When the housing market crashed, so did the local growth wars.
No doubt, the primary conflict in my first few years on this job — I started in 1998 — was over how Madison County would or wouldn’t grow. It was a “to be or not to be” drama. Would Madison County maintain its rural character, and perhaps miss out on improved commercial tax revenues, or would the growth from the west turn pretty pastures into strip malls?
The feelings were intense.
Both sides of the ideological divide formed organized groups. There was Property Owners for Common Sense Growth (POCSG), which seemed primarily interested in preserving the rural character of the county. And there was Madison County Community and Economic Council (MCCEC), which seemed geared towards countering change-resistant attitudes and promoting growth.
I sensed a certain Hatfield and McCoy element at times during the clash. And Madison County’s government held comprehensive land use plan meetings, which served as the battlefield for opposing views on the county’s future.
But those fights were quickly muted when the bigger picture emerged. The housing boom had been based on big-time lies. And when the world finally wised up to the truth, the deck of cards crumbled, hurting much of the globe in the process. The real estate market was capsized. And the perceived housing steamroller from metro Atlanta died in its tracks.
Still, even though the economic crash put at least a temporary end to the growth fight in Madison County, the county hasn’t sat entirely still regarding growth.
Madison County Industrial Development and Building Authority Executive Director Marvin White has taken an aggressive approach toward water and sewer infrastructure installation — which has made him a somewhat polarized figure in the county. Some are very appreciative of the IDA’s approach, while others don’t care for it at all. And how you feel about the IDA’s water expansion efforts is probably in line with how you felt about previous growth issues.
White has often said that Madison County has been behind other counties in infrastructure growth. And he’s made it a mission to play catch-up. The IDA’s overall aim has been to draw business to the county and reduce the tax burden on property owners. The group has also tried to link Madison County — which has long been entirely dependent on well water — to surrounding counties, hoping to secure water sources for the county and protect local citizens from droughts in decades to come.
Consequently, the county industrial authority has put water lines — and some sewer lines in the Hull area — in the ground as rapidly as possible over the past decade.
This has involved a lot of borrowed money. The IDA expects to make $720,000 in debt payments to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) next year. The feeling has seemed pretty uniform among the IDA in recent years, with “you’ve got to spend money to make money” holding true at the table.
But IDA chairman Bruce Azevedo kind of broke ranks at the July authority meeting, suggesting that the group hit the brakes on taking on more loans, at least until the county can sign more customers onto its existing lines. White presented a new $1.5 million loan proposal, which included a $375,000 forgivable portion — meaning it won’t have to be paid back — and 1.4 percent interest rate on payments over the next 20 years. But Azevedo expressed reservations about taking on a new loan.
“We’ve got a certain amount of lines out there and we need people to hook up, but they’re not,” said Azevedo. “And if they don’t have the money to hook up, it doesn’t matter how many miles of lines we have, they’re still not going to do it unless they absolutely have to.”
The IDA agreed to hold a work session to talk about the proposed new loan and how to attract new customers. Members seem to recognize that the $1,650 water hookup fee is simply unaffordable for many Madison County residents. Residents may face an even greater price tag for a new well, but they may also opt for those well costs over a monthly water bill.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but this seems kind of like a crossroads moment for the IDA. The members are in agreement on the need for water and sewer services in the county. And debt for projects with long-term payoffs can be beneficial. Think of the returns on railroad investments. But where is the line on accruing debt in the name of attracting business? Has it been passed? Are we at it? Have we yet to reach it?
At the IDA table, Azevedo asked whether borrowing more money for more lines is the best next step or whether working to get more people hooked on to existing lines? He wondered how many people in the county are actually interested in connecting to water lines, but simply can’t afford the hookup fees. He wondered if the IDA could get conduct surveys to determine the answer.
These are the kinds of questions our leaders need to address — and not just the IDA members.
Years ago, county commissioners kicked the political hot potato of infrastructure to the IDA. They distanced themselves from the tough choices of where and when to put lines in the ground.
But the IDA serves at the will of the BOC. And the BOC has at least some responsibility in the infrastructure process, because it is a fundamental determinant in future growth.
Azevedo presented good questions. It will be interesting to see how other leaders respond — or if they respond at all.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Good article Sir. I do have a question on property taxes that in some corners get to point of Hatfields and McCoy's. I recently have looked at tax digest and note many landowners seem 3+ yrs behind on paying taxes. I know times are hard but paying taxes help improve our infrastructure. Several years ago the Tax office did get assertive and collected if I am right more than a million dollars. COULD THEY DO THIS AGAIN. Go to Tax Commissioner site see who not paying taxes and will surprise you. We need our infrastructure to improve for all of MC people's.
I remember 3 or 4 years ago that Tax Commissioner at first noted not that much but when pressured as should have been started listing back due property tax and think most got paid. Call your commissioner and ask for this to be done again.