Monday, March 31, 2008

What Price Fungibility?

I will be the first to acknowledge that the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, along with its constituent members, has just as much right to try to influence government policy as do the rest of us. Even so, the condescension, hyperbole, and disdain exhibited by some ACHF members - admittedly not all – concerning the Kappa Alpha fraternity and its recent demolition of a couple of old houses on Reese Street, an action entirely in accord with existing zoning ordinances by the way, prompts a pointed observation on my part. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here; taking particular note of the rhetoric employed).

ACHF routinely advocates more restrictive historic preservation ordinances, supports hastily-adopted development moratoria, suggests that property owners take less for their holdings, and decries those property owners who do not submit meekly to the organization’s narrow vision. Predictably, these actions have the consequence of increasing the costs and bureaucratic hassles of developing or redeveloping private property. In other words, ACHF is perfectly content to spend other people’s money rather freely. The next time someone from ACHF puts forth such arguments, though, just remember that he or she does so as the direct beneficiary of the taxpayers’ largess.

That is because the ACHF office, located at 489 Prince Avenue, is the property of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, and by that I mean the taxpayers, which leases it to ACHF for the staggering sum of $1 per year – a rate I verified through an inquiry made to Athens-Clarke County’s Central Services Department.*

The current value placed on the property by the Clarke County Board of Tax Assessors is $256,400: $40,000 for the 0.04 acres of land occupied by the building (for the non-mathematically inclined, that works out to a staggering $1 million per acre) and $216,200 for the structure itself (at 1512 square feet, that works out to a pricey $143 per square foot) - rented for the princely sum of one solitary greenback a year. Any guesses as to what the true market rent for a similarly-sized building located on a main thoroughfare into the downtown area is? I don’t know, but I’ll wager that it is significantly more than 8¢ a month.

The point is that whatever money ACHF is not spending on renting its publicly-owned headquarters frees up those funds to lobby the Unified Government to grant its wishes, through either direct expenditures, enacting policies, or otherwise pursuing the organization’s legislative goals. Political science and economics types will immediately recognize this concept as “fungibility.”

It is true that ACHF acts as a “secondary” organization that ostensibly works toward the public good in exchange for its essentially free rent, by performing such services as operating the Athens Welcome Center. It is also true that several other organizations have similar arrangements with the Unified Government, including the Junior League of Athens (Taylor-Grady House), Morton Theatre Corporation (Morton Theatre), and Town & Gown Players (Athens Community Theatre). The conspicuous difference is that these other “secondaries” do not lobby the Commission to curtail the property rights of, and inflate the costs incurred by, their fellow citizens in their attempts to use their own property. More importantly, neither do their members routinely lambaste those with differing opinions or political priorities with gratuitous, ad hominem attacks.

So, how about this as a solution: the Unified Government could either cancel ACHF’s sweetheart lease and charge the group a market-based rent or, better yet, declare the property surplus and put it up for sell, thereby returning it to the property tax digest. To my mind, this proposed solution would constitute a win-win-win situation; the Unified Government cold use the money thus raised to replace whatever services ACHF might no longer provide at the Athens Welcome Center, the ACHF's more radical folks could continue to hector the rest of us to their hearts’ content, and my tax dollars would no longer be subsidizing their tantrum-laden activism.

Any takers?

*Those interested can see the information on the Prince Avenue property from the CVIOG and the Board of Tax Assessors for themselves (the parcel number is 17-1-A1-G-001).

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Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Richard Hathaway (who sold one of the Reese Street houses to KA) a member of the ACHF?

james said...

According to this, Mr. Hathaway was the former owner of the houses:

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Mr. Hathaway belonged to the ACHF at some point, but do not remember where, so I cannot speak to that point.