Georgia: Cash-strapped state may sell property

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Struggling to make ends meet, Georgia lawmakers are considering putting a "for sale" sign on state property.

Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), a member of the Senate leadership team, introduced legislation Tuesday authorizing the sale of about a dozen buildings or pieces of land across the state.

The property includes vacant buildings in the Capitol area, where most state agencies are located. Also on the list are 2,275 acres of Georgia Ports Authority land that includes the old Mulberry Grove and Drakie plantation properties.

The Mulberry Grove Plantation is where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, but the site also is significant in its archeological record, which dates back to Native American settlement and spans early colonization, plantation days and the Civil War.

Democrats expressed surprise at the move to sell state land.

"It seems like a trend is developing," House Speaker Pro Tempore DuBose Porter (D-Dublin) said. "First, they take all the Greenspace money out of the budget. Then, they sell public property for development."

The state Senate is expected to approve a midyear spending plan today that deletes all $30 million originally budgeted for the Greenspace program, which helps local governments protect land from development.

Supporters of the Williams resolution say the aim is not specifically to sell land for development.

The list of properties might be just a start. "We could make a longer list than this," Williams said.

Republicans have been seeking records about state property since they began searching for ways to fix state budget woes without raising taxes. Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed to address a $620 million shortfall in the current budget, which runs through June 30, by raising tobacco and alcohol taxes and cutting spending. Next year's budget situation might be even worse, with rising health care and education costs expected to eat up what the state would gain by raising taxes.

Miller-era idea

The state owns about 550,000 acres of property across the state, much of it in parks or open land. Democrats, who have pushed to preserve land through a series of government initiatives, don't want the open land touched.

However, the state also owns some vacant buildings, which Williams and other Republicans argue could be sold to help solve the budget problem.

"If it's not of benefit to us . . . we might as well put it on somebody's tax rolls," Williams said.

Sen. Joey Brush (R-Appling), a co-sponsor of the resolution, said the property sales might bring only a small amount of cash but could help tax rolls if the properties are bought by private individuals or businesses.

In the 1990s, then-Gov. Zell Miller had state agencies put together a list of surplus property for sale. However, most of the interest in the properties came from other government agencies, said Ray Crawford, executive director of the State Properties Commission.

The properties in Williams' proposal are part of a list from Crawford. "By no means is that a comprehensive list," Crawford said. "It is just the ones I know about."

In a memo to Williams, Crawford wrote: "The following is a cursory list of state-owned properties I believe could potentially be surplus. However, these properties have not been declared surplus by their custodial agencies, and I do not recommend the sale of all of them at this time."

Williams said he was going by Crawford's list and knew little about the properties, including the Mulberry Grove site. The Ports Authority purchased the property in 1985 for possible future expansion.

One of the archaeological jewels of Georgia's early history, the Savannah River plantation is where George Washington visited and Eli Whitney worked. In 2001, it was ransacked by people looking for artifacts.

Birthplace of cotton gin

The riverfront plantation was part of the outlying settlements of Savannah created by Georgia's founder, James Oglethorpe. The plantation took its name from the groves of mulberry trees the first landholders planted in an abortive attempt to create a thriving silkworm industry. With the arrival of the first slaves in 1749, it was converted into a rice-producing plantation.

After the Revolutionary War, the plantation was seized by the new government and awarded to Nathanael Greene, commander in chief of George Washington's Continental Army in the South. Greene died shortly after moving to Georgia, but Washington visited the plantation twice.

In 1793, Whitney, a young guest from New England, built the first working model of a machine "with which one man will clean 10 times as much cotton as he can in any way before known." The cotton gin ushered in the era of mechanized agriculture that revolutionized Southern farming.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge officials are seeking funding to buy property that includes the plantation site.

Williams' resolution also includes the potential sale of land or buildings in Baldwin, Bartow, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Wayne and White counties.

Downtown buildings

At least two of the buildings around the Capitol in downtown Atlanta have been for sale and have been appraised to be worth a combined $5.2 million. DeKalb County is trying to buy another of the state-owned office buildings, on West Ponce de Leon Avenue in Decatur, that has been appraised at $11.5 million, according to state officials.

Another piece of property on Constitution Road served as a state nursery, Crawford said. The Wayne County land is the site of the southeast Georgia county's old farmer's market.

Williams said he does not know how much all the properties on the list would bring in, but Democrats have complained that the state could lose out if they try to sell the properties in a down real estate market.


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