Lake Ozark Area Going in the Wrong Direction with Transportation Funding
It is disappointing to read that Lake Ozark leaders want to address legitimate road issues along the heavily used Bagnell Dam and Valley roads with a new transportation development district (TDD). There are many better ways to fund roads in Missouri, including tolling, gas taxes, and property taxes. Another sales tax-based special taxing district is not what the Lake of the Ozarks needs.
A recent state audit of TDDs highlights the problems with these districts. Five of the twelve TDDs mentioned in the report collected incorrect tax amounts. I’ll let you guess as to whether they collected more or less than authorized. (Hint—it was more.) Statewide, 92 percent of TDDs have been formed by developers and were not subject to any votes or public involvement. Not surprisingly, when you allow private developers to raise tax dollars for private purposes (like improved parking lots for their own developments) they are going to act like it is private money, not tax money, and often spend it improperly. Audits on these types of special taxing districts by state auditors of both political parties have consistently found that they frequently violate the Sunshine Law, do not competitively bid out contracts, make errors in tax collections, and more. They are designed in the first place to act like fiefdoms, with little oversight of the tax dollars being collected and spent for private purposes by the developers that almost always dominate the board. The problems with these districts are, in fact, so consistent that they must be considered a feature, not a bug.
This proposed TDD will require voter approval in the April 2021 elections. Seeking voter approval here is, obviously, a good choice. However, only voters who live within the TDD itself can vote on the proposal, not all Lake Ozark voters. I would expect the district to be gerrymandered until it looks like the lake itself in order to limit voter participation and help guarantee passage of the TDD. That is the prior experience in Missouri.
In a news story on the new TDD, supporters cite the “high quality of roads within the Horseshoe Bend Special Taxing District” as an example of why the TDD would be beneficial. The high quality of roads in that district may well be true, but Horseshoe Bend is not a TDD—it is a traditional, property tax-based special road district. The distinctions are important. Special road districts like Horseshoe Bend are subject to voter input, property tax rollback mandates (when assessed valuation increases), and much more comprehensive budgeting and financial reporting requirements. If Lake Ozark residents want better roads along with oversight, transparency, checks, and balances, the creation of a taxing district like Horseshoe Bend is a legitimate option. Other good options include passing a local gas tax to pay for the road improvements or simply raising city or county property taxes to fund the road improvements.
Honesty demands that I admit the Lake Ozark Community Toll Bridge is a TDD and has been successful for the community. In this case, the tolls collected pay for the bonds that built the bridge, and most importantly, the act of driving is connected to the cost of driving. Sales tax TDDs, such as this proposal, do not have that connection.
If people want a new taxing district with questionable dealings, little oversight, and limited voter involvement, then a TDD is the way to go. While Marty Byrde might approve of that, I trust the rest of the residents and taxpayers of the Lake Ozark region do not.