Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sembler’s Big Brookhaven Bailout by Rep Mike Jacobs

The proposed Sembler tax abatement for its “Town Brookhaven” project needs to be stopped.

One thing you can do to stand in its way is to attend an upcoming community meeting to be held on Monday, June 8, at 7:00 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall of Chamblee United Methodist Church, 4147 Chamblee Dunwoody Road.

I have organized this meeting and invited John Woodham, the lawyer who represents the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation in fighting similar transactions in our neighboring county, to discuss possible legal strategies for challenging this latest proposal foisted on the public by Sembler and the non-elected, unaccountable DeKalb County Development Authority. We also will explain the mechanics of the tax abatement at this meeting.

At the May meeting of the Development Authority, Sembler made its pitch for the tax abatement and dismissed the opposition to the proposal as coming from a small handful of discontented citizens. If the e-mails I am receiving from constituents are any indication, I’ll bet what Sembler is dismissing as a small handful of discontents will look a lot more like a packed room of unhappy taxpayers at the June 8th meeting.

Furthermore, attendance at this meeting should not be limited to those who live in the immediate vicinity of the Town Brookhaven project. Citizens across DeKalb County should be concerned about the proposal. Please forward this e-mail message and ask your neighbors to attend. Here’s why:

The deal Sembler is seeking is known as a PILOT bond deal. PILOT is short for “payments in lieu of taxes.” In this deal, Sembler will convey to the Development Authority ownership of large portions of its mixed-use Town Brookhaven project. The Development Authority will float bonds to finish construction of the project. The Development Authority also will lease the project back to Sembler. Under this lease, Sembler will make rent payments to the Authority sufficient to repay the principal and interest on the bonds. Bond funds also could be used to refinance Sembler’s existing loans for the project at a more favorable interest rate.

Development Authority bond deals must be confirmed in DeKalb County Superior Court. Sembler and the Development Authority already have obtained Superior Court approval for a smaller PILOT bond deal. That deal was rushed through the Superior Court at a time the public was unlikely to notice, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, in 2008. Sembler now wants a bigger tax abatement and is seeking to abandon its earlier, less lucrative deal. As I discussed in this week’s Dunwoody Crier (click for link), the “holiday gift” that the Development Authority gave Sembler last December could furnish a legal basis for challenging Sembler’s new, more costly proposal.

This PILOT bond deal results in a property tax abatement because the Development Authority, a government entity, will own the property and therefore the property cannot be taxed. The value of this tax abatement is estimated to be $51 million over 20 years.

The direct costs of educating the children who will live in Town Brookhaven and providing county services to the project will be borne by families and small businesses across DeKalb, the same families and small businesses who are struggling to make ends meet in this tough economy.

By contrast, Sembler may no longer be subject to the risks of doing business in a tough economy. As a result of Sembler’s proposed PILOT deal with the Development Authority, those risks could be transferred to the public.

The Town Brookhaven project isn’t owned by Sembler the parent company. It’s actually owned by a “bankruptcy-remote” entity known as Sembler Bell Brookhaven, LLC. The sole purpose of Sembler Bell Brookhaven, LLC is to develop and operate Town Brookhaven. It doesn’t own any other property.

If the commercial real estate market remains as bad as it is right now (click for AJC article) and Town Brookhaven flops, Sembler Bell Brookhaven, LLC could file for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy would afford Sembler Bell Brookhaven, LLC the opportunity to reject its unexpired lease with the Development Authority. That would leave the Development Authority the owner of a failed project and abandon the Authority to sort things out with the bondholders. The deal probably does involve insurance to cover the bondholders’ losses, and could require security to allow the bondholders to make a partial recovery from selling off the project. However, these “safeguards” don’t change the fundamental concern that Sembler is socializing the risks of its project.

Last but not least, there’s the unique ethical dilemma of Dr. Eugene Walker, who serves in dual roles as the Chairman of the Development Authority and a member of the DeKalb County Board of Education. He was first elected to the Board of Education in 2008 with the help of $18,000 in campaign contributions from Sembler executives, employees, and their spouses. You can view Dr. Walker’s campaign contribution disclosure reports here and here (click for links to two separate reports).

In a recent Dunwoody Crier article (click for link), Dr. Walker credited his “platform of economic development” for carrying him to victory in his Board of Education campaign. In the same vein, I suppose he might explain the $18,000 in campaign contributions as Florida-based Sembler’s way of showing special concern for the children of DeKalb County.

You should feel free to e-mail and let Dr. Walker know whether you think he should be involved as Chairman of the Development Authority in making a decision on Sembler’s request for a PILOT tax abatement. Unlike the other members of the Development Authority (click for more information), who get to vote to sock the taxpayers with Sembler’s $51 million tax bill without having been elected to anything, Dr. Walker is now an elected member of the Board of Education who should hear directly from DeKalb citizens.

Other developers are waiting in line behind Sembler to secure their own tax abatements from the Development Authority. If Sembler succeeds, the floodgates will be open. It’s a snowball effect that ultimately will cause county officials to claim they need to raise our property taxes to make up for lost tax revenues.

Somebody will have to pay for the services consumed by the new projects. You and I are those somebodies.

I hope to see you on June 8th.

Background links are below but I believe the best commentary is found in the comments of the DeKalb County School Watch.
Rep Jacobs blog, AJC, DeKalb County School Watch, Decatur Metro,


Paula Caldarella said...

Politics in Dekalb County will never change. The fact that Eugene Walker continues to sit on the Development committee and the School board is just uncomprehensible. There is a clear conflict of interest.

John Heneghan said...

Costco, Publix, LA Fitness and CinéBistro, an upscale dinner-and-a-movie house are coming to Town Brookhaven as per the AJC.

Developers of a large retail project in Brookhaven say they’ve signed four anchor tenants and plan to start construction this fall, even without a controversial tax break in hand.

Thursday’s announcement by Sembler Co. shows retailer interest in the Town Brookhaven mixed-use project, where apartment buildings now sit ringed by red clay.

But it doesn’t end the Florida developer’s bid for a larger tax break that the firm says it needs to finish the project with restaurants and boutiques.

Sembler said it signed leases in recent weeks with Costco, Publix, LA Fitness and CinéBistro, an upscale dinner-and-a-movie house.

Work should start in November, with the stores opening in late 2010, Sembler said. The 54-acre project is near Oglethorpe University and the Brookhaven MARTA Station in DeKalb County.