Bonds bid higher than anticipated

LAWRENCEVILLE - Bonds sold for the Gwinnett Braves baseball stadium were pricier than expected, but officials said the construction will not lead to a tax increase.

While financial officials have talked for more than a year about pressures to add more tax revenues, Commissioner Bert Nasuti and others said the stadium decision earlier this year does not hasten the tax decision.

Earlier this week, commissioners approved the sale of $33 million in bonds to fund the stadium construction, expected to start in the next month to allow the triple-A Braves franchise to begin playing in April 2009.

Finance Director Lisa Johnsa said the lowest bid for the bonds came in with a 6.25 percent interest rate - higher than the county's highest model of 5.95 percent.

That translates to a higher maximum annual payment of $2.6 million instead of the previous high of $2.4 million. Johnsa said the payment will fluctuate each year.

While the county's AAA rating from all three bond-rating agencies - an achievement of only a handful of governments in the country - was affirmed for the sale, the finance director said the current volatile economic situation nationwide as well as the bond type may have contributed to the higher rate. Instead of the usual form of introducing tax-free bonds into the market place, the county had to offer taxable bonds for the stadium, since the bonds aren't simply backed by public dollars.

Stadium rent, fees on tickets and parking, the selling of naming rights and a newly imposed rental tax are expected to cover the debt payments, Johnsa said, even at the higher rate.

And while officials have been warned that the board cannot continue to roll back the county millage rate, as it has for more than a decade, officials say the stadium decision is unrelated.

"At some time in the future, because of the number of parks we have built, we will need to look at the possibility of increasing the recreation tax," Chairman Charles Bannister said. "Our indications are, as we see it, the revenue streams will continue to tighten. At some point we will start looking at the budget for '09. Right now, I don't think one impacts the other."

Commissioners voted to spend $12 million out of the recreation fund for the stadium - $7 million for construction and $5 million for the land along Buford Drive, south of the Mall of Georgia near Rock Springs Road.

Community Services Director Phil Hoskins said the reserves in the recreation fund are still three times higher than the required amount, but pressures on the fund have increased as commissioners buy more land for parks, pools and other amenities.

The county owns more than 8,000 acres of parkland, six times more than 1987, when the recreation fund was added to tax bills.

The Legislature capped the taxable amount at 1 mill, and that amount has declined over the years to 0.8 mills. An increase to return to 1 mill would cost the average homeowner between $20 and $30 a year, Nasuti said.

Hoskins said there are no plans for additional recreation funds to go to the stadium.

"It is a recreational use, and I continue to look at it as any other park we build - except it's a revenue generator," Nasuti said of using the recreation fund for the stadium. "We haven't decided if we have to have a tax increase, but you can't keep building parks without paying for them (to be maintained)."