that's valued at $12 million because it's got a 100,000-square-foot Kroger building on it."
Lemmon agreed with Olson, describing TADs as "a strategic economic development tool that does not erode the tax base already established, but incrementally incentivizes quality investments that might not otherwise be feasible."
Perhaps the most famous TAD project in state history is Atlantic Station — a $3 billion development in Atlanta that received $250 million in funding to clear up the brownfield remnants of the old Atlantic Steel mill prior to its construction.
And, as fate would have it, Bartow County's interest in adopting a formal TAD policy was piqued by the very same developer of that project — Jacoby Development, Inc., an Atlanta-based group that has expressed an interest in redeveloping the old Paga Mine property straddling the borderlands of Cartersville and Emerson.
"They've asked whether a TAD would be possible, but we didn't even have the legal authority to do it," he said. "So that's why we put the question on the ballot — we wanted to have the legal authority."
While the county has only had conceptual discussions with the developer about their plans — the proposed Villages at Red Top project would consist of 2,000 residential units and as much as 1-million-square-feet of retail and commercial developments — Olson said a major clean-up effort would be necessary before any kind of construction can take place in the area.
"There are tailings and other debris left over from mining," Olson said. "There's a number of environmental impacts that have to be remediated before building can begin … it's a logical property to consider a TAD."
However, he said there is currently no timetable in place for when county-authorized TADs may begin popping up in Bartow.
"If Jacoby wants to move forward on that deal, it might be within a couple of years," he said. "Now that the tool is available, I don't know if other people will start asking … it's just another mechanism you can get to try to make a deal happen that wouldn't otherwise happen."
Olson said the county is in the process of adopting an official policy to determine what projects would be eligible for TAD funding. From the outset, he said he doesn't believe the county would authorize a TAD for any project tabbed at less than $2 or $3 million.
"The county can approve the TAD on its millage, but the school board would have to approve the TAD on its millage, so that would be up to them," he said. "We can't do anything with their millage and they'd have to agree 'yeah, we like the deal, we'll forgo some increased revenue to make the project happen, then we'll get higher revenue down the road after the TAD period has passed.'"
That's something that has Bartow County School System Board of Education District 3 representative Derek Keeney concerned.
"I think the economic development that's going to come with the TAD is good, but it's going to stay in that specific area, so I don't know how the schools are going to benefit at all from that," he said. "As a matter of fact, if that property value would've increased outside of the TAD, then the school system would've gotten tax benefits off those increased property values ... at the end of the day, it could be a negative impact."
State law does place a cap on how much TAD funding a project may receive — 10 percent of a county's net tax digest.
"The net digest for [Bartow] is around $3 billion," Olson said. "So that would limit all of the TADs possible in the county to up to $300 million, and I don't see us getting anywhere near that number anytime soon."
As for which projects would get the green light for funding, Olson said the county will have to look at candidates on a case-by-case basis.
"We're not just going to be saying 'anybody who wants to do a development can automatically get their property taxes back,'" he said. "There has to be a good case for why — it's kind of a blighted property or property with some additional redevelopment costs that makes it unreasonable to develop without some assistance."
Case in point? Olson said the developers of the Kroger Marketplace at one point sought TAD assistance to redevelop the old Kroger property at Morningside Drive. That proposal was rejected, however, because it was evident that public contributions were not necessary to redevelop it into "an economically viable" property.
"The argument is, without the help they couldn't have done the project and without the project, the land would still be sitting there," he said. "So it doesn't give up any taxes, it just temporarily uses the increased taxes to provide infrastructure or some other redevelopment cost that makes the project happen."
While the county government continues to mull their options, Stepp said the City of Cartersville is already eyeing some potential spots for future TAD funding. Personally, he said he'd love to see the area from South Bridge Drive to Old Mill Road on the west side of town designated as a tax allocation district.
"There's a lot of buildings in that area that can be refurbished, potentially, for industrial, still, or some kind of retail or professional services," he said. "I would like to see the city look into a TAD on the east and south side of Erwin Street — that would be an opportunity to revitalize an area that, right now, is looking a little dilapidated."