The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

November 26, 2012

Anson Burlingame, guest columnist: Slow down please and answer questions

JOPLIN, Mo. — The topic is tax increment financing (TIF), a subject currently under review by local government, consultants and a host of organizations that routinely operate using local tax revenues, sales taxes and property taxes as major sources of revenue.

I begin by stating my admiration for Joplin leadership, private and public, in our heroic recovery efforts over the past 18 months. I have great faith in those leaders and the ones who will follow them, and in most cases support their efforts to grow Joplin back to where it was before the storm and well beyond.

However my natural conservatism suggests that we must tread carefully as we consider a large and long-term use of local tax revenues to “leverage” the money to really grow Joplin. My first and perhaps naive question is how in the world can about $42 million be turned into $800 million worth of projects? As I understand, the current TIF proposes about $42 million to be diverted from current city revenue estimates over 23 years to leverage huge growth over that same period.

To me that is a big leap of faith, particularly considering the state of the American economy and how it might rise or fall over the same period of time. Sure, if the city could find the next Apple in which to invest, then we would all be happy. Do you see any new Apple corporations on the horizon in the United States over the coming years? I hope they arise, but I for sure would not bet the farm on that happening.

I also suggest we in Joplin have “been through this drill” to approve a TIF district. We did so in about 2004 when Academy Sports came to town. I recall lots of positive estimates of the overall impact of that new development. But what I don’t know, nor am I sure that anyone else does yet, was the real impact — positive or negative — for the entire city of Joplin as a result of giving up new taxes or diverting old ones to create a new development. Is there a reliable and periodic audit done by disinterested third parties to show whether predictions in 2004 came true? Any answers out there, anyone?

However, the real issue, at least for me, is can Joplin afford to divert $42 million in future revenues to bet on future and rather large overall growth as a result? Remember all that $42 million has already been incorporated in all kinds of long-term budget estimates by our city government and all the organizations that use those revenues.

Grow the city and we need more police, firefighters, more sewers and treatment centers and of course more and larger schools. How will a loss of $42 million in future revenues affect those multiple and important elements of local government funding? Sure, growth brings in new revenue for sure. But I for one would like to “see the math” on how all that balances out.

Remember, as well, a short six months ago Joplin voters narrowly approved a tax increase to grow better schools. I supported that effort. We want better schools, desperately needed better schools, tornado or no tornado, and we voted to pay for the improvements.

That makes rather simple economic sense to me. If you want more or better, then pay for it.

In this case, we seem to be hearing that we the people of Joplin don’t have to pay for more or better rebuilding, rebuilding already taking place with about $2.5 billion input from private insurance money by and large and a relatively small amount from state and federal aid — some $250 million or so I heard a few months ago.

But now we are being asked to divert $42 million from planned revenue streams in order to leverage $800 million. We raised taxes to create more and better schools. But by diverting taxes from needed programs, can you assure taxpayers that future taxes won’t be needed to support additional police, firefighters and school buildings?

Can we slow down a little and not rush into this thing? I am not against the TIF proposal, but I sure have some questions that I would like to see answered in a straightforward manner.

Anson Burlingame lives in Joplin.

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