In the wake of surprise tax breaks granted by DeKalb County on Brookhaven properties, the city is working on a notification agreement and ways to get some of the money back. But city officials say that, weeks later, they still lack basic information about the tax abatements.

“I told them, you’re like Coca-Cola here. You’ve got a secret formula,” Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams said of the Decide DeKalb Development Authority, which granted the controversial tax abatements.

Decide DeKalb did not respond to questions about the deals.

Granted by Decide DeKalb last month without notice to the city, the tax abatements include Source One Direct at 1500 Northeast Expressway and an office tower planned for 4004 Perimeter Summit Parkway. The city part of the tax breaks totals $537,000 and, while the developments in theory will boost city coffers more than that, the abatement calculation apparently did not factor in the cost of city services for them.

Williams said the city also is still struggling to figure out whether Cox Enterprises received another unpublicized abatement for its large complex on Lake Hearn Drive. She said that county paperwork indicates Cox sought a $5.5 million abatement in April or May, but that it is unclear whether it was granted.

Williams said documents show that Cox sought an abatement for reuse of its own existing building. She said Cox gutted its main Lake Hearn building and intends to consolidate its Cox Automotive subsidiary there. “They had the gall, but it worked for them,” she said.
“I can confirm that we did pursue the abatement,” Cox spokeswoman Elizabeth Olmstead said in an email. But she did not respond to questions about the abatement amount and whether it was granted, or plans for the property.

At the Nov. 10 City Council meeting, City Manager Marie Garrett said a legal agreement is in the works between Decide DeKalb and the city’s Development Authority to ensure collaboration on future tax abatement requests. “When we play in each others’ sandbox, we will be respectful,” she said.

In addition, Garrett said, the city is working with both Decide DeKalb and the property owners “about how we can capture those [abated] funds and make the city whole.” That could include the county taking on a higher percentage of the abatements and the property owners making a one-time payment in lieu of taxes, she said.

The city is not against tax abatements in general, and its officials voiced optimism about working with Decide DeKalb, whose leadership has been willing to meet and collaborate on the notification agreement. But there are still many unanswered questions, including how abatements are calculated and why the Perimeter Summit building’s valuation is changing.

City leaders appeared to be still figuring out the best way to handle the diplomacy of the abatement situation. Garrett and the attorneys for the city and its Development Authority sought a council resolution voicing “strenuous objection” to the lack of abatement notice, but the council hedged.

“I just want to make sure we have a measured statement,” Williams said. “I don’t think we can reach cooperation and collaboration by stamping our feet and calling them names.”

Garrett said she is mostly trying to leverage more information. She and Development Authority attorney Wendy Butler intended to attend a Nov. 12 Decide DeKalb board meeting, she said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.