Fulton Development Authority reelects chairman, cuts budget, launches grant program
By John Ruch
The Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) is cutting its budget due to revenue concerns but also hiring a new marketing staffer and launching a community grant program.
Reorganizing in the wake of a financial scandal, the DAFC is also firming up its leadership. Its interim director will become permanent within weeks. And its board chairman has been reelected — despite allegations from another member that he is abusing a per diem payment system that was core to the previous scandal.
The DAFC’s major power is to grant tax abatements to real estate projects by issuing tax-exempt bonds — which typically exist only as legal fictions — and collecting fees from the deals. Last year’s scandal involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in per diem payments made to some of the volunteer board members for work as basic as signing documents, which forced former chairman Bob Shaw to leave the board and resulted in various reforms and ongoing transparency questions.
Michel “Marty” Turpeau, who has led the board since late 2020, was reelected at the DAFC’s June 28 meeting. But board member Tom Tidwell dissented, alleging in a letter to other board members that Turpeau acts unilaterally, including hiring a lobbyist, and is abusing the per diem payment system by getting reimbursements for attending outside events not substantially related to DAFC work.
The complaint got no traction, with Tidwell as the only “no” vote against Turpeau. Tidwell instead nominated board treasurer Mike Bodker as chairman but the motion did not get a second.
Turpeau later told SaportaReport he disagrees with Tidwell’s complaints and allegation of “flagrant misuse of per diems.” He noted that DAFC has put its policies and per diem request forms on its website.
“I disagree with his accusations regarding my leadership style and personal time commitment to DAFC,” said Turpeau. “… While I am disappointed by the use of such an intentionally inflammatory term, I want to be clear that I am always committed to addressing any questions or concerns any board members may have.”
The board did not discuss the details of Tidwell’s complaints. Bodker said he believes all members are motivated by the desire to improve the DAFC and there are opportunities to build better trust between the chairman and the board. Board member Mike Looney, the superintendent of the Fulton County School System, said the board needs to discuss “the duties and expectations of the chairman.”
The board also named Interim Executive Director Sarah-Elizabeth Langford as the sole finalist to fill the position permanently. The board is expected to make a public advertisement to that effect and vote next month. Langford has held the position since last summer when Turpeau resigned from it amid controversy over him simultaneously serving as executive director and board chairman.
Turpeau says he is suffering from COVID-19 and for that reason stepped down from running the June 28 meeting, which he had been attending from home via Zoom, prior to the board officer votes.
The DAFC is self-funded by its tax break transaction fees. It currently has a budget of around $1.9 million and reserves of around $7 million, board members have said.
Bodker earlier this year expressed concern that fee revenue was declining and that the DAFC budget should be trimmed. A 15 percent budget cut — totaling $280,516 — was decided at the June 28 meeting.
Langford said that some of those cuts included $40,000 from business development, $50,000 from economic development support, $54,000 from payroll, $50,000 from contracts services, $47,000 from general administration and $14,000 from travel and meeting costs. Part of the savings came from DAFC no longer subsidizing the salary of Samir Abdullahi, formerly the deputy director of the County economic development agency Select Fulton, who last week was named its director.
Langford and DAFC vice-chair Brandon Beach, a state senator, also discussed increasing revenue by finding more developers to seek tax breaks. Beach said DAFC should hold a “developer day” to promote the availability and said that “you don’t cut your way to prosperity. You increase revenue.”
Tidwell said he had several questions about the cuts, but most of that discussion was put off to the next budgeting process.
Despite the cuts, the board also approved spending $100,000 on creating and filling a new position. Langford said she sought two new positions — a marketing manager and a deputy executive director — at a $200,000 budget, but that the DAFC Finance Committee rejected it. The new job will combine the roles, she said.
Bodker said the budget includes an $84,000 salary plus bonus and benefits.
The board also approved spending reserve funds on a new “Strategic Initiatives Community Grant” program championed by secretary Kyle Lamont.
The program will offer grants to businesses and nonprofits that serve Fulton with programs related to affordable housing, small business growth, “educational support” or jobs and workforce development.
The grants can be up to $500,000, and “in unique circumstances, additional funding may be available,” according to Lamont’s presentation. The funding is only for programs, not operations, salaries or overhead.
To be eligible, organizations must have nonprofit tax status or a current business license and a “letter of good standing.” Lamont says he expects to get an application online in about a month and have a review process that takes 90 days.
The board authorized spending up to 5 percent of the reserves or $383,000 on the program — whichever is higher.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Turpeau.