Barre puts off vote on TIF district debt ceiling
BARRE — A lot of big numbers will be on the Granite City’s Town Meeting Day ballot, but the proposed debt ceiling for a newly approved “tax increment financing” district won’t be one of them.
City councilors aren’t ready to pop what could be a $10.8 million question that they say sounds more ominous than it really is and requires more outreach than they’ve been able to provide.
At the urging of Mayor Thomas Lauzon, councilors agreed this week they need more time to bring voters up to speed when it comes to a complicated concept. The council had rushed to obtain approval for the city’s downtown TIF district from the Vermont Economic Progress Council late last year.
TIF districts essentially allow communities to make public infrastructure improvements within defined areas by using some of the property tax revenues generated by new development and redevelopment within the state-sanctioned district.
The boundaries of the Barre district are roughly identical to the city’s designated downtown, and projects like the new Merchants Bank, the redevelopment of the historic Aldrich and Blanchard blocks, and construction of City Place are all expected to boost the city’s grand list and provide a predictable source of funding for projects within the TIF district over the next 20 years.
However, Lauzon worried this week that the council would have a limited opportunity to educate voters in the run-up to the city’s annual elections in March.
“I just don’t feel like we’ve done a good job presenting this to the public,” he said.
Rather than risk rejection of a request that he said reads like a blank check but really isn’t, Lauzon suggested the council drop its earlier plans for a March vote. That, he said, would allow time for the council to reach out to residents and for a mayors coalition to lobby lawmakers to change the TIF district legislation.
Lauzon didn’t get any resistance from council members.
“If we put it on (the ballot) in March it’s going to get shot down,” Anita Chadderton said.
Paul Poirier agreed. “We need to educate the voters as to how this (TIF district) would be a big benefit for our community,” he said.
A big part of Lauzon’s concern involves the wording that is required by statute to establish debt ceilings for TIF districts and the fact that communities can’t adjust the limit on a project-by-project basis.
Planning Director Mike Miller said the law doesn’t allow for that and the language isn’t optional.
“It’s a mouthful, but it’s what statute requires we put into the ballot item,” he said.
The article presented for the council’s consideration stated: “… Shall the Barre City voters authorize the city council to finance public improvements within the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district by pledging the credit of the city in an amount not to exceed ten million eight hundred thousand dollars ($10,800,000), utilizing new tax increment revenues from within the district for repayment, with the city liable for full repayment of the indebtedness regardless of whether the tax increment revenues are sufficient for such repayment, subject to future approval of each debt obligation by the voters or city council as required by law.”
Lauzon said it was confusing at best.
“To me it looks like you’re going to spend 10.8 million” he said, adding that is not the case and no money would be spent without obtaining additional approval from voters.
“This doesn’t give the City Council or anyone else a blank check to spend … money, and I’m very concerned that’s going to be lost on people,” he said.
At a minimum, Lauzon said he would prefer to present the debt ceiling question to voters along with a concrete project with fixed costs and an identified revenue source in the next few months. That, he said, would provide voters with a better understanding of the mechanics of tax increment financing.
According to Miller, the $10.8 million figure was vetted by an independent analyst during the rigorous VEPC review and represents a “conservative” estimate of what targeted development in the TIF district will generate for use on infrastructure projects over the next 20 years.
He said the council could set a lower figure but not a higher one and now has less than five years to incur debt for specific projects.
“The clock is ticking,” he said.
Miller reminded the council that to accommodate the planned redevelopment of Merchants Row and Enterprise Alley, it will have to acquire two key properties in the next six months. TIF money could be used to cover the cost of acquisition, but not before the debt ceiling is set by voters.
Councilors agreed that a special election could be held this spring or early this summer to obtain the necessary approvals.
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