Morgan County Tax Assessors refused to vote on a tax exemption request for the historic Rivian Automotive deal, in which the electric automaker would pay up to $900 million over the course of the next 25 years through direct annual payments to the four-county Joint Development Authority (JDA) instead of paying traditional property taxes.
The JDA then accused the tax board of illegally holding the meeting on Wednesday, April 27, by failing to provide proper public notice or to post the agenda to the county website. The JDA requested a special called meeting to be held “as soon as possible” for a redo vote, hoping to convince the tax board to approve the bond structure for Rivian. This special meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on May 12.
At last Wednesday morning’s meeting, JDA Attorney Andrea Gray described the request as a “routine” process in which the board would simply affirm the terms of the rental agreement, under the newly finalized Economic Development Agreement (EDA) between Rivian, the JDA, and the State of Georgia.
Under the terms of the EDA, the State of Georgia would acquire ownership of the nearly 2,000-acre Stanton Spring North site in Morgan and Walton counties. The state, which is already exempt from paying property taxes, would then lease the land to Rivian for the purpose of building and operating a $5 billion electric vehicle manufacturing plant with strict limitations and regulations.
Future PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) payments from Rivian would be disbursed between the four counties, in which Morgan has a 14.25 percent share.
But in a shocking turn of events, the Morgan County Board of Tax Assessors voted to table the request for Rivian against the advice of the county attorney.
“In my opinion it should be approved,” said County Attorney Christian Henry. “There is no reason for more time or more study. What the board has been presented with will not change. It is a very narrow determination you are being asked to make.”
But after a heated debate between officials and the anti-Rivian crowd in attendance, the tax board voted to table the matter until next month, much to the chagrin of the JDA requesting the approval.
“The sole point of decision for the Tax Assessor Board is a determination, consistent with the numerous other projects, that the rental agreement between the JDA and Rivian is not subject to taxation,” said JDA Spokesperson Ben Sheidler.
“We expect this project will continue to move forward as planned. We look forward to providing additional information and engaging with the Morgan County Board of Tax Assessors prior to the next meeting to make sure they have what they need to acknowledge this bond structure, which is consistent with previous developments they have approved.”
The JDA is contending that all actions taken at Wednesday’s meeting are moot due to improper public notice.
“The Morgan County Board of Tax Assessors meeting held today did not provide adequate notice or an agenda as is required under the Georgia Open Meetings Act. As a result of the lack of legal notice and agenda, any action taken at the meeting today is automatically invalidated under the Georgia Open Meetings Act. Going forward, we are asking that the Board of Assessors specially set a meeting that complies with the Georgia Open Meetings Act.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, one of the tax assessors, John Artz, the husband of JoEllen Artz, who is leading the anti-Rivian movement out of Rutledge, pushed for the Rivian request to be tabled, despite Henry’s warnings.
“This was all brought on too abruptly. We need time to digest this,” said Artz. “We need to do a little more research on this. I don’t think right now we can say there should be tax abatements for this.”
John Artz argued that the proposed Rivian development should not be compared to other Stanton Springs industries that received similar tax abatement deals and PILOT payments.
“It’s apples and oranges,” said Artz, who argued the other Stanton Spring industries, like Takeda and Baymare (Facebook), started off with the proper zoning in a predetermined plot of land intended for heavy industrial use. “This project is so much bigger than Baymare. There is no way you can compare the two. This project is north of I-20 and is not in the original Stanton Springs.”
Dozens of Rivian opponents pleaded with members of the tax board to either deny or table the tax exemption request for Rivian, citing concerns over how the plant would impact water resources, greenspace, property taxes, traffic, and the local system.
Jeanne Dufort specifically challenged the JDA’s assertion that the PILOT payments from Rivian would be lucrative for Morgan County.
“I called on the Tax Board to gather information about the added local costs that will come from converting farmland to industrial land,” said Dufort. “Put simply: as farmland, the $80,000 in annual property taxes paid is not imposing a burden on the taxpayers of Morgan County. As a heavy industrial site with 7,500 employees, plus raw materials and finished vehicles coming and going, the local costs for roads, public safety, and schools will be substantial. The proposed PILOT payment is frozen at $1.5 million annually for the first five years, and Morgan’s share is a bit more than $200,000 annually. This is clearly shifting a burden to local taxpayers.”
However, Henry warned the board that it was “inappropriate” to take such issues into consideration.
“All of that is outside of this board’s purview…we have exceeded the scope of this board’s authority,” said Henry. Henry reminded the board that it was not there place to judge the merits of the Rivian deal, but instead, to solely consider whether or not Rivian’s rental agreement with the JDA and the state is tax exempt under the requirements of the law. According to Henry, it meets the requirements.
“This board is not to decide whether this project is good or bad,” cautioned Henry, who also reminded the board that either they accept the PILOT payment structure or they will get nothing in property taxes anyway due to the state ownership of the Rivian site. “This is it. It’s the money we will get versus zero.”
Tax Assessor Chris Sides was torn on the issue.
“We are not ready for this. I will stand with you on that,” Sides said to the crowd, as they shouted for the board to “stand strong” and “not to rollover” for Rivian. “We are not ready for this, but the train is coming and we are on the tracks.”