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TIF Commission applicants spark controversy for city council

The mood was tense Monday night as Columbia City Council members discussed the latest addition to the Tax Increment Financing commission at its meeting.

The TIF Commission is tasked with investigating and vetting Broadway Hotel owner Dave Parmley’s proposal for a $2 million TIF plan to fund a new tower at the hotel. For more details on the plan, click here.

The Commission makes a recommendation to City Council, which makes the final decision.

Six people applied for a single, vacant spot on the Commission. Mayor Brian Treece appointed Jeremy Root, a local attorney, to the board. At the beginning of its meeting, the Council voted 4-3 to add him to the Commission. But at the end, City Attorney Nancy Thompson said the proposal needed a majority of the six-person Council (excluding the mayor) to approve Root for the board.

That’s when Treece apparently became angry with city staff, and accused them of “stacking the deck of the TIF Commission.” According to the mayor, one of the applicants had been actively recruited by Parmley.

“That process doesn’t work if it’s not fair,” Treece told the Council. “If you want staff to pick the TIF Commission, you should vote no. If you want the applicant to pick the TIF Commission you should vote no.”

The council took another vote, minus Treece, and approved Root 4-2.

Matt Pitzer and Michael Trapp voted no. Pitzer said his no vote stemmed from Root’s involvement with the federal lawsuit against the City of Columbia in the Opus Development issue. Columbia residents had sued the city, saying it had violated their First Amendment rights in the dealings with the developer. A federal judge ruled in favor of the city in 2015.

Pitzer said in Monday’s Council meeting that because of that, he didn’t think Root could remain impartial when reviewing a city application.

“That, in my mind, is what tainted his application,” he said.

Treece said Root’s involvement in the Opus lawsuit, as well as being the only attorney among the six applicants, gave him more confidence.

“The fact that he wanted that process to be followed on the Opus case gives me confidence that he wants the same process and the law to be followed on this TIF project,” he said. “He wants a strong and vibrant downtown, we all want that, but what we need to evaluate is whether taxpayers need to subsidize a project in order to achieve that.”

In an email Tuesday, Root said he will “exercise independent judgment regarding adoption of the redevelopment plans and redevelopment projects.”

“I understand well the legal frameworks in which TIFs operate, as well as development and redevelopment dynamics here in Columbia,” he said. “I expect these prior experiences will be an asset to the TIF Commission as it fulfills its role in advising the City Council.”

That legal framework is the two basic questions that justify the use of TIF. First, whether it passes a but/for test: Could anyone reasonably develop the property but for the use of tax increment financing? The second question is whether the site contains conditions of blight or conditions that may lead to blight.

“Until we can answer those two questions, we can’t really even get into the cost-benefit analysis of whether this is a good deal for the city and for taxpayers,” said Treece.

Root said he thinks the two existing downtown TIF projects at Tiger Hotel and the Broadway Hotel brought tremendous value to the city.

“The economic climate is different today than it was six-plus years ago,” he said. “Columbia has been the fastest growing city in Missouri throughout this time period.”

The TIF Commission’s next meeting is Oct. 30, so Root said he had “plenty of homework to do” before then.

Tony St. Romaine, former deputy city manager and the city’s consultant for the TIF project, said that when a position has been vacant for awhile, it’s staff’s responsibility to advertise the position.

“Staff will call people who we think are open-minded, transparent and could serve the city well in that position,” he said. “It’s up to council to decide who the best person is.”

Treece and Ward 3 Councilman Karl Skala said they had reservations about St. Romaine’s perceived “advocacy” of the TIF. St. Romaine retired in 2016 but is working part-time for the city as a consultant for the TIF project.

St. Romaine said that as a staff member, he can have an opinion on the TIF, but he is not actively promoting it.

“To say that I have been out there advocating for this project is stated wrongly,” he said. “I haven’t been out there banging a drum, drumming up support for this project.”

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