Get Miffed about the TIF

When Bernie Sanders—the former Mayor of Burlington—was running for president, a constant campaign refrain was to end corporate welfare for the millionaires and billionaires, and make government work for ordinary people.

He was, and is, right.

The tax money of hard-working folks should be used to pay for essential and shared services that make a community vibrant and livable—for everyone. The tax money of hard-working folks shouldn’t be used to pay for things that only serve one developer.

That said, even Bernie can be wrong form time to time and the current debate over the massive upscaling of the downtown mall is like deja vu all over again.

When Bernie was first elected mayor he got behind a massive waterfront re-development plan (called the Alden Plan) that would have privatized much more of the waterfront than we have today. What happened? Citizen concern and a demand that we do better for the public at large, not just a few wealthy developers.  From that community debate evolved Waterfront park, the crown jewel of downtown Burlington and a joy to residents and tourists alike. Just look at the number of festivals and sunset pictures on Instagram for evidence.

When we faced challenges with the academic and social climate at our two center city schools we didn’t jump at the first choice which was forced busing from the “poor” part of town to more “middle income” parts of town. Instead, we went back to the drawing board and created two magnet schools that are held up by national publications like The Atlantic as the model of the modern public school.

Why did these projects happen and become shining examples for other communities to model?

Because we took a step back, took a deep breath and decided to do what was right and best, not what was quick and expedient. We didn’t allow ourselves to be pressured by successful salespeople, like Mayor Miro Weinberger or Don Sinex, or past mayors and developers.

That’s the Burlington way.

Today’s Alden Plan – or massive publicly funded development scheme – is the Sinex redevelopment of our downtown and the “public” improvements / benefits are largely centered around reconnecting Pine and St. Paul streets from Cherry and Bank streets, making wider sidewalks, burying utilities, and updating some sewer and stormwater utilities. Why “public” in quotes? Because Sinex needs these streets rebuilt in order to accommodate the hundreds of daily car trips he’s creating with new housing and commercial tenants. In other words, without these improvements—his project doesn’t work.

Before asking our approval the mayor signed a pre-development contract agreeing to issue $22 million in bonds to repay Sinex for those street improvements if they are built to the city’s approval. And, the bond would be repaid from the hoped-for new tax revenue from the Sinex development, which is being built in the Waterfront Tax Increment Financing District.

So, what is a TIF? It’s a special assessment district that allows a city or town to siphon off new tax money that would instead go to schools and the town and pay off bonds or invest directly in other public improvements: parks, skate parks, public access, bike paths, sidewalks, street improvements etc.

It would seem that we’re putting the cart before the horse, eh? I mean, getting voter approval to subsidize a developer for work he already needs to complete in order to build.

Clearly the project COULD go forward without the city spending millions of this newfound tax manna. So, why not let it? Why not spend our new tax dollars more wisely as we see proof that the developer can actually pull off what he’s duly noted he’s never done before (as in build a project of this scale). We could use that new tax money to pay off other street improvements in other parts of the city OR go toward our schools (which really need the money – more than Sinex).

So, in November, Burlington voters are going to be asked two questions about the TIF and we can send a strong message if we believe the project needs to be reined in:

  • One question will ask us to extend the duration of the current Waterfront District TIF (which, oddly, this Mall project is considered to be part of) to allow for tax money to be collected from the Sinex project and used to pay for “public” improvements.
  • The second question will ask us to approve $22-plus million in spending (paid back over decades) to make those “public” improvements, some of which are needed.

If you’re not fond of corporate welfare, or a lack of accountability and transparency when it comes to spending OUR money in the city—then it’s simple. Vote NO against the TIF on the November ballot, and vote against the bond.

A No vote would impede the project and hopefully get the Mayor and Sinex to come back to voters with a better plan in March.

But, regardless of how you vote, here are some questions we should be asking elected officials between now and November:

  • Why not have more community input on just how the money could be used to improve downtown streets for cars, buses, pedestrians, public green spaces, and bikes rather than just these two street re-connections?
  • Why not set aside incremental city tax revenues and put them toward improvements that we, as a community, decide that are not so focused on this one project?
  • Why are we taking needed money from schools (since the TIF district siphons money from both city and school revenue streams) all at once? Don’t the schools (here in Burlington and statewide) need money more than a Wall Street developer?
  • Why isn’t the developer paying for some of these improvements as they will largely benefit his project, along with his housing and commercial clients?
  • Why are taxpayers being asked to subsidize a project that doesn’t truly conform to the human-scale city zoning standards of PlanBTV?

I’m sure there are more questions—especially with this project. Too many questions, to be honest, to be ready to have a vote on spending this much of OUR money, in my humble opinion.

While it’s true it may increase the overall grand list of the city, it’s also true that most of gains to the school and city coffers will be minimal because the loan has to be repaid first. That loan won’t be paid off for at least 20 years. So, this generation of taxpayers will see scant benefit. Good luck to the next generation, too!

Don’t get me wrong—some aspects of the public improvements have merit: Such as reconnecting streets that were destroyed by Urban Renewal. As a biker and pedestrian, I think this would be great for getting around town. But, given the sheer number of cars that this project will foist on downtown street grids make me wonder just how wonderful these improvements will be in the short or long-term. It seems as if we’re only making a few needed improvements for one developer rather than looking more expansively at how people and cars move through and around downtown. Why not more one-way streets to allow for more bike and pedestrian traffic? More green space or public areas to hang out for everyone – especially if you’re not just downtown to shop.

I say: let’s bring the Mayor and City Council back to the table and get them to be more hard-nosed in their negotiations with this developer. It’s time that the hard-working people of Burlington had someone on their side in these talks, not just someone looking for ways to spend their money to benefit a single developer.

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12 responses to “Get Miffed about the TIF

  1. Case closed. Nice work, Shay. All out next Thursday, Sept 29, 7:00p at Contois Hall. This will be city council’s final up or down vote. Rise up and say no to Wall Street-driven gentrification. Stop the 14-story mall

  2. Amen

  3. Thank you Shay – a good article with many good points. [The only thing I’d change is the use of “like deja vu all over again,” a commonly-misused quote (from Yogi Berra, originally funny because it was unintentionally redundant). “Deja vu” means “already seen,” so “it’s like deja vu” says it.] Great column! Thanks again.

  4. The town center development plans to lease space on those reconnected streets. The reconnect is a direct benefit to the investors who need to bring public services to their street level high rent space. TIF siphons off incremental taxes for 20-35 years.

    Imagine local developers demanding The City pay for their infrastructure? At Staniford Farm, for example, the developer buried utilities; built the streets, the sidewalks, the sewer and stormwater systems; then turned it all over to the city for maintenance at public expense. The City began plowing, collecting recyclables, policing and providing fire and emergency services to the area, immediately. To offset those costs, tax increments from the developed properties are going into the General Fund and to Schools, immediately. Housing at Staniford Farms is medium high end, compared to 80% of high end premium space in the Town Center development.

    TIF is not fair to taxpayers, All other taxes and fees in The City have to increase to cover costs of increased demand for public services in the developed area, and major expenses are deferred. The capital infrastructure bonds on the ballot in November and March to fund deferred maintenance, Municipal and Schools, are proof of that!

  5. Awesome, thanks Shay!!

  6. The current mayor is a developer. He sees through the eyes of a developer, which means he sees $$$ signs above all else. Anything he proposes or favors should be scrutinized. Since he has shown a willful disregard for rules and regulations regarding who he hires (hiring – especially white – people who do not and are not willing to live in Burlington even though the rules say he must hire people from within the city) it is fair to consider that the mayor has no intention of considering the needs of the people of Burlington as long as his developer friends make the $$$ they want.

  7. I entirely agree with you Mr. Totten.
    Thank you for spelling out this situation with clarity, history, and firmness!

  8. Thank you, Shay Totten, and I hope this message is loud and clear to the voters in the run up to the November election. This is a crime of Miro”s making, the taking of money from the needs of the city to support an overblown and offensive development totally inconsistent with Plan BTV which took how many years to work out? It’s time for Burlington to rise up and throw Miro out.

  9. Reblogged this on bhalsop and commented:
    Shay Totten tells the truth to Burlingtonians. No on TIF in November!

  10. Pingback: #NCHIMBY (No Corporate Handouts in My Back Yard) | underwood

  11. I can tell you the TIF worked like it was supposed to in Newport. Years ago Newport was one of the first communities to take advantage of a TIF district and it was used to help our community create a new industrial park. The existing one, at that time, was at capacity. We, the city council, had the voters approve a bond for water/sewer infrastructure improvements for the new park. We then used the TIF district to pay off the bond once we had tenants locate in the new park. Yes we did have an interested party and this was certainly one way to help lure them to locate in Newport.

    We currently have two employers located there with one employing over 80 people and is currently expanding with much needed jobs for an area with the highest unemployment. I do not consider this corporate welfare for our community but a way to promote much needed economic development. Remember Vermont’s high taxes often discourages business development and we have had companies move out of state for much lower taxes.

  12. Pingback: Just Say Whoa | underwood

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