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Shredded tax, eminent domain bid shows voters highly peeved

Britt Fant urges a “no” vote on eminent domain powers or “redevelopment.” (Photo Joanna Hildreth)
Signs near a polling place tell Catoosa County residents to reject government as business developer. (Photo Joanna Hildreth)

RINGGOLD, GA — Voters in Ringgold, Fort Oglethorpe and Catoosa County decidedly rejected a controversial Redevelopment Powers proposal Nov. 2 that would have given the local municipalities the authority to create Tax Allocation Districts (TADs) and provide tax increment financing for redevelopment.

By Abigail Darnell

These redevelopment powers operate on the premise that “blight makes right”; that is, any part of the community that the local government agency deems to be “blighted” can become a “project area” and be artificially stimulated by tax dollars through corporate welfare to developers.

A similar measure was defeated earlier this year in Whitfield County. One of the concerns expressed by voters was the permanence of this proposal, if adopted.

Like many additional or emergency powers, when once surrendered by the people and seized by the civil government, they have no expiration date and power thus surrendered is not easily restored.

Joanna Hildreth was active in helping whip new tax authority for local government.

Joanna Hildreth, Catoosa County GOP Chair and Vice President of the Northwest GA Republican Assembly said: “I opposed the referendum because at the root it increases the government’s power. I believe in the principle of limited government, and this was a step in the other direction. We can’t trust that every county board in the future will wield these additional powers wisely. If the referendum had passed, the people would never be able to vote to end it. Only the governor has that authority.”

The Catoosa GOP voted to publicly oppose the Redevelopment Powers, in opposition to their state legislator and fellow Republicans State Rep. Dewayne Hill (R-Ringgold) and Rep. Steve Tarvin (R-Chickamauga) who together co-authored HB 778, HB 764 and HB 766, the legislation that put the Redevelopment Powers question on the ballots in the first place.

“The GOP precinct chairs were instrumental in calling voters, door-knocking, and sign-waving. Mitchell Horner, Ringgold precinct chairman of the Catoosa GOP and chair of our policy committee, formed the Committee on Catoosa Taxation to raise money and purchase signs”, said Hildreth.

The Catoosa GOP partnered with other groups like the Northwest GA Republican Assembly and also utilized social media, radio and television interviews.

Liberty activist Nick Ware attended the October 4th Town Hall meeting about Redevelopment Powers that was held at the Colonnade. “After I heard that presentation I knew I had to push forward,” he said. “I wan’t going to let the ‘powers that be’ have power forever and not stand up!”

With that inspiration, Nick decided to put his liberty convictions in action and prepared a Powerpoint presentation about the potential danger of this measure and began spreading the word in the community. Ware and many Catoosa voters believe Redevelopment Powers are problematic for many reasons: it’s interference with the free market, the indebtedness it would create, the lack of accountability, and the special favors and business deals it would allow to be given to the political elite and their friends.

“I utilized as many tools as I could to educate the voters,” he said.

Threat of eminent domain prompts emotional response

Rep. Dewayne Hill authored state legislative measure to enhance seizure powers

Catoosa homeowners were also concerned about the threat of property seizure through eminent domain under this proposal.

“Supporters say if you keep your property looking tidy, you have nothing to worry about. But what about the elderly and disabled who can’t keep their house tidy?” said Nick Ware.

Nick expressed concern for people like the elderly couple who live and operate a small fruit stand on Boynton Road against whom a complaint had recently been filed or the woman overcome with worry and brought nigh to tears because her property borders an area intended to be developed.

“I advised her to just hold out and see how the vote goes,” said Ware, “and she was very happy to hear about the outcome.”

Originally, eminent domain required proof that a property was being taken for “public use” such as the widening of a road, but in 2017 Georgia law was amended to allow local governments to use eminent domain to condemn blighted property and transfer it to a private developer for purposes of economic development. Of course, the original property owner is still entitled to receive what the officials deem “just compensation”, but what is that to the owner of his childhood home or the property that has been passed down through family generations?

’Horrible reputation for conflicts of interest’

Not all Catoosa citizens share these concerns, however. John Pless, the Public Information Officer for Catoosa County told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “What this would have done is essentially leverage the power of government to redevelop blighted areas. This was not a tax increase, and it was absolutely not a land grab.”The referendum question was only narrowly defeated in the City of Fort Oglethorpe with only 51.05% voting “No” to Redevelopment Powers.

In the City of Ringgold 60.29% voted “No” but in Catoosa County voters rejected it by a staggering 82.55%. The fact that the measure failed in all three districts, to the liberty activists, is a triumph worth celebrating.

Voter turnout was remarkably low with only 4,927 ballots cast for the entire County, a mere fraction of the 32,099 votes cast in Catoosa in the 2020 presidential election. Some voters have suspicions that measures like these are intentionally put forward in election years where voter participation is expected to be low in order to increase their chances. But the vigilance and community organization of grass roots activists were able to win the day in spite of the low turnout.

George Battersby protested the TAD in the public comments portion of the October 21 Catoosa Board of Commissioners Meeting.

He said, “The county has a horrible reputation for conflicts of interest. *** The County has had so much problems trying to explain the TAD to taxpayers, they even brought in an expert from Atlanta to try and explain it to us old rednecks. Certainly the devil is in the details. However, one thing you can bank on, the local builders, developers will get richer on the aching backs of our taxpayers young and old.”

While some voters may not fully understand Redevelopment Powers, Tuesdays polling showed they were nonetheless skeptical and may have reasoned intuitively that, if government officials were not asking for more money and more power, they wouldn’t have to get voters permission with a new ballot referendum.

Ideological ballot question

The proposal was very broad and generic in nature and did not specify a certain area or a private developer that would benefit from it. This means the underlying question put to the voters was ideological: Should local government have the power to artificially stimulate or develop an area that the free market has rejected and is therefore not developing organically?

Should the government provide enhancements that were not merited in the free market?Should local government have the power to seize private property, against the will of the property owners in order to accomplish the community enhancements that elected officials deem beneficial?

The triple rejection of this proposal by both the Cities of Ringgold, Fort Oglethorpe and Catoosa County is likely an indication of voters core worldview and fundamental beliefs about the role of government in the lives of the citizenry.

A belief that would appear to differ from their elected representatives Dewayne Hill (R-Ringgold) and Steve Tarvin (R-Chickamauga), who sponsored the legislation.

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