Friday, December 14, 2018

Single Owner CIDs Taxation without Representation

One might argue that any special taxing district violates our right to vote on sales tax increases but in the case of single-owner Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), tax payers must pay for the blight caused by poor property management and they won’t ever get a say in the matter.

From a commercial real estate developer’s perspective, it’s a smart business model. Save on your maintenance costs to allow your property to become run-down and for lack of a better word (and because it’s their favorite word), blighted, and stop renewing leases to drive your tenants away so that you qualify even higher on the “blight meter”, ignore glaring (and basic) maintenance such as pruning weeds and painting and plan the biggest, most awesome grocery store in the neighborhood with tax payers’ money as your collateral.

It’s a win-win because banks will loan you the capital to improve the property (oh and maybe we’ll put a banker on the CID board because everyone trusts a banker, right?) once City Hall agrees to let you charge a 1% sales tax specifically to cover your loan payments.

Since there are no laws to prohibit single-owner CIDs and no one has ever been able to successfully convince our city council that they should re-think this strategy, new ones are popping up all over town.

Pretty soon, overlapping CIDs will cover the entire neighborhood and voters will either be completely unaware of why prices seem higher over time and if they do know, they feel helpless because they seem to have no way to vote “no” on these tax increases.

Or do they? I recently found myself once again at odds with our City Councilman (and Mayoral candidate) Scott Taylor and City Councilman Kevin McManus for their sponsorship of a petition for a single-owner CID at 85th and Wornall Road (named the Wornall Village CID).

The full proposal (including the evidence of blight created by lack of maintenance) can be found here-

For our council it seemed like business as usual and that CIDs are the best tool ever. Never mind that the Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway conducted an intense study recently and found that CIDs are at risk for severe mismanagement.

Not only that, but so many CIDs are being created in Missouri that the Department of Revenue can’t keep up with processing them all (causing an un-named cost on our resources).

You can read the study for yourself right here- 

State law allows sales taxes to be imposed without voter approval. During the year ending December 31, 2017, 314 CIDs received sales tax revenue totaling approximately $57 million. 

Many people know me for my involvement in the Waldo neighborhood. I’m just now stepping down from a 2-year term as the President of the Waldo Tower Neighborhood Association and I’m joining the Waldo Area Business Association’s Advisory board after serving on the WABA board for 11 years as a business owner. I support the Waldo CID because it is a true district of business owners who must all agree and vote on how funds are spent.

Last year, we viewed a short presentation on a renovation being planned in the run-down strip mall at 85th and Wornall (on the west side). Many of us were pretty excited to hear that the owner had finally figured out what to do with it since the property had been seriously declining over the years (even before I moved in around 2002).

Around this same time, I was protesting the creation of a single-owner CID to fix blight at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Plaza. This was a 5-Star Hotel that was in serious need of repair due to lack of maintenance.

 I took issue with the fact that (1) the owners were responsible for the current (blighted) conditions, yet the blight is what is allowing them to set up the CID and (2) the owners and their vendors are on the CID board, overseeing the tax monies being collected and voters do not get a say in how it is spent. All CIDs are set up with a 20-year term and it’s very easy to renew when the term runs out so this is essentially an unlimited supply of funds from unsuspecting tax payers.

I’m positive that if the owners of the property at 85th and Wornall (the Tutera Group) had mentioned that they were going to create a single-owner CID to pay for the extravagant remodel they had planned, I would have said something right then and there. But they never did.

 As a matter of fact, the CID component of their plan was not evident even to the Waldo Area Business Association board members until Mayoral Candidate Scott Taylor shared the news piece about his new project.

 Once that story broke, I began searching through the Clerk communications to find out when this would be discussed at City Hall. 

 The CID was named, “Wornall Village CID (first 180889, then subbed as 180916)” and was not communicated very well which is an example of just how often the city fails to communicate issues to important stakeholders with correct information. Changing numbers and lack of communication creates chaos for any stakeholders to track important issues in order to show up for public testimony. 

My first complaint is with the clerk for the email that was sent out on November 27, 2018 to announce the Business Session would discuss the "Wornall Plaza CID". 

 The "Wornall Plaza CID" is the property also known as the Intercontinental Hotel (which, ironically, is also a single-owner CID that I protested last year).

 On November 29, 2018 at 10:30am, after I asked the clerk to communicate to me any meetings planned for the Wornall Village CID, I was put in touch with the City Planner who told me that the communication was a mistake and that they would be discussing the Wornall Village CID, not the Wornall Plaza CID.

 The meeting was at 1:00pm so at this point I was unable to get to it due to late notice and the miscommunication, so I sent an email voicing my concerns to the entire city council. 

My second complaint is that the video and the minutes are still not posted on the city’s website which is unacceptable. I wanted to read the minutes or watch the video to see if my written complaint was included. After waiting several days, on December 4, 2018, I wrote to the clerk to ask about the video.

 I was told that there was some sort of technical error with the audio and that they were trying to fix it and get it posted. At this time, I asked for the minutes. I received the minutes on December 4, 2018 at 10:20 am only to find out that this was approved, my testimony was not included and that it was immediately moved to the PZED committee (the last step for taking public testimony) for December 5, 2018.

Since the minutes are not posted on the city’s website, but were emailed to me by the Clerk, I have posted them online for viewers to read here- 

I went back to the communication from the clerk for the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development committee meeting (which was sent out on December 3, 2018) and found that the ordinance was indeed on the agenda with a new ordinance number.

Sending out the agenda on December 3rd for a meeting that will happen on December 5th and changing the ordinance number and not notifying affected parties means that not many people could make that meeting.

Normally when something is going to this committee, the last place to give public testimony, our councilmen would reach out to us and ask us to come down and testify. We've been asked to testify in favor of Scott Taylor's East Side initiative for example.

If our councilmen thought we were "all in favor" of this CID as Councilman Taylor testified that day in the PZED committee, then why weren't we asked to come and show that support?

This is when I emailed city council again (rather forcefully) and received a call from Scott Taylor’s aide. First, she told me that sometimes when there are lots of emails sent in on an ordinance, they are unable to read each email in to the minutes of that meeting. Of course, this does not explain why objection was never noted.

As a matter of fact, according to the minutes, there were no objections at all that were noted. At the very least there should have been mention of the “multiple” emails that were received if they had too many to read.

 My second complaint was that the new CID would not have any public oversite on spending. The Auditor’s report even pointed to the Ward Parkway Mall CID as an example of misuse that occurs when there is only one business tied up in a CID. 

The state auditor said (on page 11 of her report) that since there are no state laws to protect the tax payer’s funds and how they are managed, it is up to the municipalities (our City Council) to protect us.

 In the absence of a law change, municipalities must provide more critical review of district petition documents to ensure the interests of the public are considered. 

One of the ways for them to protect tax payer interest that was suggested was to have city representatives appointed to the single-owner CID board as a legally authorized representative. 

Imagine my surprise when Scott Taylor’s aide told me that their city attorney was consulted and that it was not possible to appoint their own authorized representative to a single-owner CID.

I later found out that there already is one, called the North Oaks Plaza Shopping Center CID. This is a single-owner CID with 2 city representatives listed as legally authorized representatives. Of course even having citizen oversite didn’t stop this CID from breaking state laws by hiring contractors directly related to the property owner without soliciting bids. 

My final request to our city council was to table this off of the PZED agenda until after a community meeting which had already been arranged by the West Waldo Neighborhood for December 15th and I encouraged Councilman Taylor and McManus to attend.

Unfortunately, the issue was NOT tabled from the agenda and even though I was able to get my objections entered in to the discussion, they were downplayed by Councilman Taylor who said that the auditor’s report was mostly about malpractice in St. Louis (which was definitely NOT true) and that overall the Waldo community supported it.

You can watch the discussion here (ordinance 180916)- 

 I was astounded when Kathryn Shields was the only person to call in to question the timing of this on the agenda with regards to my request to table it until after the meeting and even more taken aback when the developer replied that they had already had plenty of community meetings.

They had meetings but all they talked about was the renovation, not how it was to be paid for by tax payer funds.

My last complaint is that the developer’s attorney was allowed to lie to the committee and say that he had spoken with me! He and I had NEVER spoken up to that point.

Readers can watch the video recording showing he lied to the committee and my phone records show when his first call came in. So I can prove that he lied.

I will say that he did reach out to me the following day, on December 6th, and invited me to the community meeting on the 15th and said that the owners really wanted our support.

However, back in the PZED meeting he said that the Waldo Area Business Association and the Waldo Tower Neighborhood Association supported this project without allowing us to be in the room to either confirm or deny that claim.

Most of us would LOVE to see this area improved. I mean take a look at the codes violations (which is also the City’s responsibility to enforce, is it not?) and you can see that this is not a property owner that is in good community standing.

Dairy Queen Violations: 

Home Violations (for the two houses behind the Price Chopper): 

 The Waldo community was not told about the creation of a CID which basically means that unsuspecting tax payers will pay to fix things up. How does this create incentive for property owners across the metro to take care of their properties? How is this fair to the other business owners who are good stewards and pay for their own maintenance in order to thrive?

 The single-owner CID is essentially REWARDING property owners for poor stewardship and for CREATING blight.

The Waldo Tower Neighborhood had only just been informed about the community meeting to be held on December 15th and had communicated this information to members. They didn’t know that by the time the meeting was to take place, this was already going to move through City Council and it is shameful that Councilman Taylor blatantly denied my request to table this until after that meeting. 

Luckily, I happen to know a few things about what we, as voters, can do about decisions made at City Hall that we don’t agree to, but time was limited. We had 10 days from December 6, 2018 to file a notice of referendum petition with the clerk.

 So, I reached out on social media to people who felt that their voice had not been heard to see if they wanted to take a course of action with me that could potentially stall, if not halt, this CID from being finalized.

The response was fast and furious. I am happy to report that we were able to gather enough signatures (in a very short period of time) to file a notice of referendum petition to temporarily halt the CID from going into effect until we’ve had a chance to really ask voters whether they think it’s fair to reward property owners with unlimited tax dollars to do what they want with a property that they have not been taking care of in the first place.

 It took us about 4 days to talk to 100 people, most of them living within the area and directly behind it. I am confused as to why it is so hard for the developer or the City Planner to actually speak to these folks?

 During this week of organizing the petition, I’ve heard some pretty upsetting stories from the folks living right behind this property and I think our city council needs to hear them too so I hope you’ll agree and show up at the community meeting on December 15, 2018, 10am at Armour Heights Baptist Church, 7900 Jarboe.

 In the meantime, I’ll be blogging updates here (and on other related issues) and I’ll be sure to post public signing events because we are still collecting signatures.