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DeKalb school board drops Sembler suit
By JIM WALLS
July 24, 2009 — The DeKalb County school board has dropped a suit seeking to block a controversial tax break sought by the Sembler Co.
But the board still wants a say on any tax abatement being considered for the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based development firm. So, “the parties are trying to put together representatives who could sit down and talk about how to represent everybody’s interests,” attorney Keith Hasson, representing the school board, said Thursday.
In other words, attorneys for the board and DeKalb Development Authority are talking about how the two bodies can talk about it.
The board’s suit was dismissed Tuesday without prejudice, meaning it could be filed again at any time.
Under state law, the authority may award property tax incentives to developers or new businesses without the consent of the DeKalb County Commission or school board.
The authority last year granted Sembler a 10-year tax abatement for portions of its mixed-use project in the Brookhaven community. Community opposition mounted in the spring when Sembler came back and asked for a 20-year abatement that would save it an estimated $52 million in county and school property taxes. Without that help, Sembler said it might not be able to finish the project as planned.
The school board filed suit June 17 trying to block approval of the larger tax break. The next day, the authority backed down from a vote on the request until county staff could develop clear guidelines for reviewing all requests for tax incentives.
Those guidelines should be ready for consideration by October, according to Maria Mullins, director of DeKalb’s economic development department.
The controversy was complicated by the dual role of Eugene Walker as chairman of the authority and as a member of the board of education.
Sembler interests donated $19,200 to Walker’s campaign for the school board last fall. Walker emphasized that the donations would not influence his decision on the tax break.