With a compromise proposal from Mayor Jonathan McCollar in hand, the 2019 Statesboro City Council tabled reconsideration of the “blight tax” ordinance to let the 2020 council take it up.
In fact, Tuesday night’s motion sends the pending Community Redevelopment Tax Incentive Program, which contains the “blight tax,” forward to Feb. 18. That date will bring the fourth regular council meeting for three newly elected councilwomen: District 2’s Paulette Chavers, District 3’s Venus Mack and District 5’s Shari Barr, now set to be sworn in at the beginning of the 9 a.m. Jan. 7 meeting. Tuesday’s final meeting of 2019 immediately followed a farewell reception for the three outgoing councilmen those women outpolled in November: District 2’s Sam Jones, District 3’s Jeff Yawn and District 5’s Derek Duke.
“I think that tonight it was a great decision to table it until that February 18th meeting to get new voices to the table,” McCollar said after the meeting. “That’s going to be a tremendous asset to us putting together an ordinance that’s going to be great for the city of Statesboro and work towards revitalizing the entire community.”
Between meetings, he had offered a compromise after his previous announcement that he was reducing the penalty tax to 1% of the regular millage rate under his mayoral authority to adjust appropriations. That reduction would have all but eliminated the penalty phase of the program, making the added tax less than $3, for example, on property deemed blighted but having a market value of $100,000.
As passed by the council on a 5-0 vote two weeks earlier, the ordinance originally carried a potential added penalty tax of seven times the regular city millage for vacant properties, whether residential or commercial, deemed blighted by the council and the Municipal Court. The penalty tax on a blighted property with a market value of $100,000, for example, would have been $2,046 added to the current, regular tax of $292.
But McCollar announced his reduction to a “point-zero-one” multiplier moments after the Dec. 3 vote.
He had objected particularly to the sevenfold penalty tax being applied to vacant homes. In a community with a high poverty rate, such a penalty could deprive struggling families of inherited property and their only means to “build generational wealth,” he said.
So, after talking since the Dec. 3 meeting with other city officials including District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum, who first proposed the blight tax ordinance back last spring, McCollar offered a compromise that would exclude all residential property from the potential penalty tax.
The compromise proposal had been emailed to council members and included in the agenda packet for Tuesday.
If adopted, this proposal would make the added penalty tax for blighted commercial properties 10 times the regular city property tax in the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority area and Tax Allocation District and seven times the regular tax in the rest of the city. Again, under this proposal no penalty tax could be applied to any residential property, whether occupied or not.
Stick and carrot
Homes where people live were already exempt under the original wording and could not have a penalty tax imposed on them, regardless of the version council adopts.
In any case, imposition of the penalty tax would follow a year of notices and opportunity for owners to make improvements to their property. The penalty tax would remain in effect until the owners removed dilapidated buildings or otherwise improved their property to meet the city’s standards.
Then a reward phase would follow, reducing the city property tax on the improved buildings and sites to 50% of the regular rate for three years.
City Council could have, by a vote of at least four members, overridden the mayor’s reduction and restored the sevenfold penalty tax.
City Attorney Cain Smith had also suggested a possible way for the council adopt the compromise proposal as a substitute through a unanimous vote.
But District 4 Councilman John Riggs, who will soon be starting the second half of a four-year term, moved to table the matter.
“Personally, I’d like to continue looking over this. …,” he said. “With the new information I got over the weekend, I’d just like to table this for a few weeks, till January or February.”
He then suggested the second meeting in February.
The three outgoing council members agreed to table the proposal but expressed different ideas about whether residential properties should be excluded.
“I like the idea of protecting the residential folks; they are vulnerable. We are,” Jones told the mayor.
McCollar said the city can address residential blight through resources made available by the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing, to which the city was admitted this year, and the work of code enforcement officers. Both of the city’s code enforcement officer jobs have been vacant for months, but City Manager Charles Penny said a search has produced qualified applicants likely to be hired by January.
Still see a need
“The reason I did vote for it (the blight tax ordinance) to be overlying residential as well is that we do owe it to, not just our commercial and industrial, but our residential investors,” Yawn said.
He said he has heard many complaints from property owners about neighboring, vacant residential properties.
“I do feel very strongly that something needs to be done,” Yawn said, but agreed to leave it to the new council.
“We all probably know of a property both residential and commercial in our respective districts with needs that we would try to encourage to be corrected,” said Duke, who seconded the motion to table.
Boyum, whose term extends through 2021, also continued to express interest in having a penalty tax to spur improvement of vacant, neglected residential properties as well as commercial ones. He repeated that he has never sought to penalize or displace residents.
After the meeting, both McCollar and Boyum acknowledged having talked in an attempt at compromise.
McCollar said there had been an effort “to pull together some of the best ideas.”
“What I believe is that the first ordinance was a kind of cookie-cutter, so we needed to be a little bit more specific because the citizens of Statesboro are unique and we wanted to make sure we do what is going to be best for them,” he said.
Boyum said the mayor’s compromise proposal was a good one but that the whole council needs to make the decision after a public discussion.
"I hope come spring 2020, after the new council takes over, that we can have a substantive discussion about blighted properties throughout the city and then we can publicly discuss those ideas in an open, transparent manner in a public session, so that way our entire council can make the decision moving forward,” Boyum said.