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DeKalb says no to Sembler 20-year tax break — sort of


A DeKalb County board this morning put off a decision on an unprecedented 20-year tax break sought for a retail-residential project in the Brookhaven area.

The DeKalb Development Authority’s unanimous vote postpones final action while the county’s economic development staff regroups and comes up with guidelines for considering such tax deals.

burrell ellisDeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis (right), in a memo delivered this morning, told authority members that the proposed tax break could not be justified and, given the economy, still would not guarantee that the project is completed. He urged them to develop a set of best practices to help evaluate requests for tax breaks in the future.

“We should be careful to neither create new policy, nor carve out exceptions to existing policy, designed to favor a specific investor or project,” Ellis wrote.

DeKalb normally awards 10-year tax breaks that provide for a business to pay incrementally more in property taxes each year.

Sembler is seeking an unprecedented 20-year exemption on 100 percent of its tax bill on about half of the 54-acre Brookhaven site. The exemption would not apply to two large apartment buildings that are nearing completion there.

The company has estimated the deal would save it $51.7 million in property taxes. An independent analysis, released by the authority today, reduced the projected tax savings to $42.4 million.

That analysis — prepared by Dan Layton, managing director of Wachovia Bank — reviewed a cost-benefit analysis submitted by Sembler last month.

Layton said the completed Brookhaven project could generate roughly the same fees and taxes as Sembler estimated. But he cautioned the authority against approving a complete tax break unilaterally in the face of opposition from members of the county commission and school board.

“Clearly somewhere intergovernmental cooperation is going to be necessary to come up with a solution that everyone is going to be happy with,” Layton said.

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader today presented the authority’s board with a resolution signed by five of the seven commissioners opposing Sembler’s request. The resolution, which is not yet formally adopted, said the commission would challenge any tax break for Sembler that it has not endorsed.

Authority chairman Gene Walker, who received $19,200 in campaign donations from Sembler interests last fall, recused himself from the vote. The money represented about a third of all the money that Walker raised in a race, which he won, for a school board seat.

Walker said suggestions that the donations had affected his judgment would distract the county’s attention from deciding Sembler’s application on its merits. “Gene Waker does not need to be a focus of that,” he said.

He noted the law does not require him to disqualify himself. “But,” he said, “out of an abundance of caution, to keep from tainting the work of this body that I respect so much, I’m going to recuse myself.” He then left the meeting room, “so the cameras won’t focus on me and my every motion whenever a point is made.”





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