It’s been a year of change for the Development Authority of Dawson County, which has come before the board of commissioners once again, requesting funds which should allow it to continue to operate in a new partnership with the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce.
In August the board of commissioners approved its 2018 budget and decided once again not to allocate any funds to the authority, which requested $150,000 during budget meetings in July.
The board voted similarly last year not to allocate any funds to the authority after a disputed 2015 decision by the authority to enter into a PILOT program bond agreement with Kroger, which has built a new marketplace store on Ga. 400.
The agreement allows Kroger to pay a graduated property tax rate in exchange for a commitment to remain in the county for 10 years, maintain a certain number of employees, maintain its old building until a new tenant can be found and remove the gas pumps at the old store, among other stipulations.
Commissioners voiced their concern over not being consulted in the decision before cutting off the funding.
As a result of two years with negligible income for the authority, Charlie Auvermann resigned as executive director in September. Part-time office administrator Mary Simmons also resigned; their salaries totaled over $100,000.
At a Dec. 6 joint meeting between the commission and the development authority board members, the bond was brought up once again.
District 3 Commissioner Jimmy Hamby asked if, under the authority’s current bylaws, it could still issue a tax abatement similar to the one issued to Kroger without the board’s approval.
“Yes it can, but it won’t,” said development authority Chair Sherry Weeks. “It is legal in the state of Georgia, and a lot of places do it. This board won’t.”
“We get blamed for it, the Kroger thing,” said District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett. “That’s the answer I’m looking for: they can but they won’t.”
Board member Tony Passarello said that the authority is not looking at changing its bylaws, but that it would like to add a framework for communication between the board and the development authority “that would allow more frequent updates” and “a mandatory review of any type of bond.”
With the authority’s promise not to repeat history, Weeks moved on to present the authority’s plans moving forward.
Since Auvermann’s departure, the chamber of commerce has stepped in to aid the authority in office tasks and has proposed a new framework for the two entities.
As of its Nov. 28 meeting, the authority has adopted a proposed working relationship for 2018, which would move the development authority and industrial building authority under the same roof as the chamber. The chamber’s current office also hosts the office of tourism and development.
Chamber President Christie Haynes, who oversees a marketing and events director, a membership director and an operations director for the chamber, would also oversee someone in the revised role of economic development director.
Weeks said the authority plans to renovate the downstairs portion of the office space the chamber occupies, and that they are in the process of getting estimates for the cost of the work.
They plan to use a bid process similar to that of the county, Weeks said.
“That economic development director will be in the same building as [Haynes] and will be able to speak and talk and plan and carry out on a daily basis,” Weeks said. “We are really excited about this.”
Haynes said the arrangement is not dissimilar to the way Hall County and Forsyth County organize their authority and chamber, and that they anticipate cost savings as well as a better presence for businesses by having everything under one roof.
The authority has estimated a cost of $25,000 to renovate the building (a onetime charge), as well as $104,000 for salary and benefits for the economic development director. The authority’s total estimated expenses for 2018 would be $211,370.
The authority asked the board of commissioners for $175,000. The rest of the funds would come from rent from the chamber, as the authority owns the building the chamber occupies, and from bond fees.
Commission Chairman Billy Thurmond said that the meeting was the first time the board was looking at the budget, and that they would need time to digest the information. He said that the board would put the item on a future work session and voting session.
“We know that you need the revenue and the board has made a commitment to help you with the revenue, I’m not going to say how much. But they have made that commitment...so we will be looking very seriously at that,” Thurmond said.
Weeks said the authority will begin searching for an economic development director once the board has given them an idea of the funding they can expect.