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Georgia’s joint development authorities vary widely in meeting transparency

Stonecrest's unbuilt Atlanta Sports City project was approved in 2017 by a little-known joint development authority of DeKalb, Newton and Gwinnett counties.

Little-known government bodies called joint development authorities around the state, with such powers as issuing bonds and conducting regional plans, vary widely in transparency and public accessibility, a SaportaReport review has found.

At least two multi-county JDAs may be violating a state law requiring them to meet quarterly, including a DeKalb/Newton/Gwinnett authority that was last in the news for approving $160 million in bonds for Stonecrest’s fumbled Atlanta Sports City development. Many more lack clear public-meeting info online and did not respond to questions about notice and access. One multi-county JDA’s state registration filing contains the information for a totally different, non-joint authority in another county.

Some JDAs do provide extensive meeting info on websites, and others quickly responded to emails with explanations about how they publicize local notices for meetings. Of the 32 JDAs on file with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and reviewed by SaportaReport, only 20 could be confirmed as following Georgia Open Meetings Act requirements.

The review followed the revelation that a six-county Metropolitan Atlanta JDA has ignored state financial reporting requirements and open meetings laws for years while collecting and spending public money: $15,000 a year in membership fees, a $10,000-a-year lobbyist, and the ability of companies in member counties to get job-based tax breaks.

That scrutiny in turn followed a financial scandal involving one of that JDA’s member bodies, the Development Authority of Fulton County, which had long been criticized for its own lack of transparency as it granted tax breaks via bond issuances.

The emerging picture shows a once-burgeoning array of joint authorities dating back decades that in some cases have fallen off the radar of the public as well as of the state agencies that regulate and partner with them.

Under state law, every Georgia county commission can form a development authority, the most significant and sometimes controversial power of which can be granting property tax abatements to real estate developers by issuing tax-exempt bonds to fund projects. Cities can form development authorities as well. As government-created bodies, they are all subject to Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records acts, and they must file annual registration and financial reports with the Georgia DCA.

Joint development authorities are simply team-ups of such existing authorities. They may be a city-county pairing or an alliance of one or more county authorities.

Promoting regional economic development is the basic concept of JDAs. Their actual powers can vary widely depending on what the parent governments decided. Some issue bonds or own industrial properties. Some simply exchange policy ideas and promote their areas to corporations. One automatic benefit to any county represented in a multi-county JDA is that it gets an extra $500 added to the state’s formula of providing tax credits for five years for each job created in certain types of company openings and relocations. Multi-county JDAs also have stricter legal rules than city-county JDAs, including a requirement to meet at least quarterly and have a business plan.

Multi-county JDAs

In the SaportaReport’s review, multi-county JDAs were generally less transparent than city-county JDAs. Some have promotion-oriented websites with no public meeting info, and answers to questions could be hard to come by. The Central Georgia and Northeast Georgia JDAs have webpages created by regional commissions that administer them, but that appear to lack recent meeting information, though the Northeast Georgia one has some archived minutes.

The DeKalb/Newton/Gwinnett JDA is so little-known that even some DeKalb commissioners were unaware of its existence before it approved the Atlanta Sports City bonds in 2017, as the Newton Citizen reported. Tommy Craig, a lawyer who administers the JDA, says its board follows open-meeting requirements when it meets “periodically and when meetings are called, usually to address specific projects.” But he did not respond to questions about the date of its latest meeting or whether it gathers quarterly as required by law. It has no website.

The Lanier JDA, which includes Cherokee, Hall and Forsyth counties, has “not actively met in several years,” according to its secretary, Tim Evans. Asked about the quarterly meeting requirement, Evans said he couldn’t speak for the member counties as to whether they would be willing to do that. He said the JDA’s main pending decision is “whether there is still value in continuing the Lanier Joint Dev[elopment] Authority or not.”

A JDA called Georgia’s Innovation Corridor includes the counties of Athens-Clarke, Barrow, Gwinnett and Oconee. It has a promotion-oriented website that contains no meeting info and a contact form that no one responded to. The JDA’s latest filing documents with the DCA incorrectly contain the information for a totally different authority in Towns County that operates the Georgia Mountain Fair, an error that could not immediately be explained.

A JDA for Baker, Dougherty, Lee and Terrell has a website for meetings that are held “as needed,” but how to get that info is unclear, as is whether it is meeting quarterly. Hart County posts some meeting agendas and other info for a JDA it shares with Franklin and Stephens counties, indicating it meets quarterly, but a full list of meetings was unavailable.

On the transparent side, a JDA for Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties has a website with full info about the authority and its meetings. A six-county Southeast Georgia JDA has a meeting calendar lacking locations on its  website, but says it circulates public notices about its gatherings and emailed a link to its next Zoom meeting. JDAs in Barrow/Pickens and Laurens/Treutlen send meeting notices to the media, among other methods, according to officials in those counties.

City-county JDAs

Most JDAs are city-county teams, and most of them say they make their meetings accessible to the public. Those meetings also may be irregular, as they do not have the quarterly requirement.

Those with websites or webpages with full details include Brunswick/Glynn, Camden/Woodbine, Emanuel/Swainsboro, Jeffersonville/Twiggs, Milledgeville/Baldwin, Rome/Floyd, Sparta/Hancock and Thomaston/Upson.

Those who lacked online detail but say they issue public notices through such mechanisms as the media include Bartow/Cartersville (which has no fewer than three different JDAs), Dalton/Whitfield, Dublin/Laurens, and Griffin/Spalding.

A JDA in Dodge County/Eastman has a website dubbed “Advanced Aviation Manufacturing” that lacked meeting information and went down in early August. Its director says the JDA meets monthly in the Chamber of Commerce hall and cited a state-minimum notice requirement of posting agendas on the building doors.

City-county JDAs where meeting info was unclear or unavailable included those in Bainbridge/Decatur, Seminole/Donalsonville, Meriwether/Hogansville, Peach/Warner Robins and Winder/Barrow. The website for a McDuffie/Thomson JDA has meeting minutes but lacked info about upcoming meetings.

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1 Comment

  1. Larry Savage August 10, 2021 8:45 am

    Joint Development Authorities, County Development Authorities, Municipal Development Authorities…..then such things as Airport Authorities, the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall, Authority, etc., etc., etc.
    There are HUNDREDS of “Authorities” around the state that generally operate in secret while having the power to issue bonded debt (revenue bonds) with no oversight, including from the government bodies that create them The potential for misbehavior is astounding.
    The laws vary according to the type ‘Authority’ but no one knows what the laws say and no one is responsible for oversight.
    The primary common link to all of this is the law firms that profit from the issuance of bonds. The law firms often provide kickbacks to the Authorities. The Authorities use that money for whatever they wish including for personal gain as in Fulton County and for such things as “grants” to private parties that are likely illegal.
    It is becoming more common for such ‘Authorities’ to team up in “Intergovernmental Agreements” that enable local governments to incur debt without the referendum required by state law. In Cobb County, Truist Park was built with almost $400 million in debt guaranteed by Cobb County property owners (All property owners), Acworth borrowed several million dollars through its Downtown Development Authority without referendum, and Smyrna recently dipped into the bond market for $21 million for local projects, all of which contradict state law. But, as in Ghostbusters, Who Ya Gonna Call? There is NO enforcement mechanism applicable to illegal acts by local governments.Report

    Reply

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