Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee participates in the laying of ceremonial first bricks for SunTrust Park on Aug. 27, 2015. (Photo: J. Scott Trubey / Scott.Trubey@ajc.com)
Photo: J. Scott Trubey/STAFF
Photo: J. Scott Trubey/STAFF

Why money for Braves stadium has Cobb parks green with envy

I suppose the term “tax increase” is an eye-of-the-beholder kind of thing.

Cobb County is spending upwards of $400 million in public funds so the Atlanta Braves can play baseball near Smyrna in a splendid new ballpark. But county Chairman Tim Lee has steadfastly insisted that the county’s generosity toward the team’s fabulously rich owner won’t increase the property taxes of regular Joes.

That may be true — but only if one buys The Chairman’s circuitous logic. What has really happened is that Lee & Co. have simply extended an existing property tax to help build the SunTrust Park. They have extended it so far into the future that a 10-year-old Little Leaguer chasing flies in Cobb will be on the wrong side of 40 when the bonds are paid off.

It’s election year and Lee, never a warm and fuzzy campaigner, has a bit of a problem on his hands. Folks who like parks — ones with meadows and trees and soccer fields, not behemoth Major League Baseball stadiums — are irked that Lee pulled the switcheroo a couple of years ago by using a funding stream set up to buy green space and earmarking it for his new MLB buds.

In 2008, residents of the steadily growing suburban county voted 2-1 to spend $40 million to buy land for green space. This came after a similar effort two years earlier that allowed Cobb to buy nearly 400 acres of land that will remain largely asphalt free in perpetuity.

The county levied a .33 mills property tax to pay off the 2006 parks referendum, a tax that was set to end in a couple of years. The 2008 referendum to spend another $40 million on park land was never put into action because of the recession. Green-space supporters say the .33 should have been used to pay for the next round of green space purchases.

Instead, “the millage will then be shifted to the General Fund when (the 2006) bonds expire to raise an equivalent amount of revenues of $8.67 million,” according to the Cobb website. “Those monies will then be used to pay for bonds to finance SunTrust Park construction. The average amount of .33 mills per household is $26 per year, and this shift of funding will not impact other government services such as police, libraries, parks and other services.”

Actually, that money, as well as some of the other taxes to fund the stadium (hotel fees, car rental taxes) could be used to further improve benefits to the public, things other than helping build a stadium. But I digress.

The issue at hand is that the folks who like parks — and 190,000 of them voted for the effort in 2008 — say Lee is being less than genuine.

“Of course there’s a tax increase,” said Jim Dugan, a former county parks board member who got shoved off that panel a couple of years ago when he questioned Lee’s accounting method. “It’s the Cobb Way or the highway.”

Dugan was shown the highway.

“He said (the .33 for the parks and the .33 for the stadium) are two separate issues. They are the same issues,” said Dugan, who knows a thing or two about money, having worked as the VP of financial services for a large manufacturing firm.

A decade ago, Dugan was part of a coalition that was determining what parcels were best for the county to purchase in the upcoming referendum. Dugan and Lee, then a district commissioner in east Cobb, bumped heads because the group thought Cobb would get more bang for the buck by buying cheaper swaths of land in other parts of the county. Lee wanted more purchases for his district, which is what district commissioners do.

“He kind of wins by intimidation,” Dugan said of the large hulking chairman who is quick to dismiss critics as idiots or rabble-rousers.

In 2013, Lee negotiated a sweetheart deal with the Braves in secret, and then that November sprung the blockbuster deal on an unsuspecting populace. Fellow commissioners were hustled along by Lee to vote quickly or lose the deal.

The $400 million giveaway was done without a public vote, Dugan said, because “I don’t think it would have passed.”

My AJC colleague Dan Klepal asked Lee how the park bonds and SunTrust are not connected — given the millage rates are identical.

Lee nonanswered: “At the moment we were negotiating a partnership with the Atlanta Braves on the ballpark, we were focused on what was perhaps the most transformational economic development project in Cobb County’s history. Never once did I see such a moment as a choice between acquiring green space for Cobb County or a $1.2 billion investment.”

First, a little history lesson for Mr. Lee. SunTrust Park cannot hold the Bell Bomber plant’s jockstrap when it comes to economic development. The manufacturing plant that later became the Lockheed facility has provided tens of thousands of Georgians with real wages — not peanut vendor pay. It helped put Cobb on the map.

And second, if it looks like a .33 parks bond and smells like a .33 parks bond then … well, you know.

Lee has stated that property tax revenue is better than expected and he might toss .1 mill of funding the parks’ way. He wants a study process to happen with recommendations coming in October, long past this spring’s Republican primary, which is the real election in Cobb.

A stream of parks supporters came before the Cobb commission this past week to complain about getting hoodwinked by Lee.

One of them was Joe O’Connor, a retiree who noted that the Braves are a relatively small revenue center for John Malone, an out-of-state billionaire who years ago got the team in an asset swap that saved him $600 million in taxes.

Malone could write a check for a new stadium and hardly miss the cash, he noted.

“Tim Lee is a puppet of the Chamber of Commerce,” O’Connor said in an interview. But, he added, the Chamber’s marionette got taken to the cleaners by the Braves’ negotiating crew.

Lee sees it differently. In a State of Cobb speech this month, he said:

“Finally, our fiscal health is giving the board the opportunity to revisit the issuance of the 2008 green space bonds WITHOUT raising taxes,” Lee said. “So, how are we able to buck the trends — lower taxes, reduce the water transfer and make large investments in public safety and green space?

“Two words — SunTrust Park.”

I was surprised those were the two words he chose.

X