Business/Economy, Elections, Featured, Peter Blake, Politics, Taxes

Blake: Littleton proposal would place check on urban renewal and TIFs

Citizens in the Denver suburb of Littleton are trying to get more voter control over urban-renewal projects established by their municipal government.

They have gathered enough signatures for a charter amendment that would require voter approval for any city council action involving urban-renewal decisions such as condemnation, eminent domain or tax increment financing.

The proposal will be voted upon at a special election scheduled for March 3.

Littleton currently has four separate urban renewal projects going, despite the colossal failure of its Riverfront project back in the 1980s. That is reported to have cost the city $9 million — and the private investors almost three times that.

It’s the latest in a series of efforts, some of them small, to control urban renewal, which is one of the many forms of crony capitalism: subsidizing some businesses at the expense of others and the public at large.

Local steps are necessary because the Colorado legislature has failed, despite repeated efforts through the years, to rein in the practice. Local governments, through their own lobbyists and their trade organization, the Colorado Municipal League, regularly defeat reform efforts.

According to spokeswoman Carol Brzeczek, the citizens’ group known as Your Littleton Your Vote gathered 3,926 signatures, almost 800 more than required.

Subsequently the city council referred to the same ballot a counter-proposal that would prohibit the use of eminent domain in an urban renewal plan except at the request of the property owner.

Why? According to Doug Clark, a former mayor who’s also working for the group, city council is “trying to convince the citizens not to vote for our initiative and to vote for theirs,” which is much less drastic.

But Paul Bingham, another volunteer in the group, said “theirs is just a subset of ours” and the group is urging voters to support both.

Littleton, with a population of about 42,000, has long had an active citizenry. The current group is an outgrowth of the so-called “Sunshine Boys,” which successfully campaigned for a ballot proposal to get rid of the city’s sales tax on groceries in 2003.

There are other small signs of resistance to urban renewal projects in metro Denver, such as 1) Councilman Bruce Baker’s well publicized (though so far unsuccessful) efforts to halt the subsidized redevelopment of the Westminster Mall, and 2) a suit by a few Aurora taxpayers who are trying to stop the huge $850 million Gaylord Hotel and Conference Center that the city of Aurora wants built with the help of tax increment financing and money from the state tourism fund. The plaintiffs claim the city violated the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Proponents of TIFs maintain that new projects wouldn’t be built unless developers were able to avail themselves of that kind of financing. Members of Your Littleton Your Vote scoff at that notion, citing numerous projects in the city that are proceeding or have just been completed without city council subsidies.

There are 11, according to Bingham, including Littleton Village, a 77-acre retail complex on the site of the old Marathon Oil structure at 7700 S. Broadway; the Breckenridge Brewery at 6775 S. Santa Fe Drive; apartment complexes along County Line Road near Santa Fe and and another at W. Mineral Avenue and Platte Canyon Road; and a new dealership built by McDonald Automotive at 6500 S. Broadway.

Since an ordinance can’t be retroactive, will it stop the four projects the Littleton city council already plans to subsidize? According to Clark, it won’t stop the two that have used condemnation but don’t involve tax increment financing, but might stop the other two, which have to return to city council for approval of the tax increment financing plan.

Clark noted the city earlier passed a resolution saying it wouldn’t pass an urban renewal plan that had condemnation in it but then went ahead and used it anyway. “The sad matter is, if government doesn’t want to follow the law, it is very difficult to force them to do it,” he said.

The citizens’ group is getting a little help from Arapahoe County, which is in binding arbitration over what it says are urban renewal plans that don’t comply with the law.

But the county is also in court over the city’s effort to exercise eminent domain over 100 acres of agricultural land for one of the projects, The legislature made it harder to do that five years ago. After all, urban renewal land is supposed to be “blighted” and it’s difficult to argue that cropland is blighted.

The law requires that taxing entities that stand to lose income because of tax increment financing on farm land have to sign off on new projects. The school district, the parks and recreation district and the urban drainage district did; the county did not.

Counties and special districts historically have not gotten that much involved in tax increment financing projects even though the projects cost them property tax revenue. It is to Arapahoe County’s credit that it is taking a stand here.

Meanwhile the legislature is likely to try again to bring at least modest restraint to the process. A bill last year would have put a token county official on urban renewal authority boards and, more to the point, would have required  the percentage of property tax increment not exceed the sales tax increment. It was vetoed by Gov. John Hickenlooper. He’s not likely to be more tolerant of reform this year. 

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes twice a month for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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