The Price Tag To Protect Missoula’s Political Status Quo

by William Skink

How badly does the political status quo in Missoula want to protect itself from pesky critics like Jesse Ramos? Would they be willing to spend $41,000 dollars for multiple primary elections in order to keep democracy from producing another Ramos and challenging Engen’s fiefdom? You bet they would!

If the link between City Council primaries and Jesse Ramos is not clear, then here’s some reporting from the Missoula Current that brings some clarity to why unnecessary primaries are going to be held in Missoula:

While the city will conduct a primary to ensure that only two candidates appear on this November’s ballot, it has permitted more than two candidates on the ballot in the past.

In the 2015 general election, three candidates appeared on the ballot in Ward 6. In 2017, Ward 3 saw three candidates on the ballot, while Ward 4 saw four candidates.

That latter election saw two left-leaning candidates split each other’s vote, essentially handing the seat to right-leaning council member Ramos, who also ran a strong campaign.

Vote splitting is nothing new, and plenty of Democrats in Montana have benefited from libertarians peeling off votes from conservatives. We wouldn’t have Senator Tester otherwise.

But poor Missoula Democrats have had to suffer the indignity of political criticism from a young politician who had the temerity to not march in lock-step with the liberal flock who rubber stamp Engen’s dictates. This simply can’t be allowed to happen again, and thanks to these primaries, it more than likely won’t.

As I said at the top of this post, the cost to keep another Ramos from getting elected is going to be $41,000 dollars. While that may seem like a lot of money to us lowly serfs, for the political status quo that runs this town it’s nothing more than another traffic study or a few dozen feet of sidewalk.

So why would an elected official think twice about this expenditure if it means not having to listen to criticism of the Mountain Water litigation or providing a platform for another Ramos to question the MRA skim & give scheme?

Answer: they won’t.

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A Brief Look At Ward 2 Candidate For Missoula City Council, Brent Sperry

by William Skink

It’s nice to get kudos for the work done here. A recent comment released from the spam filter offered these generous words:

Thank you so much for your reporting recently per Missoula TIF. I dont think that Missoula residents (and/or) property owners realize how much the MRA ( read – Ellen Buchanan) are breaking Missoula. The Mayor, City Council and Ellen Buchanan exist somewhere in a limbo zone between the Haves and the Have Nots. They are using their positions to desperately ingratiate themselves into the “Haves”. In doing so they are willing to sacrifice the heart/soul of Missoula to get theirs.

Tonight is a big night for Missoula. City Council will be voting on the housing policy recommendations that will greatly influence future growth (I wish we were voting on a Mayoral race with a quality candidate to challenge Engen). Some realities, like supply and demand, can’t be tweaked on a policy level. Some other realities, like skimming tax revenue to give out to various development projects, can be changed.

The role of MRA (Missoula Redevelopment Agency) is not up for a vote, since the leadership there has pledged to provide that pump-priming power the private sector so enjoys to the housing problem, but with City Council elections coming up, the role of MRA most certainly can be part of the equation of candidates.

Candidates, for example, like Brent Sperry, who is running in Ward 2 and has this to say about TIF:

Missoula’s overwhelming property taxes make it difficult for our community’s lower- and middle-income citizens, and the burden is not just carried by homeowners; it gets passed on to renters too. Many senior citizens — who helped shape Missoula with decades of their labor, volunteer services and property taxes — are now on fixed incomes and are being taxed out of their beloved city. Each tax increase is a message from city officials that our lower-income residents can be replaced by new, wealthier residents who can afford the tax burden they enact.

A large part of this problem arises from a complex tool called tax increment financing. Large portions of tax revenue are being scraped off to fund pet projects and directly benefit large corporations and wealthy developers. As a result, our essential services are underfunded and, in many cases, understaffed. Missoula is in desperate need of fiscal responsibility with an emphasis on bread-and-butter services like road maintenance and police and fire protection. As Missoula continues to see higher crime rates year after year, we need to be committing resources to ensure our community is safe.

With your support, I can become a voice to help break the tax-and-spend mentality we have been experiencing. Let’s focus on smart growth and not growth at any cost. Let’s concentrate on getting good-paying jobs and not just seasonal tourist opportunities. Let’s focus on the basics and not the frills. Let’s fund our police, fire and infrastructure, and not give millions to private developers. Let’s focus on getting Missoula back to the great community it once was.

If I lived within city limits I would most definitely be voting for Brent Sperry on just the merit of those 3 paragraphs.

I wish we had more local critical analysis of the changes intentional policies like tax increment financing have wrought in Missoula, policies obscured by technical language and sold by a self-deprecating huckster who uses humor and charm to disarm well-deserved criticism.

Until we have some resurrection of an Indy-type publication, or some other for official platform to inform locals, I’ll keep my opinion pieces (not reporting) coming as time allows.

Thank you for reading.

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Notes From A Family Vacation To Yellowstone

by William Skink

Yesterday was our family’s last day at Yellowstone. We got a late start in part because what should have been a quick stop for food in Gardiner turned into an absurd ordeal.

The first place we stopped at–a cafe–didn’t do breakfast past 9am, so at 9:10am on a Friday morning we were told to take our money somewhere else.

The second place was obviously understaffed. After standing there for 5 minutes no one had even said hello or directed us to seat ourselves. An older couple looking around expectingly got up and left. We did the same.

The third place was slammed, and people who had ordered their food were getting it, but had no place to sit. Not something this family of 5 was going to deal with.

After an hour of traipsing around with hungry kids the 4th place finally worked, but needless to say everyone was a bit annoyed at what it took to get food in one of America’s most-visited National Parks.

I have a hunch one of the factor’s contributing to our experience is the affordable housing crisis. Obviously servers and barristas in the service sector don’t make much money, so if they can’t find housing they’ll go somewhere else. I’ll get back to this thought in a moment.

Once in the park the insane traffic we had for the most part avoided on Wednesday snarled our progression to standstills several times. It took us nearly 6 hours to go 60 miles to Old Faithful. One of the long delays was Bison related, the other ones just straight gridlock from too many vehicles.

The sheer volume of tourists from around the world who want to experience the truly astounding thermal features of Yellowstone Park, combined with the increasing use of VRBOs (vacation rental by owner), is literally disappearing the service sector industry.

Our family is contributing to this problem because we didn’t stay in a lodge or camp out in tents. We had originally reserved a cabin at Chico Hot Springs, but because of my work schedule we had to find another date and almost everything was totally booked, so we rented a house for a week.

Today is our last day and even though we will be ready to go soon, we will have to wait for awhile before we can hit the road. Why? Because we will be waiting for laundry to get done, but not our laundry. A condition of our stay is that on the day of departure we are required to strip the beds and launder the sheets. We also have to empty all the trash cans around the house and put the dishes in the dishwasher.

When you’re paying a bunch of money to stay somewhere, you’re usually not expected to do the housecleaning. Here is the exact language used to justify requiring guests to do the housecleaning:

We understand that this is a chore but with the limited number of house cleaners in our area it is imperative that we get this done prior to her arrival so that we can accommodate our next guests and ensure their pleasant experience.

The reason I’m risking sounding like a snob complaining about my first world problems is not because my family’s experience is all that important, but because the housing affordability crisis is having all kinds of ripple effects, some of which may not even be understood as being a result of the housing crisis.

Ok, enough gratuitous time on the computer. Back to work!

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Tom Winter Sniffs TIF As Threat Of War Bums Me Out In Paradise Valley

by William Skink

I am writing this post from a cold and rainy Paradise Valley. I’ve done a mostly good job unplugging and only using my devices to do the customary tourist thing of documenting everything on the old smart phone. Mostly.

Sure, I check in from time to time to see if a shooting war with Iran has started yet, but I definitely wasn’t going to do something like write a post. Then today went to shit, tomorrow we may be driving through snow, so I said to hell with it and finally brought out my computer.

I only check Twitter on my computer, and that is where I learned about a Democrat getting in on the MRA ka-ching while ALSO doing that I want Montana’s Congressional seat thing.

So here I am, doing the predictable ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME thing because you really couldn’t script a more perfect embodiment of all that is wrong with the political engine the runs Zoo Town.

Did I mention this guy’s name yet? Ladies and gentlemen, meet proud Missoula gentrifier and shameless Democrat who wants your vote for Congress, TOM WINTER!!!

A U.S. congressional candidate from Missoula plans to build eight to 10 three-story, high-end townhomes in downtown Missoula near the Clark Fork River.

On Thursday, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board voted unanimously to allow Tom Winter to proceed with work on deconstructing the older houses at 322 Levasseur St.

Winter plans on submitting an application in July for Tax Increment Financing assistance for deconstruction of two buildings and for required public infrastructure upgrades at the site, and the Thursday vote allows him to move forward without prejudicing a future application.

It wasn’t enough to have to read those words, no, I had to also glance at the accompanying picture of Tom Winters looking at me from the Missoulian website and, man, does the dude have a smug little smirk of his face.

Missoula Democrats are all in for gentrification enabled by MRA’s skim & give schemes, and they have no reason to stop if they keep getting votes.

Unfortunately I don’t think there’s time to vote the bastards out before the “recession” hits. A real winter is coming, not some smug punk grinning like he made it just in time to the feeding trough.

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Is Coercing Contractors To Have Apprentice Programs A Good Idea?

by William Skink

One of the more consistent complaints from all the conversations about the housing affordability crisis comes from developers and centers on the red-tape involved in the construction process. Reduce some of that red-tape, they say, and the cost of building will go down. Do council members Heather Harp and Gwen Jones understand this concept?

In the Missoula Current today Harp and Jones are championing their idea to coerce contractors into creating apprentice programs if they don’t already have one. I’ll get to why this is a bad idea in a moment. Here’s the rationale for the apprentice program:

City councilors Heather Harp and Gwen Jones created a plan that provides a bidding preference to contractors using a State of Montana Registered Apprentice Program for city of Missoula construction projects totaling $500,000 or more.

The plan is supposed to promote job training, improve the skills of the workforce, and get younger people interested in the benefits of a job in skilled labor.

I understand the rationale, and getting younger folks interested in skilled labor is not a bad thing, but will the method of coercion being proposed have unintended consequences?

Here is how the coercion will work if enough Council member vote to approve this plan:

Contractors that use apprentices for at least 10 percent of the total labor hours on construction projects owned by the city of Missoula will be given a 5 percent preference in the bidding process.

So, why is this a bad idea?

In one of my posts last week I highlighted the perspective of Hermina Jean Harold, the executive director of Trust Montana and a community organizer for the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation. Harold thinks the housing recommendations being proposed should include inclusionary zoning because both Bozeman and Whitefish eventually realized this type of zoning is a necessary component in addressing affordability.

In Missoula our civic leadership decided NOT to learn any lessons from Bozeman and Whitefish. Because of that decision they are going to need all the voluntary cooperation from developers they can elicit.

With that reality in mind, I anticipate this coercive apprentice program will be counterproductive on two levels: it does the exact opposite of reducing red-tape while simultaneously pissing off the very people our City Council members will need voluntary help from to make housing more affordable in Missoula.

I didn’t need an article from the Missoula Current to know that at least one contractor is angry about this program. Here is a comment from the post I wrote about gentrifying Missoula’s Hip Strip:

Hi William, Why yes I do know the backlash from chalenging Missoulas policies. They have just thrown us contractors a new twist to force apprenticeship programs despite every contractoir being against this. Sorry guys I raised my voice against our nazi regime, now we all pay. Not only do we pay, but so does the poor apprentice making half the money he would have if current regs were left alone.. Yes Gwen Jones is right up there nosing around in things she knows nothing about, smug and acting like a wide eyed school girl to get what she wants.

The Missoula Current also referenced a contractor who is against this resolution. Here’s the one dissenting voice allowed in the article:

Co-owner of Shadow Asphalt Jeremy Ogilvie didn’t support the resolution. Putting inexperienced people in the field is dangerous, he said, and while having an apprenticeship program isn’t mandatory, the competition among contractors would force his company to participate.

“It’s a 10-man crew, working as one,” he said. “Just like a football team, everyone has to have their role and know when to do it and how to do it or it doesn’t work. Throwing a couple high school kids out there at the wong time just means that my guys are responsible for the safety of other people that might not understand how to work around heavy equipment.”

Having to have 10 percent of the labor work done by apprentices may also mean turning away experienced workers to meet the program requirements.

Ogilevie said that his company is already training about eight young workers to load trucks, break concrete, and on other aspects of the job that don’t involve a high skillset. They have to work up to that point, he said.

“There’s going to be a lot of unintended consequences with managing it and expenses on a small business,” Ogilvie said. “We will try to follow the rules, we will become certified if we have to, but I think it’s not going to have the outcome that you want.”

Here are some questions not answered by this article: Will this program add time and money to construction projects? Will it disproportionally hurt small businesses? And, will it actually produce the desired results?

I’m assuming the answers to these questions are important to the luminous ones who come up with these ideas, but maybe that’s a wrong assumption.

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How One Gen-X Writer Is Processing Non-Existence

by William Skink

Earlier this year a CBS info-graphic indicated I didn’t exist.

The Silent Generation exists, the obnoxious Baby Boomer Generation definitely exist and won’t shut up about it, and then there’s Millennials and Post-Millennials, according to CBS. Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

Apparently the millions of people born from 1961-1981–aka Generation X–don’t deserve to be counted as an existing generation anymore.

And this Gen X writer is A-Ok with that.

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Another Way Government Extracts More Of Your Money In Missoula, Montana

by William Skink

Thanks to this Missoulian article I am reminded of the fact there are many ways we get squeezed by the vice-grip of byzantine government processes. The article is a sticker shock warning about the coming price-tag for living in our wonderful mountain town utopia.

Here’s the technical way you will be getting fucked by Missoula’s hot market:

“It’s hard to answer about a particular property, not knowing what happened, but the (appraisal) methods are the same,” Talwani said. “It has to do with comparable properties selling for more than they did two years ago.”

The DOR also uses “cost” appraisals for commercial properties, where it calculates how much it will cost to build a similar structure, according to Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer Tyler Gernant. A third method is to calculate the income that could be derived from a property if it’s leased out for commercial purposes.

“The market’s been really hot, and the market values in looking at what your house could sell for … you can’t say it is wrong, but it is shocking,” Gernant said.

Hot market, more value, so more taxes. Tyler Gernant says you can’t say it’s wrong, which I take to mean legally wrong, and he’s right. But what about morally wrong?

There is some push-back bubbling up to the housing recommendations released last month worth checking out, and to its credit it was posted at Missoula Current. I appreciate Hermina Harold’s take on the cautious, development-friendly approach being suggested. Here’s the gist of the ask:

Recently, the Missoula City Council was handed a slate of housing policy recommendations to review, and they have work to do before the June 24 vote. The policy recommendations are skewed in the direction of developer incentives. These types of incentives largely failed when Bozeman and Whitefish tried them. Both cities have now switched over to mandatory inclusionary zoning policies.

We don’t have the luxury of time to wait and see if the incentives work and then change course. A University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research study from 2018 reported that when median wages are compared to median home prices, Missoula housing is already less affordable than Bozeman, Denver, Seattle, Portland and Miami.

I am asking our City Council and Missoula Redevelopment Agency to enact two regulatory policies to stop the displacement of working people: 1) mandatory inclusionary zoning and 2) Tax Increment Finance District affordability requirements.

All things considered, those aren’t extreme asks. But my hunch is they will be ignored.

It’s worth noting this “Community Voices” op-ed was quickly dropped for a big picture of people who do no actual manual labor holding shovels in yet another article about the first new build in Missoula’s TOZ.

Meanwhile, for everyone else, the squeeze just keeps squeezing.

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How Opportunity Zones Connects Missoula’s Mayor Engen to Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher

by William Skink

This past week I took a critical look at gentrification in Missoula, and today will be no different. The ever-reliable cheerleader of development, the Missoula Current, is “reporting” on the celebratory ground breaking of the first new building on West Broadway to take advantage of the TOZ (Trump Opportunity Zone). From the link: 

Two weeks after announcing its plans to break ground on a $5.8 million office building and restaurant in Missoula’s new opportunity zone on West Broadway, the firm behind the project will celebrate with a ground breaking on Monday.

Broadway Opportunity Fund plans to construct the building on 1.5 acres at 2000 Maple Street to serve as the future home of DJ&A. The larger 6.5-acre parcel was purchased by Engineer Support Services LLC in 2017 and also is expected to be redeveloped.

“Our community’s planning, programs and public investment help give confidence to companies like DJ&A who are investing in redeveloping the West Broadway corridor,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said in a statement. “In doing so, (they’re) creating jobs and opportunities and prosperity in our community.”

Yeah, opportunities and prosperity, but for who?

Cheerleaders of development gloss over the history of these zones and the people who often lose out because of them. 

In the lefty political journal, Counterpunch, Amadi Anene provides some historical context and links to reports about these opportunity zones. Anene once served as a senior adviser in the Small Business Administration during the Obama administration, so maybe he’s someone the supposed liberal/progressives in Missoula will listen to? 

This story goes back to the 1980s, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government introduced 11 “enterprise zones” throughout the United Kingdom. Inspired, conservatives in the U.S. under President Ronald Reagan promoted the creation of these zones in 40 states.

Even many Democrats warmed to these zones as a viable pro-market approach to urban renewal. The idea resurfaced as “empowerment zones” under the Clinton administration in 1994.

Whatever you call them, they’re spaces where businesses can delay, reduce, or even eliminate taxes altogether on the money they invest.

From Thatcher to Reagan to Clinton to Trump, the concept that became the gentrifying TOZ has had some PR name tweaks, but retained the stench of a tax-avoidance scheme, which is clear to see once you look past the language the cheerleaders use to promote these “opportunities”.

Later in the article Anene addresses the argument of the cheerleaders, which he calls “advocates”:

Advocates argue that these incentives encourage investors to direct money into distressed communities in ways that will lead to new jobs, better housing, and other businesses being willing to open up shop in the revitalized community.

There are at least two problems with that argument.

First, many distressed communities suffer from economic challenges that investment alone cannot address, including redlining and housing discrimination. These communities need systemic policy changes that get at the root of discrimination to set the stage for lasting economic change.

Second, studies across the country (as well as in the U.K.) offer little evidence that such incentives actually benefit neighborhoods in the long run.

An expansive study of 75 enterprise zones in 13 U.S. states concluded that tax incentives had “little to no impact on economic growth.” One study of a zone in New Jersey even concluded that increased economic activity within its zone came at the expense of non-zones in the nearby area — the kind of zero-sum economics that would discourage investments in the long run.

A serious lack of evidence that these zones produce the desired economic impact won’t stop a duplicitous politician like Mayor Engen from parroting the same tired rationalizations of supposed opportunity and prosperity.

If people in Missoula want to understand the changes that are happening, then identifying and understanding the mechanisms of gentrification is one important step to take.

But you won’t understand if the only info you are getting is coming from cheerleaders like Engen.

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Will Gentrification Claim Missoula’s Hip Strip?

by William Skink

Last month there was some good news on the affordable housing front when city and county officials announced a major affordable housing project to be built on land the county donated near the detention center. This housing will be targeting some of the most difficult to house individuals.  

While this project is encouraging, Missoula’s persistent gentrification is removing other affordable housing options from the housing landscape. Once the Russell Bridge is finished, for example, low-rent motels like the Colonial are sure to be scraped, especially since that part of Broadway is a Trump Opportunity Zone.

Another looming development was announced last October when the owner of the Montaignes, located on the Hip Strip, warned tenants that change is coming once all the hurdles to gentrify the hip strip out of existence are surmounted.

You may think that last part sounds hyperbolic, but just you wait and see. It’s not just the affordable residential units under threat of disappearing, but the local small businesses as well. 

Is getting rid of those small businesses the reason why Ken Duce (pronounced douche?) implied some of his commercial tenants are financially unreliable? Here’s what Duce had to say about his tenants from that Missoulian article last October:

The ground-floor retail stores include Bathing Beauties Beads, Shakespeare & Co. independent bookstore, Carlo’s One Night Stand vintage clothing and costumes, The Sports Exchange outdoor gear consignment shop, Joseph’s Coat yarn and fiber shop, and Logan’s Boot and Shoe Repair.

“The building is not a safe place to live anymore,” Duce explained. “The plumbing is constantly leaking. My partner that manages the building complains constantly about how much we spend on a constant basis with Fred the plumber. All those nice stores that are really fun to have in Missoula, they’re there because we pay their rent. They pay us almost nothing.”

Full disclosure, I am a very loyal customer of one of the businesses mentioned and had a conversation yesterday that was indicative of what development in Missoula has become. People who will be impacted by these changes are being excluded from meetings, they are being given condescending lip service from city leaders, and it sounds like they are being lied to in some circumstances.

You think Missoula is an inclusive community that supports local businesses and local artists? Sure, that’s the idea city leaders like to sell the public on, but reality can feel much different for those in the cross-hairs of gentrification.

Getting back to the article, the main hurdle keeping this project going forward appears to be parking:

Duce said the city’s planning department told him he would need 190 parking spaces because city zoning laws require a parking spot for every four chairs in a restaurant. The building is served by public transit and has some parking spot reductions “grandfathered in,” so Duce estimates that he needs to find 89 more spots to meet requirements. He told the Historic Preservation Commission that he would like them to grant a request in the future to reduce that number.

He also said he may try to get a zoning change, although he’s aware that neighbors in the area might be concerned about overflow parking spilling into residential streets. He said he’s also worked with Mayor John Engen and the Boone and Crockett Club, which owns the railroad depot building nearby and a parking lot, to see if they’d be interested in leasing parking spots. It will be a complicated process, and members of the Historic Preservation Commission said they couldn’t make a decision at this time.

Emy Sherrer, the city’s historic preservation officer, said that smaller restaurants like Clyde Coffee and Ciao Mambo on the Hip Strip were granted waivers by the previous officer in the past because they wanted a reduction of a small number of spaces. City code states that city zoning officer Mike Haynes, in consultation with Sherrer, are authorized to approve exceptions and waivers to minimum off-street parking ratios.

“Since this is such a large request, nothing has been determined/resolved as of yet,” Sherrer told the Missoulian in an email.

In another article that solicited responses from local businesses, the owner of Carlo’s One Night Stand had this to say about change along the Hip Strip:

Gilliam said modernization and redevelopment is slowly changing the character of the district.

“Pretty soon, you won’t be able to call it the Hip Strip anymore,” he said.

Yep.

To those who will be negatively impacted by this little piece of Missoula getting the gentrification treatment, I have some advice: don’t trust anything that comes out of Mayor Engen’s mouth, and watch out for City Council person Gwen Jones. I know from personal experience what can happen when you criticize the policies that turns the screws on Missoulians who aren’t developers, property owners, or donors to political campaigns.

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How Mayor Daley TIF’d Chicago And Other Cautionary TIF Tales

by William Skink

I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Missoula is not unique. Our housing problems are not unique, and the alleged solutions being proposed are not unique. 

 I’ve focused my criticism of Tax Increment Financing primarily on how Missoula has used it, but with Councilman Ramos taking his criticism to the swamp, I thought it might be interesting to see how other communities have used TIF to prime the pump of development.

Wouldn’t you know the center of political integrity in America–Chicago–exemplifies what one can achieve with TIF loot and political ambition. The article is from 2011, so it’s a little dated, but it’s still worth reading. Here’s snip:

Mr. Daley vigorously championed the use of TIF. By the end of his tenure in May, city officials had established more than 160 TIF districts that covered about one-third of Chicago. In total, the districts capture about $500 million a year, city and Cook County documents show.

The amount is equal to about one-sixth of the city’s annual core budget, although under Mr. Daley the money was not tracked or approved as part of the budgeting process, and his administration provided only a vague accounting of its TIF activities.

Mr. Emanuel has already made marked improvement in transparency by making TIF data public. He has promised to detail the flow of TIF dollars in his first city budget proposal, due in October.

Mayor Daley was an even drunken sailor than sailor Engen when it came to throwing around TIF largesse. According to the article, over his tenure, Daley spent 1.7 billion dollars in TIF money. Around 700 million of that money benefited private interests. Like Missoula, TIF money was also used in Chicago to cover budget problems–problems that wouldn’t exist if this skim & give scheme wasn’t siphoning cash from Chicago’s general fund.

Oh, that’s just Chicago, you might say, they can corrupt anything. But beyond Chicago there exists the larger question of whether or not TIF functions as advertised. Here’s a more recent article, titled Does Tax Increment Financing Really Work? Usually, No.

After describing how TIF is suppose to work, here’s the part that describes how it actually works:

Critics often charge that it funnels money out of the taxpayers’ pockets into a special fund that, by and large, works in a pretty opaque manner. While some of that money funds essential public works, much has also gone towards erecting new Whole Foods, renovating glitzy hotels, and building stadiums—the type of projects, one might argue, should not require such incentives. And the evidence Merriman analyzes suggest they may have a point. He shows that, in most cases around the country, the tool did not fulfill its main goal of boosting economic development.

“On average, [TIF] may be moving development from one part of the city to another, and changing the timing of the development, but there’s not more development than would have otherwise been made,” Merriman said.

In addition, this is a tool with several drawbacks. According to Merriman, TIFs might “capture” some tax revenue above the capped “base value” that may have been generated anyway through natural appreciation in property values if the TIF hadn’t been created. This is money that taxpayers might have otherwise paid directly towards an overlapping school district, or for public services. And while TIF is not a direct tax increase, it may lead to higher rates or service cuts elsewhere, if the city plans on bringing in the same general property tax revenue as before TIF.

It’s incredibly important to understand how all this works as the city of Missoula gears up to ask taxpayers to shoulder another bond to help address the affordable housing crisis. When you understand the skim & give scheme, that ask becomes offensive, as does the effort to put the majority cost of new sidewalks on home owners when Marriott Andy gets millions for his hotel sidewalks.

Hell, if Missoulians start figuring this out they may even want to know things like how much public money does MRA actually have in its piggy bank?

Or, maybe they’ll get radical and say, screw it, let’s get a voter resolution on the ballot to absolve MRA and its board and put control of the piggy bank directly into the hands of city council. That way, if us lowly citizens don’t like how our money is being used, we can vote the bastards out.

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