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BALL GROUND – Ball Ground officials are considering a tax that they say aims to spur business growth and encourage downtown property owners to maintain their buildings.

Discussions on a higher tax rate on downtown properties that contain rundown or abandoned structures first came to the public eye at last week’s Ball Ground City Council meeting. The “blight tax” ordinance is one of a few options staff is mulling, City Manager Eric Wilmarth said on Wednesday.

“To be clear, this can’t just be a building that’s simply empty. It’s got to be vacant and have problems. What happens is, if mayor and council choose to go this route, they can choose a millage rate where they can add up to nine mills of additional tax on those blighted buildings,” Wilmarth said, adding that nine additional mills could more than double a tax rate. “However, what is also required is a flipside component. If they fix it up and make the repairs and bring the building to code, then they get several years of a tax abatement to recoup some of their investment.”

Councilman Frank Homiller, who spoke passionately on the need for some kind of vacant building tax at the council’s meeting, said there is no excuse for letting vacant buildings fall into disrepair when many business owners are looking to rent space downtown.

“I think the demand is there,” Homiller said on Wednesday. “We’ve got a lot of foot traffic. We’ve got a lot of auto traffic. We’ve got a lot of tourist kinds of things. We’re on the way to Blue Ridge from Roswell and Alpharetta. And we’ve got some businesses that are doing some more high-end stuff that honestly I thought was too soon for us, but they’re doing fine.”

Some landowners, he said, may not be renovating buildings on their property because the higher appraisal value could raise their property taxes, a concern that the blight ordinance would address. He also said property owners may not be considering that the longer buildings sit vacant, the more expensive it can be to renovate them later.

“What I think we’re looking for is to get the buildings filled. Nothing good happens to a building when it sits empty,” Homiller said. “The purpose of a blight tax or a vacant building tax would be to provide some incentive to get them in use. We’ve had a number of business owners try to negotiate and get in some of these places, and the owners seem to … feel like they can sit around and wait until something – we don’t know what – happens.”

Both Homiller and Wilmarth said the blight tax could also result in the preservation of many historic buildings. If property owners begin to move forward with renovations, fewer historic buildings would likely fall into a state of disrepair that would require their demolition.

Another option the city is considering is a special downtown tax district that would raise money that could only be spent within the district. For example, Wilmarth said, if the downtown development authority had a project they wanted to accomplish downtown, tax money from the special district could be spent on that project.

The tax or special district would cover the downtown area, which reaches generally north to Groover Street, south to Howell Bridge Road, east to Northridge Road and Lowry Street and West to Grogan Street.

“We just continue to look forward to ways to continue the revitalization process in our downtown. We’ve had some really nice success. Some buildings have been saved and had great improvements done to them. We want to continue that effort,” Wilmarth said.

City officials said no dates have been set to discuss a proposed ordinance, but the city attorney and council members are conducting research on the topic. Wilmarth said discussion will continue at council work sessions.

Thomas is a government, business, crime and features reporter for the Cherokee Tribune and Ledger News. He is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and currently lives in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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