Amendment 2 on the ballot asks: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize community redevelopment and authorize counties, municipalities, and local boards of education to use tax funds for redevelopment purposes and programs?"
Allow us to interpret: Do you want the Beltline to get the money it needs, or do you want it to be a long-rolling urban disappointment?
To understand the issue, first wrap your head around the idea of "tax allocation districts" – which were supposed to be the main funding source for the $2.4 billion proposed intown loop of parks, trails, transit and development.
For two decades now, cities and counties have, with the approval of local voters, created TADs around blighted areas. They sell bonds to pay for roads, parks, sewers and other fixes that spur development and boost property values within the TADs. At the same time, they freeze property tax revenue schools and local governments get from districts. The money that comes from higher property values is used to pay off the bonds. Without a TAD, Atlantic Station might still be an abandoned steel mill full of hazardous waste.
The Beltline (along with 40 other TADs) suffered a huge blow in February when the state Supreme Court ruled that using school property taxes for noneducational redevelopment violated the state's constitution. Because the bulk of property taxes in Georgia are levied by school boards, the development scheme du jour lost more than half its revenue stream overnight.
There are valid concerns about TADs. Big developers, who are getting help with the infrastructure they need for glitzy office towers, often whine like spoiled children when TADs require them to set aside affordable housing or do other things in the public interest. And any program that opens a spigot of public funds can end up being used for well-connected interests or distort market forces.
Still, most TAD projects have ended up funding the kind of community building needed to turn Atlanta and other cities into better places.
Of course, there's nothing like pissed-off developers to spur our state's politicians to action. After the court ruled, the General Assembly quickly passed a referendum that placed Amendment 2 on the ballot. If passed, it would revive the option of using school taxes for redevelopment purposes.
In the interim, the private sector's contributed to the Beltline, but that largesse gets things only so far – especially when other projects are competing for big bucks in a tight economy. And buyers of municipal bonds – long the go-to mechanism for cities to fund infrastructure improvements – have melted away with the credit crisis.
The Beltline isn't perfect. Skyrocketing property values around it already have displaced residents. The city's also been less than nimble with some purchasing practices (most obviously in dealing with mega-developer Wayne Mason over a huge tract of land in northeast Atlanta).
But the Beltline promises to be a tranformative project for the city. It will surpass Atlantic Station as the nation's largest "brownfield" project, converting 1,100 acres of former industrial sites into centers of commerce and leisure, and creating an alternative to the car in the heart of the city.
The challenges so far actually are arguments for a more dependable revenue stream. TADs would allow the city to move quickly in securing land that's needed for the parks, trails, transit and affordable housing. The quicker they can move, the better.
If we fail to provide the funding, shame on us for failing to grasp what's necessary to make that vision a reality.
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