By Mark Rohr
Special to The Globe
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Our work in Joplin is not yet done. While Joplin serves as the standard bearer for excellence in disaster recovery for the entire country, our task remains incomplete.
I reminded a group in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago that our city has arrived as this point by working together as a unit — not by lamenting our circumstances, but by getting to work immediately following the tornado to improve our situation. There’s no better place in the country to deliver such a message than our nation’s capital.
We have accomplished great things in Joplin since that fateful day in May of 2011. According to numbers supplied by the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, approximately 90 percent of the businesses impacted by the tornado have either been rebuilt or have imminent plans to do so. The city’s numbers indicate that 80 percent of the 7,500 homes affected by the storm have been repaired, rebuilt or have a permit pulled to do so. I submit to you that the last 10 percent of redevelopment on the commercial side and the final 20 percent on the residential end will be the most difficult to realize.
Now is the time
We can’t just hope and wait for that redevelopment to occur. We can’t wish for the implementation of ideas from Joplin residents who are embedded in the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team plan. In the same manner that the entire community mobilized to help each other immediately after the tornado, we need to marshal our resources to complete our redevelopment efforts.
In order to accomplish Joplin’s stated objective of building back our community bigger and better than it was before the tornado, we need to utilize every tool at our disposal.
One of the major resources under discussion is that of tax increment financing. It will come as no surprise to anyone that I support the usage of TIF to finish the job at hand. TIF, although challenging to understand, is not new to Joplin. It is a funding mechanism that has been successfully used in Joplin on two occasions and utilizes the revenue produced by the CART and the master developer-proposed projects to help pay for themselves. It is not a tax increase. Even if you own property in the currently defined TIF district, you would not pay any more in taxes as a result of the passage of the TIF legislation.
I would hazard a guess that most, if not all, Joplin residents think the TIF implementation would have no direct impact on them. Indirectly, I feel it would have a great impact on all Joplin residents by enabling the completion of the CART project and others. I believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to successfully address the two biggest concerns I have heard in my eight years in Joplin: not having enough things to do and not having enough good-paying jobs.
The first concern would be addressed directly with the funding enabled by TIF, and the second issue would be impacted indirectly by helping to create an environment for future investment, which, I believe, will lead to job growth and enhancement.
To be fair, it is important to point out that the utilization of this funding mechanism has generated concern and debate among members of some of the entities that would receive funding from property taxes stemming from the TIF — most specifically, Joplin schools.
Addressing School concerns
The concern has focused on two basic areas: operations and maintenance costs on an ongoing basis for existing operations, and the potential need for a new grade school if the TIF and the redevelopment it could spur prove successful.
To address lost operating revenues, the city’s administration and master developer have offered a front-end, $12 million allotment from the TIF proceeds that we feel would replace any lost operating revenues for the school system during the 23-year life span of the TIF. In fact, the net present value of the $12 million offer would put the school system ahead of its anticipated revenues by approximately $6.7 million, and arguably helps lighten the tax burden on all of Joplin’s residents.
In regard to the second concern, relating to the need for a new elementary school if redevelopment is a success, here is my reaction: Wouldn’t that be a good situation for all the people of Joplin? Following the tornado, our city’s efforts were directed toward minimizing population loss — motivated by not wanting to end up like other cities with similar disasters that lost, and never regained, roughly 35 to 45 percent of their populations. The things that we and others have done to minimize losses are far too numerous to list, but I think we have been amazingly successful in addressing this objective.
Based on this, we have started to project the potential for population growth in Joplin from pre-tornado levels during the next three to five years if the CART and other redevelopment projects are successfully implemented. There is scant information available on this issue for disaster-impacted cities, but based on what we have been able to determine thus far, it would be unprecedented and would further enhance our reputation for setting the bar for disaster management and recovery.
This potential growth would not be exponential in nature, but merely an increase from our 2010 census count of 50,150. There are approximately 1,700 undeveloped residential lots remaining in the storm-damaged area. If each and every lot were developed residentially, we would be talking about an increase in population of 4,000 residents, which translates into approximately 680 students. Some of these students could be absorbed by the lost enrollment created by the tornado, others by increased capacity at the new schools. But in the spirit of good faith, we have offered a TIF-generated payment per student if the growth and construction warrants it at some point in the distant future. In addition, an overlooked consideration is that when the TIF expires at the end of 23 years, the school system could potentially see a windfall of an estimated $3.7 million per year, which could pay a lot of debt service or help greatly with annual operating costs, thus helping lighten the tax burden on all of Joplin’s residents.
We will continue to discuss these issues with the school system in an attempt to alleviate any concerns its representatives may have about the impact of the TIF on their future.
TIF a useful tool
In closing, we still have work to do. The work is fundamentally enabled by the utilization of the TIF tool.
I think this can be done in a manner that will make all parties whole, setting the stage to benefit all the people of Joplin in the end.
The local volunteers who assembled and planned the one-year tornado anniversary events chose to name it the Day of Unity for a reason. Their purpose was to call attention to the unified effort we displayed as a community. Working together is what made us successful in the first year, but more importantly, it’s what we need to keep in mind as we continue our efforts.
The strength and unity that came together the day of the tornado was the most powerful thing I have every experienced in my life.
In that same spirit, let’s ask the questions that need to be asked and debate the issues that need to be debated. But in the end, let’s rally together to finish the work at hand.
Let’s create a bigger and better Joplin for ourselves and the generations to come.
Mark Rohr is Joplin’s city manager.