Contact County Commissioners About GM Plan

August 23, 2010

Click here for telephone numbers and e-mail addresses to contact the DeKalb County commissioners about the GM redevelopment plan. Please see below to read my recent article on the subject.

Taxpayers Shouldn’t Become Developer’s ATM

August 20, 2010

Drive north on Peachtree Road and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard through Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville and into Dunwoody and the view is startling. Shopping centers are empty like the ghost towns of the Wild West.

Town Brookhaven is finally sprouting major anchor stores, but is having trouble filling its smaller retail store fronts. Chamblee Plaza? Nearly empty. The new “Super H Mart” center adjacent to the GM site? It’s nearly empty, too.

The CoStar Group, a national real estate analysis firm, says the vacancy rates of retail, shopping centers and offices in North DeKalb are at catastrophic levels when you compare them to the national average. With so many empty store fronts, why would county officials push so hard to use our tax dollars for a supersized mixed-use project at the site of the former GM plant in Doraville?

Consider this:

- In the North DeKalb zip codes 30319, 30338, 30340, 30341, 30346 and 30360, the vacancy rate for shopping centers is 23 percent compared to 14 percent in DeKalb County as a whole and 10 percent in the City of Atlanta.

- The vacancy rate for North DeKalb office buildings is 24 percent compared to 18 percent in the county overall and 20 percent in the City of Atlanta.

- Retail vacancy rates are 17 percent in those zip codes, 11 percent in DeKalb overall, and 9 percent in Atlanta, according to CoStar.

The county’s elected officials are considering using a special allocation of $36 million in federal stimulus bonds on the 165-acre GM site with visions of creating another Atlantic Station. These bonds come with a high price tag to the taxpayers. DeKalb officials would use the stimulus bonds as a $36 million “gift” to an out-of-state developer, New Broad Street of Florida.

Worse yet, county taxpayers would have to pay the principal and a majority of the interest on these bonds. It’s very likely that means higher property taxes for you and me because the county doesn’t otherwise have the money to make the payments.

In ordinary times, the developer wouldn’t have to rely on county taxpayers. There would be more private investment to help finance the project. But these are no ordinary times. We’re in the midst of the worst commercial real estate market in memory. Private investors don’t want to provide the financing for an overly ambitious mixed-use project consisting of shopping, apartments and offices. The county wants the taxpayers to step in and do what private investors won’t do: bear the risks of this project.

If a new restaurant, retail shop or gas station, for example, wants to open for business, investors take the risk whether it prospers or fails. The same should be true for this project. DeKalb taxpayers are not a bank. They are not in the business of providing corporate welfare to jump start a project the private sector would never finance.

This is the most ambitious project we’ve ever seen county officials attempt to tackle, and it comes during a deep recession. It is not the taxpayers’ job to finance the next Atlantic Station and add to the already glutted market a new supply of retail and commercial space.

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We should heed the lessons of the “real estate bubble” and steer clear of risking taxpayer funds for further overdevelopment. After the bubble has burst, don’t use our tax dollars to create another bubble!

There are two final things to consider:

1. The GM site ultimately will be redeveloped if the county does not intervene. It’s arguably the most valuable parcel of available commercial property in the county. It’s on a major highway (I-285), a major north-south artery (Peachtree Industrial), and a MARTA station. In better economic times, something that private investors and market forces will support will be built there. I’m confident of that.

2. These particular stimulus bonds are supposed to be used for public infrastructure projects, not for private development. When used properly, they are a cheaper way of financing these projects. The county already has a list of infrastructure needs a mile long, not the least of which is the water and sewer system upgrades that they plan to fund with massive increases in our water bills. The bonds could be used to defray those costs. They also could be used for projects such as street repairs, new sidewalks, intersection upgrades, and parks.

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners will vote on this matter next Tuesday, August 24.

Commissioner Elaine Boyer has pledged to vote against it. I encourage you to contact the other six county commissioners (Rader, Johnson, Barnes-Sutton, May, Gannon, and Stokes) and urge them to vote “no” as well. In particular, Commissioner Jeff Rader appears not to have taken a position as of yet. You can find the commissioners’ telephone numbers and e-mail addresses by clicking here.

Taste of Chamblee

August 20, 2010

The annual Taste of Chamblee festival is this Saturday, August 21, from 11:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. in Downtown Chamblee. Click here for more information.

Runoff Election on August 10th

August 9, 2010

This Tuesday, August 10, is Georgia’s runoff election. Your local polling place will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday. You can find personalized voting information, including the location of your polling place, on the Secretary of State’s “MVP” website (click for link).

The Republican runoff includes races for Governor, Attorney General, Insurance Commissioner, and the Public Service Commission. The Democratic runoff only includes a race for Secretary of State.

Click here to view the Republican sample ballot. Click here to view the Democratic sample ballot.

Please note: If you voted in the Republican primary on July 20, you MUST choose a Republican runoff ballot. If you voted in the Democratic primary on July 20, you MUST choose a Democratic runoff ballot. If you did not vote in the July 20 primary, you can choose either runoff ballot.

DeKalb County Strategic Planning Meetings

August 9, 2010

DeKalb County is hosting a series of strategic planning meetings throughout the county billed as “FOCUSS” meetings (which stands for fiscal accountability, opportunity, community, unity, safety, and sustainability). The meetings appear to be a good opportunity for citizens to talk with county officials about the future of the county.

Two of the meetings will be held relatively near our community. Here are the dates, times, and locations:

Monday, August 9
6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Georgia Perimeter College, Dunwoody Campus
Building C, Room NC 1100
2101 Womack Road
Dunwoody, GA 30338

Monday, August 23
6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Emory University
MacMillan-Gambrell Hall, Tull Auditorium
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322

Runoff Election Information & Sample Ballots

August 2, 2010

Early voting for the upcoming runoff election is today through Friday, August 6. You can cast your ballot from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on any of these days. The only early voting location for the runoff election is at the DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections headquarters located at 4380 Memorial Drive, Decatur, GA 30032, near the Memorial Drive exit on I-285.

On Tuesday, August 10, your regular polling place will be open for the runoff election from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Republican runoff includes races for Governor, Attorney General, Insurance Commissioner, and the Public Service Commission. The Democratic runoff only includes a race for Secretary of State.

Click here to view the Republican sample ballot. Click here to view the Democratic sample ballot.

Please note: If you voted in the Republican primary on July 20, you MUST choose a Republican runoff ballot. If you voted in the Democratic primary on July 20, you MUST choose a Democratic runoff ballot. If you did not vote in the July 20 primary, you can choose either runoff ballot.

Mike Gets Results: The Kosher Bill

August 2, 2010

The issues I most enjoy working on are the ones that directly impact the daily lives of my constituents.

I represent a portion of Atlanta’s orthodox Jewish community in Toco Hills along LaVista Road. Due to a lawsuit that was filed in federal district court, I was presented with a unique situation affecting this community which turned out to be one of the most interesting issues that has crossed my desk during my six years in the General Assembly.

I am writing this update for my constituents both inside and outside the Jewish community. There is more detail in this article than is needed for some constituents, but I thought everyone might want to see how an issue finds its way from the needs of constituents to become a law of this state.

Georgia had a set of kosher statutes that were overseen by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, although to the best of everyone’s recollection they were never actually enforced by that Department. In essence, these statutes said: “Thou shalt not call non-kosher food ‘kosher.’” They defined the term “kosher” as satisfying “orthodox Hebrew religious rules.”

These statutes applied to food that is prepared or served at the same location where it is sold (for example, at a restaurant or at the kosher counter of the Toco Hills Publix or Kroger). There already is a reliable means of identifying mass-produced food which meets orthodox kosher standards. The capital “U” inside a circle that is printed on many products sold at your local supermarket stands for “Orthodox Union” and is one such reliable designation for mass-produced food.

A rabbi from a conservative synagogue in Cobb County joined with the ACLU to file a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s existing kosher statutes as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Every law professor with whom I discussed the issue agreed: That lawsuit was likely to prevail and Georgia’s kosher statutes were likely to be struck down as a result.

The ACLU engaged the services of four lawyers from one of the largest law firms in Atlanta to work on this lawsuit. If they prevailed, these four very expensive lawyers were likely to win an award of attorneys’ fees against the State of Georgia. That’s your tax dollars we’re talking about.

Members of the orthodox community approached me to help fix the problem and replace Georgia’s kosher statutes with something that would pass constitutional muster and avoid future lawsuits.

What we worked out is House Bill 1345 (click for more information).

HB 1345 sets forth a disclosure scheme in which establishments purporting to sell kosher food that is prepared on-site will have to fill out a form disclosing what rabbi or organization has certified the food as kosher and answer a series of questions about how the food is prepared. To see what this form looks like, click here. The form must be posted at the place of business where the food is sold so that kosher consumers can review it. The old “thou shalt not” kosher statutes have been repealed.

This new disclosure scheme will be administered by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs (click for link) under the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act. One benefit to having GOCA oversee the new rules is that they have the resources to enforce the rules and intend to do so. That’s an improvement over the Department of Agriculture, which did not enforce the old statutes.

If you’re a kosher consumer and are concerned about the kosher standards used by an establishment that calls their food “kosher,” you should ask to see their disclosure form. Please keep in mind that under the new kosher statute the words “kosher-style” and “kosher-type” (and only those words; no others) are “safe harbor” terms that do not require a disclosure form to be posted.

In addition, the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act applies only to consumer transactions. If you’re attending a catered event, the only person to whom a caterer has a legal duty to make a disclosure is the person who paid for the catering services. In other words, you should ask your host, the one who paid money in a consumer transaction, what the caterer’s disclosure form said.

I would like to thank Rabbi A. D. Motzen of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich of Congregation Beth Jacob, Rabbi Reuven Stein of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, University of Georgia Law Professor Hillel Levin, attorney David Schoen, Representative Kevin Levitas (one of my House co-sponsors), Senator Don Balfour (the Senate sponsor of HB 1345), and Bill Cloud and Anne Infinger of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs for their help in passing our state’s new kosher statute. This legislation was signed into law by Governor Perdue on May 20, 2010. Getting the bill to the Governor’s desk was a team effort.

After the passage of HB 1345, the ACLU dropped its lawsuit. The four lawyers went home empty-handed.

Click here if you would like to watch a video of my presentation of this legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives.


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