My first real job out of college was that of a full-time newspaper reporter. It was one of the greatest jobs there is, getting to meet with all kinds of people and getting to see firsthand what goes on in a community to make things happen.
Most residents don’t get the opportunity to see such things. It’s all most of us can do to keep up with national politics, our work and our families than to take the time to understand what’s going on at our city halls. For most of you, you only know what you see. When you drive on a congested road, you only see the traffic and not the comprehensive plan that may or may not be in place to address it.
And if it all wasn’t confusing enough, sometimes you get politicians running for office that may or may not spin it one way or another so that you will think they have the answers to fix it. That said, I can give you one clear piece of advice that may simplify things: if someone is talking about all the things they will do when they get into office, if they can’t tell you how they are going to fund it, then it’s just political speak. Period.
Sidewalks and transportation improvements are something politicians like to promise a lot during a campaign. And then when they get into office, and find out how little funding there is for that, they start conversations and committees to talk more about it. It always comes down to the money, folks. And if you cannot increase your revenues, then you have to move funding away from one thing to pay for another.
For a city to be financially healthy, there needs to be a good mix of uses. A city can get into trouble if its residential tax base is too high. Why? Because us residents are needy. We want police and fire protection, a strong recreation and parks program, cheap garbage pickup, and bands to be playing in our parks on the weekend. On top of that, we want to receive a homestead exemption. A recent UGA study shows that on average, for every $1 collected in residential property taxes, the city pays out $1.15 in services.
For commercial, it’s way different. Businesses, restaurants and retail outlets are not so needy. The same study showed that for every $1 collected from a commercial property owner, the city pays out about $0.27. A city can make bank on commercial properties.
When I was a reporter 20 years ago, I covered Alpharetta. I remember the mayor, council and Community Development director talking about this then. Today, their residential property tax base is only 42 percent of all revenues. The rest is commercial. Many other cities around Alpharetta are just the opposite. Because of its high commercial tax base, Alpharetta just doubled its homestead exemption for residents. The city is also building parking decks and other things, including the Alpha Loop, a multi-use trail that will encircle the city center and has enticed businesses and residents to properties along it.
Not everyone can be Alpharetta. Somehow, a long time ago, they were blessed from someone up above who installed fiber-optic cables along Windward Parkway, making it the most “connected” city in the country. Along those cables popped up tech and data corporate campuses. To Alpharetta’s credit, they didn’t just catch the ball that was thrown to them. They took it and ran with it.
So while your city can’t necessarily be Alpharetta, it can work hard to promote a healthy mix of commercial and residential uses. And then instead of talking about sidewalks and transportation improvements, your city leaders will be building them.
Geoff Smith is a mortgage banker with Assurance Financial focusing on residential home loans for refinances and home purchases.
*The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the
views of Assurance Financial Group