Fulton commissioners hope to mend differences with Atlanta schools

The Development Authority of Fulton County board of director is shown in a 2019 meeting. (Phil Skinner/ AJC FILE PHOTO)
The Development Authority of Fulton County board of director is shown in a 2019 meeting. (Phil Skinner/ AJC FILE PHOTO)

Atlanta Public Schools will get to keep its spot on Fulton County’s development authority board for now.

But county commissioners want to meet with school board members and city officials to work out their differences about how to run the agency, which approves tax incentives for construction projects that APS says has reduced school property tax revenue by millions of dollars.

Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington on Wednesday backed off his proposal to strip APS of its future seat on the board, a four-year term that begins June 1.

Arrington’s concern stems from the school district’s repeated calls to restrict where and how the development authority doles out tax breaks. His initial solution? Boot the school district’s yet-to-be-named representative from the agency’s board.

But at a Wednesday meeting, Arrington softened his approach. Commissioners instead decided to invite the school board and Atlanta City Council to meet.

“I would rather see these entities working together than working to try to oppose each other,” said Arrington, who represents a district in southern Fulton.

Atlanta school board Chairman Jason Esteves said he’s willing to talk to county officials “about how we can be more equitable in how these tax incentives are granted.”

“As long as APS tax dollars are at stake, APS deserves a voice,” he said.

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For years there’s been friction between the school district and the county development agency.

APS officials contend tax abatements awarded by the development authority reduced the school system’s revenue by millions of dollars in recent years.

District officials said the agency hands out too many tax breaks in “red-hot” areas such as Midtown and Buckhead, where APS officials don’t believe public money is needed to spur luxury developments.

Others agree, including one of Arrington’s fellow commissioners who has called for greater scrutiny of the agency’s deals.

“A lot of those projects would have happened without the tax abatements. So, what we really did was give away APS money, city of Atlanta money and Fulton County general fund money that wasn’t needed,” said Commissioner Lee Morris, whose district includes Buckhead.

Nearly two years ago, to address those concerns, APS was promised that it would get a representative on the nine-member board, starting in 2021.

Since then, school officials continued to criticize the development agency.

In October, the school board unanimously approved a resolution calling for the agency to stop handing out incentives for projects located within the city. The city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, should be the only one giving those tax breaks in the city, APS argued. The Atlanta City Council also approved a resolution making the same case.

And for at least two straight years, APS has made it a legislative priority to try to restrict the tax breaks handed out by the county agency to only “those projects that would not be developed otherwise.”

Arrington said critics need to be educated about the benefits of the development authority, including jobs and future tax revenue generated by projects.

“I don’t think everyone sees the full picture. I think they’re looking at the short-term loss, but they’re not looking at the long-term gain” he told commissioners.

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