Saturday, January 21, 2006

Economic Development

It is no secret that I campaigned against the half-cent economic development sales tax. For that matter, this website originated as an instrument in that debate. Not to retill old ground, but a big part of my opposition stemmed from the virtual blackmail used to ram the measure through initially. Unlike the initial tainted passage, the current twenty year re-authorization came after a reasonably financed, thorough airing of the issues. I may have philosophical reservations personally on the concept, but I am satified the voters gave approval without any undue pressure.

While I have disagreed with some of the decisions of the Corporation, I have also come to respect the people who are directing the fund. Matt Lewis has personally contributed time and effort that in another venue would have drawn a six figure paycheck. Kathy Keane was the personification of competency as City Clerk and is an excellent choice for managing the Development Corp. I have sat in on enough board meetings to respect their efforts.

What I want to make clear is that I have no intention of revisiting the core issue of the tax itself. The voters have spoken and it not the sort of burden as would drive any taxpayer into penury.

We do have a fund that will bring in nearly $100 million over its life. I know I have brought this up before, but I think it should be pressed. The uses of this fund are limited by state law to the specifics of the ballot language. I'm not saying that language was sloppy or ill-conceived, but it was unavoidably entangled with considerations of gaining voter approval in a fairly tight race.

Using this fund for any purpose not encompassed in the original ballot language would require a new referendum. Attorney General Opinions on the authorizing legislation give the Corporation precious little wiggle room without voter approval. I believe since we have decided to have this tax, we need to grant the fund the flexibility to respond to changing conditions and needs. No household or business would lock its budget into a twenty year plan, nor should the city. A general concept is one thing, dedicated budget items twenty years out is another.

I am hardly so bold as to lay out specifics of a proposal to change the allowable spending, but I do think we should have an ongoing review process to look at ballot language to grant the Corporation more flexibility in expenditures.

A couple of examples that will give an idea what I have in mind. Last year's water rate increase understandably incensed many voters who felt poorly rewarded for their conservation efforts. State law does not allow the sales tax money to be used for operating expenses, but had we been able to fund some capital projects from the fund, that rate increase might have been lessened. We might reasonably decide it was to the public good to spend a little less on sports facilities in order to build some badly needed sidewalks and give our kids a safer route to get to and from schools and parks.

A good many capital projects can be reasonably deemed as furthering economic develoment and a justifiable expenditure of public money. The statute authorizing the Economic Development Corporation grants cities fairly wide discretion in areas other than rewarding employers for direct job creation/retention IF the voters have given approval.

More than asking for any specific project, I am suggesting a review process with the goal of granting the Corporation the flexibilty to work with the city to react to changing circumstances. Over a twenty year span, it is inevitable that we will wake up some day thinking "Whoa, Nellie, we need X way worse than the Y that looked so good five years ago". Why don't we start looking at ballot language that will allow us reasonable latitude to adapt now, before we have a more or less urgent problem in our laps.

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