25 Mar

Capitol Vision: Beltline bill gets approval; Georgia Supreme Court rules against Chrysler – Atlanta Business Chronicle

Legislation to create a new funding stream for the Atlanta Beltline cleared a Georgia Senate committee March 20.

But concerns remain about the vagueness of some of the bill’s provisions and how the money would be spent.

The legislation, which the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed late last month, calls for the formation of a special improvement district (SID) along the Beltline corridor. Commercial and multi-family property owners along the Beltline would tax themselves to raise a projected $100 million over the 30-year lifetime of the tax.

As introduced in the House, the revenue from the tax was to be used for a variety of purposes, including completing a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails and building affordable housing along the corridor.

But it has since been amended to apply only to completing the trails, work that has lagged far behind schedule since the Great Recession and sluggish economic recovery that followed reduced the Beltline’s revenue flow to a relative trickle.

“The Atlanta Beltline needs help,” said Rep. Chad Nimmer, R-Blackshear, the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s not going to get completed without this [bill].”

But restricting the proposed SID’s tax revenue to trail construction drew opposition from a couple of Democrats on the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee. Sen. Donzella James of Atlanta said the money should also go toward affordable housing and transit.

“That’s what the Beltline was supposed to be about in the first place,” she said.

“This project is not going to work without transit, and you can’t get transit without funding,” added Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “You still need affordable housing to produce riders for the transit.”

Other senators took issue with vague language in the latest version of the bill that would leave the proposed SID without a governing board and let the district tax properties without any millage limit. Previous versions of the bill capped the tax at 3.5 mills.

A lawyer for the Senate explained that Georgia’s Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from requiring a specific limit on the tax rate or mandating a governing board. Such decisions rest with the city of Atlanta, he said.

Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, amended the bill to create a board for the SID with seven property owners from the district who would make recommendations — not mandates — on such issues as projects and taxes.

Georgia Supreme Court rules against Chrysler in wrongful death case

The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld $40 million in legal damages against Chrysler Group LLC stemming from a Jeep fire that killed a 4-year-old boy.

In a ruling March 15, the justices sided with a 2016 decision by the state Court of Appeals that rejected Chrysler’s arguments that a trial judge erred in allowing evidence concerning Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s compensation. It was disclosed that his annual pay, stock options and cash awards totaled more than $68 million.

In an opinion written by Justice Britt Grant, the court declared that evidence concerning a CEO’s compensation is not always admissible in a wrongful death lawsuit.

However, it was admissible in this case because Marchionne was alleged by the plaintiffs to have interjected himself into the federal safety investigation of the fatal crash by meeting with officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The actions of the CEO were directly relevant to the claims at hand, and his credibility (or lack thereof) was central to the question before the jury,” Grant wrote.

The case stemmed from a 2012 crash that killed Remington Walden, a 4-year-old boy riding in the back seat of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee rear-ended by a pickup truck in Bainbridge. The Jeep featured a rear-gas tank that leaked after the collision, setting the vehicle ablaze and killing the child.

The trial judge reduced the damages from the $150 million the jurors originally awarded against Chrysler to $40 million.

“Remi died by fire six years ago this month,” said Jim Butler, founding partner of Butler Wooten & Peak LLP, who represented the Waldens. “Remi’s parents and their legal team hope this is the end of it. We thank all the judges who devoted such time and effort to this case.”

Georgia Aquarium tax break clears General Assembly

The Georgia Senate gave final passage March 19 to legislation aimed at helping finance a $100 million expansion of the Georgia Aquarium that will house a shark exhibit.

The bill, which passed 45-9 and now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature, would renew a sales tax exemption on construction materials to be used for the expansion. The tax break, which expired at the beginning of last year, would run until Jan. 1, 2022.

The bill would cap the sales tax break at $4.5 million.

The legislation, which the Georgia House of Representatives passed earlier this month, also includes a sales tax break to help fund the construction of a new $35 million auto museum in Cartersville.

Sharon Springs cityhood vote set for May

Voters in the southeastern corner of Forsyth County will vote this spring whether to form a new city under legislation Gov. Nathan Deal signed March 12.

The cityhood bill sailed through the Georgia House of Representatives last month 159-3. The state Senate followed suit March 9, approving it 46-2.

The new city would be only the second in Forsyth County and, with an expected population of 50,000 to 55,000, it would be by far the larger of the two. The county seat of Cumming has a population of only about 6,000.

The cityhood referendum is set for May 22, on the same ballot as this year’s party primaries. If voters approve, Sharon Springs would officially come into being next Jan. 1.

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