Small business owners and apartment dwellers are likely to absorb the tax increase if the new BeltLine tax district is approved. (Photo by Jacob Nguyen)

A controversial proposal to create a new tax district along the Atlanta BeltLine to fund completion of the trail component could be voted on by the City Council at its March 15 meeting.

The proposed special service district (SSD) that would see a 2-mill increase in taxes for commercial properties and apartment complexes located 0.5 miles on either side of the 22-mile BeltLine trail.

The plan has met with opposition from business organizations, apartment landlords, apartment owners, and transit advocates. Heads of Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), a self-taxing scheme that keeps improvement funds in a specific neighborhood, along the BeltLine are concerned about double-taxation.

Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI) officials contend the trail corridor will not be completed before the tax allocation district (TAD) created to fund it expires in 2030. The TAD will generate at least $1 billion less than originally projected, while the estimated cost to design and construct the remaining trail corridor is $350 million.

The transit funding aspect remains up to MARTA and an existing sales tax, ABI says.

Many opponents say the SSD proposal, first floated in January, is moving too fast with too little consideration, and if instituted in the fall as planned would hit businesses and residential tenants in the midst of an economy-battering pandemic. The transit advocacy group BeltLine Rail Now says that if an SSD happens, it should include funding for the light-rail transit component and not just the trail.

Whether the SSD proposal will have enough support on the Atlanta City Council to get approval remains to be seen.

City Councilmember Howard Shook is among the opponents. He says he supports the BeltLine, but that the public shouldn’t make up for ABI’s “pretty crappy forecasting” of its existing funding. He is also concerned that the SSD would become a permanent tax and one imitated by other groups, such as community improvement districts. Several business groups around the city have also asked for a delay or a reworking of the proposal.

“I think raising taxes on businesses, especially during this pandemic, shows a total lack of empathy for the owners and their employees and their customers,” said Shook in an interview. “Never, to me, is government more callous than when they’re cheerfully explaining why it’s OK to raise taxes on other people.”

At a March 1 virtual meeting for Buckhead and other Northside neighborhoods, one of a series touting the SSD plan, ABI offered estimates that a 2-mill tax increase would translate into relatively small numbers for most affected property owners.

Citywide, about half of the properties in the SSD would pay an increase of under $250 a year, and 80% would pay less than $1,000 extra, ABI said. For apartment tenants, if the landlord passed the cost on, ABI estimated rent increases around $3.50 to $13 a month.

The Old Fourth Ward Business Association recently passed a resolution asking for all property in the SSD be taxed and for ABI create a small business support fund to aid those impacted by the legislation, among other requests. A letter signed by the organization’s executive director, Emma Tinsley, pulled no punches.

“A lack of signage and wayfinding measures, coupled with poor public infrastructure and ongoing safety challenges, cause an ongoing struggle for business owners a mere one or two blocks away from the entrance of the Eastside BeltLine trail. To date, the Atlanta Eastside BeltLine trail does not have a single sign pointing to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District, one of the most important and historically significant neighborhoods in the city. Without critical investment in small businesses, community advocacy capacity, and pedestrian infrastructure, local businesses in the Old Fourth Ward will not reap the benefits of the growth brought about by the BeltLine,” Tinsley wrote. 

Tinsley continued: “The Old Fourth Ward community is keenly aware that, as written, the BeltLine SSD proposal will serve to remove critical resources from the neighborhood for use in other areas of the city. Given it’s narrow uses for design, acquisition, and construction, the current proposal does not provide residents of the Eastside BeltLine trail (Subarea 5) with a service or benefit different from what it has already received and stands to stymy an ongoing grassroots effort to establish a Community Improvement District to fund much needed community advocacy, infrastructure, and safety initiatives.”

The Atlanta Apartment Association, an industry group of major commercial landlords, is a prime critic. An AAA official said in the meeting that the organization’s own analysis shows that ABI could more than fund the trail with a much lower tax increase of 9/10 of a mill.

AAA also questioned why rental residences are targeted for the SSD but homeowners are exempted even though they legally could be taxed as well. City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland previously said that homeowners were exempted due to concerns a tax increase could boost gentrification and displace them. But AAA is asking why the same concerns don’t apply to tenants. If the tax increases are already so insignificant, AAA asks, why not make them even smaller by spreading them across all properties in the areas?

Jill Johnson, ABI’s director of government affairs, said she would need to see AAA’s millage analysis to respond. As to why homeowners are exempted, Johnson said a basic reason is because they said they don’t want to be taxed and ABI and city officials chose to agree. “The short answer is, we’re not hearing an appetite for the special service district to go that way,” she said.

Shook said that political and business officials he declined to name have explained the politics of that decision. “It just also offends me — to put it bluntly, the point has been made to me over and over privately that, ‘They’re only renters. They don’t vote,’” he said.

Collin Kelley contributed to this report.