Statesboro City Council unanimously adopted a “blight tax” ordinance Tuesday. But its future was immediately placed in doubt when Mayor Jonathan McCollar announced he would reduce the penalty portion of the program from a seven-fold tax to 1% of the regular millage rate.
District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum, who first proposed the measure last spring to spur cleanup of dilapidated vacant buildings, made the motion Tuesday to enact the Community Redevelopment Tax Incentive Program on the second reading of the latest version. District 4 Councilman John Riggs seconded the motion, and the vote was 5-0, as it had been with the first reading in November.
McCollar then addressed a remark to City Attorney Cain Smith, who had presented the ordinance for approval.
“Cain, citing that this is an ordinance for appropriation, that seven-fold factor, I would like to reduce that to point-zero-one,” McCollar said.
Boyum asked McCollar to explain.
“It’s an appropriation ordinance. As mayor I can reduce the appropriation that’s associated with this,” McCollar said.
“This isn’t an appropriation. This is a tax rate,” Boyum said. “You can’t change the millage rate. This is a tax rate.”
“I’m not changing the millage rate,” McCollar said. “What I’m changing is the factor, and it’s an appropriation, you know, these funds go to a specific area, and that’s my right as mayor, I can reduce that.”
The penalty tax would be the first phase of a tax incentive program that also includes a later, reduced tax rate for owners who repair or remove dilapidated buildings or otherwise clean up their properties to city standards.
No dollar-amount examples were discussed Tuesday. But a seven-fold penalty tax on property with a market value of $100,000, assessed for taxes at Georgia’s standard 40% valuation rate and Statesboro’s current city millage, would amount to $2,046, added to the current, regular tax of $292. In contrast, the .01, or 1%, penalty tax the mayor announced would apparently amount to about $3 added to the regular $292 annual tax on the example $100,000 property.
Boyum asked Smith whether the mayor had authority to do what he was saying he would do.
“The mayor does have the right to reduce appropriations or alter them under the, I believe it’s (City) Charter section (4-1.c), and then it would require additional consideration, I believe at the next meeting, in order to overcome that,” Smith said at first.
McCollar then noted that he was making “an appropriation adjustment, not a veto.” Statesboro’s mayor has veto power on ordinance decisions, but the council can override the veto, by a vote of four members, at a later meeting.
“Appropriation is spending of money. This is a tax rate, not an appropriation,” Boyum said.
Comments around these same points went back and forth between McCollar and Boyum for several minutes. Smith, the attorney, admitted in the midst of this post-vote debate that he did not know where the mayor’s announced action left the ordinance that was passed.
“To be honest, I was not expecting this today,” Smith said. “I don’t even have the charter provision in front of me. It says the mayor is able to adjust appropriations.”
He also noted that a section of the just adopted tax incentive program ordinance states, “Monies arising from the increased rate shall be segregated by the city manager and used only for community redevelopment purposes.”
Boyum agreed that the mayor could adjust a spending action but rejected the idea that the mayor could change the tax rate, or a penalty multiplier, without a vote of council.
“We’ve spent eight months on this, mayor, and this is ridiculous,” Boyum said.
‘Rely upon advice’
He asked if any of the other council members were going to say anything. District 2 Councilman Sam Jones said he appreciated what both Boyum and McCollar were saying, but would suggest tabling the matter to the next meeting.
“I rely upon the advice of the attorney, and the attorney has stated he does not have the charter here at hand, he’s not able to advise us at this point,” Jones said. “So my recommendation is that we table it until the attorney can come back with some facts so that we can make an informed decision.”
Other council members said they agreed, and the mayor had said the council could bring the matter back at the next meeting. Motions already voted on usually cannot be tabled, and no further motion was made to rescind the previous vote or change its intent.
But the question goes forward to the Dec. 17 meeting, the last scheduled of 2020. Three council members are set to leave office at year-end, and three new members, who defeated those current members in the November city election, will begin service in January.
Penalty and reward
Statesboro’s redevelopment tax incentive ordinance is modeled on aspects of those in force in Savannah, Albany and some other Georgia cities.
If ever imposed, the penalty tax would follow at least 12 months of communication between the city and any affected property owners.
That would begin with notices from city code compliance officials to the owners, seeking to have them remove or repair dilapidated buildings, for example. After inspections or a citywide survey, city staff would annually present a list of buildings and sites proposed to be designated “blighted,” with detailed information on each, to City Council.
If the council approved the designation, the owners would be entitled to a hearing in Municipal Court.
For owners who brought their property up to standard, the reward would be a three-year, 50% abatement of the regular city property tax, as well as removal of the penalty tax.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.