Time to Remake MARTA

October 20, 2009

My colleague, State Rep. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), wrote an outstanding op-ed column that ran in this past Sunday’s AJC.

It’s a little-known fact that I ride MARTA to work every so often, on days that I don’t have to take my kids to preschool or otherwise need to use my car. The short trip from either the Chamblee or Brookhaven station, near my home, to the Arts Center station, near my office, is very convenient and usually quicker than I-85.

MARTA cannot be sustained in the long-run on the backs of DeKalb and Fulton County taxpayers. Besides, the time is overdue to think about seamless comprehensive transit solutions that can operate across the entire Metro Atlanta region.

The upcoming debate for the 2010 legislative session over a transportation funding plan presents a rare and tremendous opportunity to explore these issues and remake MARTA.

I’m with Fran Millar on this one. With his permission, I am reprinting the unedited copy of his column that he sent to our colleagues in the State House. I’d like to hear what you think…

“For the past few years I have watched the frustration build with my neighbors and the metropolitan business community (ten counties) on the failure of our state government to deal with our transportation issues in a comprehensive manner.

To compound the problem we have now been told by Georgia State University that MARTA will probably be short $85 million in sales tax receipts for fiscal 2010 and over the next decade could be short $1.4 billion. In other words MARTA can not be financially viable in the long run with only Fulton and DeKalb as its source of primary funding.

2010 is an election year and politically it is imperative that the General Assembly give the public an opportunity to vote on a comprehensive transportation solution. In my opinion a regional approach with a sales tax component has the best chance of acceptance by the public. I know of no other statewide approach that has passed in recent years.

In 2009 we passed SB 200 which created a Planning Division in the Department of Transportation (DOT). The purpose of the Planning Division is to be responsible for planning and transportation (not just highways) policy in Georgia.

It is my intention in 2010 to add to SB 200 or any other approach a Public Transportation division under DOT with the director of that division also being appointed by the Governor. This director can be responsible for operating public transportation agencies in Georgia including MARTA.

At the same time, I plan to introduce local legislation in DeKalb and have one of my fellow members in Fulton do likewise to repeal the current MARTA Act.

Obviously there are details that need to be worked out with the state assuming the assets and liabilities of MARTA. Priority issues include operations and federal funding. Hopefully, in the not too distant future other transit systems such as Cobb and Gwinnett and agencies such as Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority can be incorporated into this comprehensive approach.

Any comprehensive transportation solution voted on by the people requires a two-thirds vote by the House of Representatives and the Senate in order for the initiative to be placed on the ballot.

Local legislation requires a majority of the county representatives and the county senators to sign the bill and a majority vote in each chamber.

This is our one chance to get away from a Department of Highways and have a meaningful Department of Transportation. With this new MARTA financial data, any reasonable person must conclude that Fulton and DeKalb can no longer carry this burden alone. I would hope Fulton and DeKalb representatives and senators would agree with me and insist that MARTA be folded into any comprehensive transit solution.

Furthermore, per Georgia State University, metro Atlanta (ten counties) generates 53 percent of the state income and receives 37 percent of the state’s spending. If metro Atlanta’s physical infrastructure can not allow further growth and/or our competitive position deteriorates, then the balance of our state will not continue to receive this additional funding over what they collect.

This alone should be the necessary incentive for non-metro legislators to support the creation of this public transportation division under DOT and a regional transportation solution with a sales tax component.

No great city in our country (New York, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco) relies only on highways. We either seize the initiative now or in the not too distant future explain to our children why Atlanta is no longer the Capitol of the South. Remember when we were the financial headquarters of the South?

I urge you to contact your representatives and senators and voice your support for this approach. The time to act is now.”

Representative Fran Millar

Brookhaven Arts Festival

October 16, 2009

The Brookhaven Arts Festival is this Saturday and Sunday, October 17 and 18, on Apple Valley Road behind the Brookhaven MARTA Station. Admission is free. Evan and I enjoy strolling through this festival every year and have artwork from the event hanging in our home. Visit www.brookhavenartsalliance.com for more information.

Taxpayers Hit Grand Slam, Development Authority Strikes Out

October 1, 2009

The Georgia Supreme Court has issued its ruling in a case involving the issuance of bonds to fund construction of the county’s now-completed Porter Sanford III Performing Arts and Community Center (click for information about this facility) near I-20.

The result is a big win for DeKalb taxpayers. You can read more about it in the Atlanta Business Chronicle and on Jim Walls’ Atlanta Unfiltered blog (click for links).

I brought a legal challenge to the issuance of these bonds because it would have violated a law I passed in 2007 that gave you the right to vote on a particular type of bond transaction known as a “backdoor general obligation” or “backdoor G.O.” transaction. It’s called “backdoor G.O.” because it involves the use of an independent government entity known as an “authority” to sell bonds to construct a public building (here, the Arts Center) and then lease the project back to the county, thus avoiding the county having to do a traditional “general obligation” bond issue which requires a voter referendum. You wouldn’t have the right to vote on it, but nevertheless your tax dollars would be used to pay the principal and interest on the bonds.

Rather than comply with the law and let you vote on the bonds, the DeKalb Development Authority decided to challenge the constitutionality of the law by attempting to conduct a “backdoor G.O.” bond issue for the Arts Center without a referendum. This forced me to stand up for your right to vote by challenging the bond issue in court.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court finding that the referendum requirement complies with the Georgia Constitution and should have been followed. Here are links to PDF copies of the full Supreme Court opinion and my brief that was filed in the case. The Supreme Court affirmed a well-written trial court ruling by DeKalb Superior Court Judge Dan Coursey.

One interesting point suggested by Chief Justice Hunstein in the first footnote on pages 3 and 4 of the Supreme Court opinion is that the referendum requirement could apply not only to the “backdoor G.O.” bond transactions of the Development Authority, but also to the run-of-the-mill private bond transactions of the Development Authority. Think “Town Brookhaven” and the various proposals for the shuttered Doraville GM plant. Even the Sembler tax abatement that was rushed through at the end of 2008 might have required a referendum and could have been challenged.

That was never my intent for the referendum requirement, but the law the General Assembly passed in 2007 was worded very broadly because we never anticipated that the Development Authority, which is intended to help fund private projects, would be abused by the county to build a plain old public building like a performing arts center. In fact, there is an unrelated Georgia Supreme Court case (Haney v. Development Authority of Bremen, for you lawyers out there) that says development authorities can’t be used to build plain-vanilla public facilities.

During this year’s legislative session, I noticed the problem that the referendum requirement could apply to the Development Authority’s private bond deals and tried to fix it with new legislation, House Bill 203 (click for more information). However, the Development Authority and a small handful of DeKalb legislators worked to block HB 203 in the hopes that the Supreme Court would later strike down the entire statute. The bill languished in committee, but still remains available for consideration during the 2010 legislative session. As it turns out, its detractors threw a Hail Mary pass that the other team intercepted and ran back for a touchdown (and I promise that’s my last sports analogy in this article).

In light of recent overreaching with respect to Development Authority tax abatements (click for news article), I’m not as convinced that the broad sweep of the 2007 law is as problematic as I once thought it was. We probably should amend the 2007 law to make it narrower, while keeping the referendum requirement for “backdoor G.O.” bond deals. However, I also believe this is an excellent opportunity to require that elected officials accountable to the voters make the final decision on the Development Authority’s tax abatement deals. On this point, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

I donated more than two weeks of legal work writing briefs in the Supreme Court and the trial court in the Arts Center bond case. The county, the Development Authority, and its lawyers from a large Atlanta law firm spent a lot of time, and sadly, your tax dollars, on the case. Next time, here’s hoping the county will just follow the law and save both of us the effort.

Energy & Water Efficient Sales Tax Holiday

October 1, 2009

This is a friendly reminder that Thursday, October 1, through Sunday, October 4, is Georgia’s sales tax holiday for energy efficient and water efficient products. Products exempt from the usual 7% DeKalb County sales tax include “Energy Star” refrigerators, washers and dryers, and other major appliances, ceiling fans, windows and doors, fluorescent light bulbs, and low-flow bathroom fixtures and showerheads.

Atlanta Greek Festival

October 1, 2009

The Atlanta Greek Festival is Friday, October 2, through Sunday, October 4, at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 2500 Clairmont Road. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children under 12. Go there hungry. The food is great! Extra parking and a shuttle bus to the event are available at Century Center. Visit the festival website for more information.

Senator Joe Burton

October 1, 2009

State Senator Joe Burton, who served DeKalb County in the General Assembly for some 30 years, passed away this week. He was a true gentleman and a great public servant.

Funeral services will be held on Friday, October 2, at 2:00 p.m. at the Oak Grove United Methodist Church, 1722 Oak Grove Road.


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