Highway 278 CID organizing continues after bill passed by General Assembly

Enabling legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly means the Highway 278 Community Improvement District is a possibility as organizers continue to collect signatures authorizing its creation. (Staff Photo: Wade Marbaugh)

COVINGTON — Kathy Morgan said she was a little nervous on the last day of the 2016 Georgia General Assembly session.

The session was scheduled to end at midnight, Thursday, March 24. The hours were ticking away and the Legislature had not yet passed the Newton County Community Improvements District Act.

The act would enable the county and its municipalities to establish CIDs, which in numerous other Georgia communities have converted commercial areas into eye-pleasing destination spots where businesses thrive and property values rise.

Morgan, a retired banker and former chair of the Newton County Board of Commissioners, was hired by the Highway 278 Improvement Association to get property owners along the U.S. Highway 278 commercial corridor to sign consent forms to form a CID there.

After months of hard work, Morgan and a cadre of volunteers have been successful in getting most of the required signatures in support of the proposed Highway 278 Community Improvement District.

The enabling legislation is necessary to keep the process alive.

But Morgan was nervous a week ago because in the waning hours of any General Assembly session, not all pending bills get to the floor or, if they do, get passed and sent on for the governor’s signature. The Newton County CID enabling act had passed the House of Representatives in its final form earlier in the day and was awaiting passage in the Senate.

“It passed late Thursday,” Morgan said. “Rick Jeffares (Republican senator from Locust Grove) texted me and said it passed.”

The local legislative delegation, led by Jeffares, introduced the act, composed by attorney Lynn Rainey, who has advised 16 of 22 successful CIDs that have been created in Georgia.

But the legislators had to tweak some language in the act during the session, and Morgan credits Jeffares for being diligent in accomplishing that and sheperding the bill through the Legislature.

“Rick followed it all the way through and made sure it got through the House and the Senate,” Morgan said. “He answered all of my texts very quickly and really did a great job.”

“Sen. Jeffares worked with Kathy and the board (of the improvement association) to make sure it was what the property owners of the CID district really wanted,” said Serra Hall, director of commercial development for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce. “It was nice we had a champion like Sen. Jeffares. And Dave Belton, R-Madison, was a big help on the House side.”

Morgan said she expects Gov. Nathan Deal to sign the enabling act.

A CID enables owners of commercial properties located within a district to make improvements such as coordinating the appearance of the streetscape — landscaping, signage, street lights, walkways. The goal is to attract business customers and upscale new businesses and to increase property values in the district.

The proposed Highway 278 CID extends from Ginn Motor Company near the Interstate 20 Exit 90 interchange for a distance of 3.2 miles to Martins Crossing Shopping Center at the intersection of 278 and Ga. Highway 142.

The CID’s improvement projects would be funded through an ad valorem tax levied on commercial properties within the district and by matching state grant money. Sometimes state grants can equal three to five times the amount raised by the local ad valorem property tax.

The property owners in the CID will not pay any additional fees and assessments.

State law stipulates that to form a CID, 50 percent plus one of the property owners in the district must sign a consent form authorizing the ad valorem tax, and the signees must represent 75 percent of the total property value in the district.

Morgan said the Highway 278 Improvement Association had collected about 72.6 percent of the aggregate property value as of Wednesday. She said she is confident the required numbers will be reached because property owners who have either verbally committed to sign or expressed interest represent another 12 to 16 percent.

Morgan said 46 owners have signed, and another 10 have consented by email, saying they will submit hard copies of the form. Fifty-nine signees are necessary to equal 50 percent plus one of the total owners.

Keeping data of the properties is much like aiming at a moving target.

“We have to be constantly mindful of what is going on in the corridor,” Hall said.

“When I was in banking we had the term ‘living document,’” Morgan said. “Our strategic plan was constantly changed by federal law. I look at the CID as a living document.” She cited modifications such as property valuation changes and ownership changes as things that keep the CID data in flux.

Even the district boundaries can move.

“Two weeks ago this business property owner came to me. The property abuts a CID property, and he asked to be included in the CID because they believe the CID will improve all the properties,” Morgan said.

“It’s going to be good for the community and the property owners,” she added. “It may be more valuable to the property owners than they realize.”

When the required number of signatures is collected, the association will request a CID ordinance from the Covington City Council.

If the council passes the ordinance, the property owners within the CID boundaries will elect a board to run the CID. Five board members will be elected by the property owners — two by equity electors based on property valuations and three by numerical majority. The City Council and the Newton County Board of Commissioners will each appoint one board member to make the board total seven members.

Every six years the board will vote to continue the CID or to close it.

Morgan is meeting with city officials to get a start on coordinating city projects with potential future CID improvements. For example, the city’s Pace Street upgrades will affect the CID at the intersection of Pace and 278.

“We’ll need to coordinate them so we’re not doing a project and they dig it up, or they do a project and we dig it up,” Morgan said.

Hall and Morgan both said that some improvements could be in place within two years.

“We’ll start with the small beautification things,” Morgan said.

“In the long range it is all achievable if we all work together,” Hall said.

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