Week in review


Audit: Job incentives lack oversight

A new state audit raises questions about government oversight of the vast web of local economic development authorities across Georgia that have financed or awarded tens of billions of dollars in job recruitment incentives.

Auditors found that the authorities, created by cities and counties, often fail to adhere to state sunshine laws that aim for more transparency in government. Some authorities, the audit concluded, don’t have basic ethics bylaws or conflict-of-interest policies guarding against members pushing deals to benefit themselves.

The review, released this week in advance of the legislative session that starts Jan. 13, recommends lawmakers strengthen the training of authority board members and suggests a host of other changes designed to increase accountability.

Georgia ag chief criticizes U.S. safety plan

State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, a Republican, was those asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change its plans for enforcing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which overhauled the country’s system for enforcing food safety laws. FDA officials announced last week that they would reconsider some of those proposed rules and give the public another chance to comment on them.

Black said he was concerned that federal regulators would subject farmers who harvest and minimally process crops to rules that are now typically applied only to food manufacturers. The proposed rules would require that farmers use cleaner water for irrigation, set new restrictions on fertilizing with manure, and set standards for equipment, tools, building and sanitation on farms.

Metro Atlanta

Rates, closing costs on rise

Home prices are higher in metro Atlanta, and so are mortgage rates and closing costs.

All three are signs that the local housing market continues to recover from the meltdown a few years ago as the economy strengthens, with more homeowners and prospective homeowners finding jobs and a paycheck.

The strengthening economy was a primary reason Federal Reserve policymakers signaled recently that they will do a little less in trying to stimulate economic activity by influencing interest rates.

In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, analysts at Zillow, the online housing listing service, and Bankrate, which tracks loan rates in Georgia and nationally, said consumers can expect to see mortgage rates trending higher in the new year even if they are still at historically low levels.

Jobless rate drops

Metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.7 percent in October to 7 percent in November, the largest month-to-month decline in more than a decade, the state Labor Department reported Thursday.

Not since October 2008, as the Great Recession picked up steam, has the region’s jobless rate been so low. Back then, as companies and governments began shedding jobs, the rate stood at 6.9 percent.

After five years, during which a good monthly jobs report often has been followed by a bad one, Atlanta’s employment picture now appears to be steadying — and brightening.


Charter pension debate revived

A proposal pending in the Georgia Legislature would force Atlanta charter schools to help pay off a public school pension debt, despite a court ruling that relieved them of that obligation.

The measure would change the state law the Georgia Supreme Court relied on when it ruled in September that taxpayer money designated for charter schools can’t be used to pay for systemwide expenses like pensions.

Georgia Charter Schools Association CEO Tony Roberts said charter schools would suffer if they were required to make payments toward a pension system they get no benefit from. Charter school employees don’t participate in the pension system for Atlanta Public Schools educators.

Atlanta school administrators have argued that all schools in the district share services, and charter schools shouldn’t be exempt from having to deal with the school district’s pension burden, which exceeds $500 million and has been building since the late 1970s.

DeKalb County

Land battle revived

The owner of a prime piece of land has successfully halted annexation into one city in a bid to join another.

The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled last week that Chamblee cannot annex Century Center on Dec. 30, when it will grow its southern border and gain 11,000 people.

The court will hear arguments from complex owner Highwood Properties this spring or summer about its bid to become part of Brookhaven instead.

The Brookhaven City Council voted in October to annex the 17-building complex into that city’s borders, effective Nov. 1. But early this year the Legislature called for a referendum for residents in that area of unincorporated DeKalb to join Chamblee — bringing Century Center with them.

The legal battle between the two sides appeared to end in November after the referendum passed and Brookhaven voted to stop funding the court fight.

However, Highwood, as the sole property owner, is appealing the Chamblee annexation vote. It argues that the referendum cannot pre-empt its desire to become part of Brookhaven.

Cobb County

Stadium site seen as catalyst for retail growth

The Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County won’t happen for another three years, but the area’s retailers are already anticipating a surge in business.

Business leaders in the Cumberland area, which will be home to a planned $672 million ballpark and adjacent $400 million mixed-use project of shops, bars and apartments, said they have experienced a boom in interest from retailers — including calls from restaurant, hotel and clothing store operators — since the Braves relocation announcement in early November.

The increased interest comes at a time when the area was already showing signs of an upswing.

Paulding County

Delays continue for airport project

The elimination of one bump in the road has created another for supporters of a Paulding County commercial airport, and this one could delay the project anywhere from two months to a year.

Attorneys representing six Paulding residents who oppose the commercialization agreed Monday to drop a challenge in the U.S. Court of Appeals in exchange for an environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration — a split decision, but one that gives opponents much of what they were seeking. The suit had challenged the FAA’s environmental clearance for the airport.

The agreement did not involve the Paulding County Commission or Propeller Investments, the company selected in 2012 by the county’s airport authority to lease and operate the small terminal at the airport.

The settlement allows the airport authority to complete a runway safety zone and taxiway widening projects.

Fulton County

Thieves crash into DMV, steal ATMs

Police are searching for five men who crashed a van into a state Department of Motor Vehicles office in East Point Thursday and stole two ATMs.

The theft was captured on surveillance video around 4:30 a.m., East Point police said. The alleged burglars were spotted fleeing in another van, which was found, set ablaze, nearly three hours later in northwest Atlanta.

Clayton County

Botched robbery leads to murder charges

A botched December armed robbery involving hair weaves in Rockdale County has led to murder charges against four metro Atlanta residents.

Several men and women allegedly tried to rob a couple at an arranged sale of the weaves. A shootout ensued and one of the suspects, 21-year-old Jennifer Menzies, was shot multiple times. She later died at Rockdale Medical Center.

In addition to felony murder charges, Rockdale authorities have charged the remaining four suspects with criminal attempt to commit armed robbery.