Citizens group, City Councilman express opposition

COLUMBIA, Mo 1/20/14 (Beat Byte) -- A giant central city Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district could turn into a political feeding frenzy.  Its size, scope, and massive cost are already drawing opposition, including word of a firm "no" vote from one of the seven Columbia City Council members needed to approve it. 

Initially sold as a way to "upgrade infrastructure," city officials are now considering a cornucopia of special interest goodies:  gateways on the edges of downtown; Elm Street pushed through to College Avenue; the Business Loop’s power lines buried; a museum district south of Broadway; and a downtown depot for the Columbia Star Dinner Train, the Columbia Daily Tribune has reported

Columbia's TIF would cover more than 600 acres from the University of Missouri campus to Interstate 70, Trib reporter Jacob Barker wrote.   City manager Mike Matthes has been selling the idea as a way to upgrade $100 million worth of electric, stormwater, sewer and other infrastructure in the designated zone. 

But not everyone is buying the idea, including those with the power to stop it. 

"I oppose district-wide TIFs, and I have expressed my opposition publicly," Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala wrote in a Jan. 16 Facebook post, answering a constituent's concern.   "I have said so to the city manager and have discussed the matter with several of my development friends, who have also indicated their opposition." 

People's Visioning plans to protest the measure at tomorrow night's Columbia City Council meeting.  A growing grassroots group gaining notoriety for successes such as their role in Columbia's new sustainable house on the corner of Sanford and Ash, the group has opposed previous "developer handouts" such as Blight/EEZ.

A developer tax break that diverts property taxes away from schools, libraries, and county roads to special funds that help the development, TIF usually requires a designation of blight under Missouri state law, although public pressure could force city government to go with the less onerous "conservation" or "economic development" designation.   Large TIF districts have proven financially burdensome in many communities, most notably Kansas City, where public agencies used to receiving property taxes struggle in their absence.  

Missouri law "creates the potential for overuse and abuse of TIF," a Brookings Institution study claims, citing  "vague definitions," "weak limits," and misappropriation of TIF monies to special interest groups. 

Even without the other amenities, TIF isn't necessary for infrastructure, says one of Columbia's top experts on the issue, Bill Weitkemper

"Any electric and sewer upgrades needed in any area of Columbia, including downtown, should be funded with user fees and charges, not with tax revenue that should go to other taxing entities," said Weitkemper, a Columbia public works superintendent who retired after nearly 40 years at City Hall.   "This could easily be accomplished through better planning and better management of the city's Electric and Sewer Utilities." 

Columbia's various utilities held roughly $80 million in unrestricted reserves as of Dec. 2012.

Councilman Skala, meanwhile, says he will remain firmly opposed to the big TIF.   "I will make my opposition quite clear, as the discussion ensues," he explained.