DeKalb schools still uncommitted to taxes for GM site redevelopment

The full-court press is on DeKalb County’s school board as developers work ahead of what they say is a June deadline to persuade board members to approve a tax plan to pay for infrastructure for a Doraville megadevelopment.

Business interests are pushing, and board members are listening, but no decision has been made.

Most of the construction would take place at the site of the shuttered General Motors plant, just northwest of the I-285/I-85 interchange. School district officials in recent weeks have engaged in mini meetings on the plan, called a tax allocation district, the purpose and uses of the plan, as well as what it means for the community.

TADs are areas where property tax collections are frozen while the area is developed. Future increases in property tax values and collections, such as school taxes, do not go to government coffers for a period of years, but are used to repay bonds for infrastructure improvements for the development, such as streets and sewer. After a number of years, the local governments return to collecting the new, and theoretically higher, tax revenue.

A majority of the school board members oppose the district’s participation, concerned about how it will affect collections for schools. But that could change, pending further discussions and answers to questions they posed to the developer. Other local governments, including the city of Doraville and DeKalb County support the plan, as well as local business interests.

“We want to make sure we make a rational decision,” school board Chairman Melvin Johnson said. “We did send a list of questions to (the developer). We’re awaiting response so we can make a final decision.”

In a letter to Atlanta-based Integral Group CEO Egbert Perry, school officials asked questions including:

• Whether an analysis of potential redevelopment without the tax district was explored

• The cost schedule for infrastructure needs

• How progress would be tracked

• Whether Integral is investing funds in the project

• Results of any environmental studies on the land

• Any potential challenges to the land’s assessed value

Perry has said his firm will decide by June whether to continue with its ambitious vision of a massive mixed-use development of houses and businesses or scrap it. The project, known as Assembly, could bring thousands of jobs, he said, and boost development in DeKalb.

The school board, which controls 56 percent of the expected funding, has declined a request to see a formal presentation by the developers and Doraville. Johnson said he has met with leaders from both.

“The only way to further affirm and make decisions on data is to get as much input as we can to make our own decisions,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t erase the fact that I believe we should not spend taxpayer money on enterprise.”

He had not heard whether informational sessions on the tax districts changed any school board members’ minds, saying he would know after the district receives answers to questions from Perry and Integral.

Doraville and the DeKalb County Commission have pledged its expected future tax dollars to support the project, with the commission’s vote contingent upon approval by the school district. The DeKalb Chamber of Commerce also supports the tax district. State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who has criticized the school district for not participating, welcomed news that the school board was engaged in conversations.

“I think the superintendent is sincere in his approach, but misguided,” said Millar. “There’s a growing list of those who want it. I hope we get from (the board’s TAD meetings) a conversation that should have happened 60 days ago.”

Perry’s firm and partner Macauley+Schmit bought the site in 2014 for $50 million. The partners met with the city, county and schools then and believed they had support from all. The makeup of the DeKalb school board and senior school leadership changed since then, Perry said.

A study commissioned by the development team estimate schools could see tax revenue from the development grow $135 million during the 25-year life of the TAD, and that annual property taxes from the GM site would be $17 million after the TAD is complete.

Perry has announced no committed office tenants, though a movie studio is set to open on the property this year. Perry said uncertainty has caused three unnamed corporate prospects to walk. Time only increases the risk that a future economic downturn could disrupt what is likely a decade-long project, he said.

If the school system doesn’t take part, the project will have to be reduced to suburban-style development such as strip retail or auto dealerships, he said.

Doraville’s development hasn’t kept pace with other major nodes along I-285 such as Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Cumberland in Cobb County. The plant closure wiped out thousands of jobs and dented Doraville’s tax base.

Costly infrastructure upgrades are necessary to connect the property to the rest of Doraville, the neighboring MARTA station and nearby interstates.

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