Statesboro City Council on Tuesday instructed City Attorney Cain Smith to draft an ordinance that would use property tax rates as both a stick and a carrot to encourage the cleanup of specific “blighted” properties.
District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum, who proposed the ordinance, suggested applying a tenfold increase in property taxes until properties that a court identifies as blighted are brought back up to standard. After rehabilitation, the millage rate on these properties would then be reduced to less than the city’s standard rate, Smith said.
“I’m recommending starting at 10,” Boyum said after the meeting. “And look, I’m all for putting language in there that says we’ll waive the increase if you fix it up or you put somebody in there or you sell it, but just quit leaving empty buildings vacant, dilapidated, unpainted, unattended.”
Such buildings, he said, are negatively affecting the properties around them.
After a motion from Boyum seconded by District 4 Councilman John Riggs, the vote to have Smith write the draft was 5-0. But this does not mean that a new city law has been enacted. Instead, the blight tax ordinance and an unrelated city law that Smith was also instructed to write will be the first created using a new procedure the council adopted in December.
The vote instructing the city attorney to draft an ordinance was the first step. The completed ordinance will have to be presented at two separate meetings, giving the public an opportunity for comment after the first reading, before a final vote.
Authority for a “blight tax” comes from a 2002 amendment to the Georgia Constitution that allows local governments to enact a “community redevelopment tax incentive program.” The amendment also prohibits applying the increased millage rates to anyone’s primary home.
But the up-front tax hike and promised reward of a decrease when conditions are met can apply to vacant homes, dilapidated business sites and other properties, after a legal process determines them to be “in blighted condition.”
“Essentially the idea is that once a property is deemed to be blighted, and that would include a hearing in the Municipal Court, then … the city can do a factor on how much property tax is owed by that property,” Smith told the council.
He noted that the factor the millage rate is multiplied by on the front end, as a “disincentive” to leaving the property in poor condition, varies. The city of Albany’s “blight tax,” enacted in 2008, triples the millage rate on targeted properties. Savannah’s program, implemented in 2017, multiplies the city’s standard millage by seven.
“Property taxes go up as long as the property remains in that shape, but once the property is rehabilitated and brought back up to city code, there would be a decrease on the property tax that would be owed after it’s remediated,” Smith said.
Albany reduces its city tax on formerly blighted properties to one-half of the city millage rate for three years after the property is rehabilitated, he noted.
Statesboro City Manager Randy Wetmore expressed support for the general concept but cautioned that a tax hike will not necessarily push property owners to act.
“If you raise the taxes of somebody who’s not taking care of a piece of property already, and they want to sell it if that would pay the back-taxes, and the back-taxes are way up, nobody is going to buy it,” he said. “So what Cain and I need to figure out is, so if it’s working other places, how do you make it work as an incentive.”
On possibility might be to waive the tax increase if the property is sold and give the buyer six months or a year to fix up the property, Wetmore said.
District 2 Councilman Sam Lee Jones suggested that the city also look for funding to provide low-interest or no-interest loans or grants to help owners rehabilitate their property.
“A lot of the owners I know whose homes are in need of repairs, the reason they’re in need of repairs is they do not have to money to fix it up,” Jones said.
Mayor Jonathan McCollar said the city is also looking for resources to do this.
Speaking to Wetmore, Boyum said the problem with the properties he is talking about isn’t an accumulation of taxes.
“It’s that the properties aren’t worth very much and people only have to pay 200 or 300 bucks a year in taxes, so they just sit on them. …,” Boyum said. “So, if we could make that 3,000 bucks instead of 300, now all of a sudden that gives them a little more incentive to sell.”
The Downtown Statesboro Development Authority has been interested in doing something about blighted properties for “a while,” and during a Georgia Municipal Association meeting in January, Boyum talked to officials from three other cities that have “blight taxes of some form,” he said.
Smith said the ordinances affect relatively few specific properties in a city and not entire blocks.
“It’s targeting the worst of the worst,” Boyum said.
Under the state amendment, the ordinance must set standards for determining whether a property is blighted, establish a procedure that provides the owner a notice and hearing, and provide standards for improving the property to remove the “blighted” designation.
Savannah’s ordinance had been applied to 84 properties as of 2018, the Savannah Morning News and WTOC-TV reported in November. That total also included properties carried over from 2017, and Savannah news organizations reported that most of the blight taxes went unpaid the first year.
The other ordinance Statesboro’s council instructed Smith to draft would clarify that the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority is exempt from a prohibition on open alcoholic beverage containers outdoors for officially sanctioned events.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.