Stonecrest moves forward without troubled development authority

Stonecrest leaders held a lengthy virtual town hall Feb. 8 to discuss ways they’re trying to attract business to the city recently embroiled in scandal. (City of Stonecrest)

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Stonecrest leaders held a lengthy virtual town hall Feb. 8 to discuss ways they’re trying to attract business to the city recently embroiled in scandal. (City of Stonecrest)

Stonecrest leaders held a lengthy town hall last week to discuss all the ways they’re trying to attract business to the city recently embroiled in scandal.

During the 90-minute virtual event on Feb. 8, the Stonecrest Development Authority (SDA) wasn’t mentioned at all.

The authority was the focus of an in-depth article published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January which found the SDA had no records for prior bond deals and was effectively defunct. Since then, city leaders have made it clear they’re leaving the floundering authority to fend for itself.

“While they can be useful, some of the authorities do seem to sort of run away with the authority at their hands,” Jackson told the AJC in a video call. “And (they) don’t connect as well with the city and county governments that they’re supposed to be serving.”

Development authorities, which make bond deals and provides tax breaks, are one of a city’s most powerful tools at recruiting new business. However, Jackson said the SDA, which is a separate legal entity from the city, used to operate in the shadows with most city leaders kept in the dark.

The authority’s funding has been slashed, it hasn’t met in more than a year and the resignation of Mayor Jason Lary means its board members have lost their political connections to those in charge of the city. The authority effectively fell apart last year when an investigation into the city’s COVID-19 relief program prompted multiple city staff members to be fired and Lary to resign and eventually plead guilty to fraud charges. Lary faces up to 35 years in prison and will be sentenced May 2.

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Since it was created in 2018, the SDA made two bond deals totaling $750 million with the same developer — a former SDA appointee and a political ally of the former mayor. Since then, it has not made any other deals, has provided little oversight on its prior deals, has not maintained its records and lost its legal counsel.

Belinda Hull, who was appointed to lead the authority’s board in January 2021, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. She previously told the AJC the board is searching for new legal representation and is working with the city to restart monthly meetings.

She also admitted she has no records of prior bond deals, which the authority is required to have by law. She said they’re in the hands of the city’s former economic development director whose wife just pleaded guilty to participating in the same fraud scheme that booted Lary from power.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, who has been a vocal critic of Lary’s administration, said he reported the apparent open records act violations to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office for investigation. Carr’s office confirmed it received Jones’ referral.

‘They were trying to push something through’

Lary appointed the authority’s board members in 2018. Among those initial members was Lecester “Bill” Allen, the largest commercial landowner in Stonecrest.

Allen resigned from the board, which consists of unpaid volunteers, before its first meeting. His spokesman, Matt Hampton, previously told the AJC he stepped down because he isn’t a resident of the city.

The SDA would soon approve two bond deals totaling $750 million with Allen’s company for two ambitious projects: a mixed-use complex near the Mall at Stonecrest and the New Black Wall Street Market. Hampton denied that Allen’s connections to Lary and the board helped him secure the bond deals, which effectively act as lengthy tax breaks.

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During the authority’s last meeting, Lary praised Allen’s projects and spoke at length about how much risk the developer was taking.

“It takes gumption. It takes grit,” Lary said during the Jan. 14, 2021 meeting. “It takes sacrifice for a person to put their money out in this market to make something happen in any place.”

Samuel Stuckey, the SDA’s first secretary who resigned during that meeting, said he’s become uncomfortable looking back on their work.

“It’s obvious they were trying to push something through,” Stuckey told the AJC during a late January phone call. “It’s something they wanted, and we were part of it.”

He said the SDA’s attorneys visited his home on multiple occasions, asking him to sign one-page documents. He said they told him the documents, which required signatures only by the authority’s chairman and secretary, would be attached to other legal paperwork, updating details on prior bond deals.

Daniel McRae, the SDA’s legal counsel until November 2021, told the AJC that attorneys on his team would go to people’s homes and workplaces “as a courtesy” during the pandemic. He said any signatures obtained were for documents previously approved in public meetings. He referred all other questions to the authority.

When Stuckey announced his resignation, he also brought up concerns that the City Council was not being kept up to date on what was happening with the SDA. Lary handwaved away those concerns and said it was the council’s job to stay informed.

“I’m not going to waste my time listening to nonsense. You don’t want to be a part of it, leave. If you want to be a part of it, then stay on the same boat that we’re on,” Lary said near the end of the authority’s last meeting. “And if you don’t know something and you don’t have the sense to find it out, that’s your business.”

Existing ‘theoretically’

City leaders and councilmembers are now moving on without the former mayor’s development authority.

The council defunded the SDA in its most recent budget, and Councilwoman Jazzmin Cobble indicated that won’t change for the foreseeable future.

“We have not funded them since February of last year (2021) and have effectively not had any interaction with them since,” Cobble said. The SDA’s previous budget was about $15,000, with another $20,000 going toward legal services.

Jackson, who stepped into the city manager role last spring, said the authority “technically” still exists but is effectively dormant. She said the city is working to figure out what legal obligations the SDA must continue to oversee the prior bond deals.

“There are certain obligations that the Stonecrest Development Authority has related to follow-up and monitoring of deals that they made,” she said. “There does need to be somebody who has the responsibility for doing that.”

She added that the city is currently focused on holding a special election to fill the vacated mayor’s seat, while also trying to fully staff City Hall by this summer. The SDA is next on the next checklist of priorities.

“It would be my goal to have an authority, but to have one that knows that it is working in partnership with the mayor and City Council and staff so that there aren’t surprises,” Jackson said.

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