Ballots contain questions on MARTA, TADs

LAWRENCEVILLE - On July 15, voters can not only pick the leaders that will take the county into the future, but they will also have a say in some of the issues on the county's horizon.

Two years after an unsuccessful vote on the state's redevelopment powers law, officials are again asking voters to allow the use of tax allocation districts to fund revitalization projects in the county.

Besides the special election on tax allocation districts, voters who choose Republican or Democratic ballots can provide input on a host of nonbinding questions, most notably on a survey of interest in extending MARTA into Gwinnett.

Both the MARTA question and the TAD referendum are key to the county's economic future, said Chuck Warbington, the director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District.

If the referendum passes, officials are expected to pursue a major revitalization of the OFS plant along Interstate 85, off Jimmy Carter Boulevard. But Warbington said the project will not be possible without a tax allocation district, which earmarks the expected increase in tax revenues from higher property values of redeveloped property for infrastructure enhancements in the districts.

In the OFS case, he said, that could mean the replacement of the Jimmy Carter bridge over I-85, road improvements, sewer improvements and a parking deck for the proposed project to create a mixed-use development similar to Atlantic Station.

While some people are concerned that earmarking the dollars could mean revenue problems for the tax collectors, Warbington pointed out that the OFS property's value has dipped from $1 million in 1990 to about $465,000 today. That's a loss of $4 million in taxes to the school board alone, he said.

But a $1 billion investment into the area could turn those slipping tax values around.

While the Republican ballot does have a non-binding question about using education funds for the tax allocation districts, which is not allowed because of a Georgia Supreme Court decision earlier this year, that issue will not be decided until voters consider a constitutional amendment in November.

Warbington released a letter from Gwinnett Board of Education Chairwoman Carole Boyce and Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks saying the school district is not opposed to the use of TADs and would consider allowing the use of school funds on a case-by-case basis, if the constitutional amendment passes.

The county has also released draft guidelines on the use of districts, which are now allowed in nine local cities. According to the draft, the county will hold hearings before a project is approved, and the county will not guarantee bonds on the projects, leaving bond holders or developers with the risk. The funding method would only be used for "quality mixed-use activity centers," and will not be used to buy land for a developer.

The idea is essential to turning around blighted areas of the county and creating wealth in the county, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce President Jim Maran said.

"As the county's economic development organization tasked with bringing high-wage job opportunities to Gwinnett, Partnership Gwinnett, led by the Gwinnett Chamber, will continue to strive and ensure Gwinnett remains a national leader in job creation, education, wealth, public safety, and a high quality of life," Maran wrote in an e-mail to Chamber members encouraging them to vote for the referendum. "To achieve success in these areas, Redevelopment Powers (or TADs) are an incredibly important tool we absolutely must have at our disposal."

Question on MARTA

Warbington said the nonbinding questions on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority could also have a bearing on the county's future. He said he doesn't like the formation of the question at this point in the debate, and would prefer a question on whether people would pay for a light-rail system, no matter who the operator is.

"That concerns me. There is no vision behind it," he said. "When you ask Gwinnett voters a general question, you usually get a general no."

Like the TAD vote, Gwinnettians once said no to the MARTA question, when it was posed in the 1980s, before the county's growth led to crowded streets.

But unlike the TAD vote, this question does not bind politicians, merely taking a poll of interest.

"I think people are ready for choice," Warbington said, adding he's heard surprisingly positive opinions on the issue. "It's economic development, it helps revitalization and it takes cars off the road."

SideBar: Election schedule

The Gwinnett Daily Post will preview the July 15 primary election over the next week.

Today: Questions on upcoming ballots, including a referendum on tax allocation districts

Tuesday: Republican candidates for House and Senate

Wednesday: Democratic candidates for House and Senate

Thursday: Gwinnett County Commission chairman candidates

Friday: Candidates for Gwinnett County District 1 race

Saturday: Candidates for Gwinnett County District 3 race; candidates for District 5 on Gwinnett County Board of Education

July 13: A complete look at the July 15 primary