“Wha’eva, I Do What I Want”: The DED Goes Off the Reservation
I thought that the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) could sink no further. After all, the agency recently awarded tax credits to a man who pleaded guilty to passing bad checks, and has been scolded by the State Auditor’s Office for (perhaps accidentally) pulling numbers out of thin air that happen to overstate the economic benefits of a particular tax credit project.
But the DED has outdone even itself. This week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the agency had awarded $8 million to a redevelopment project that a court judge has ruled no longer exists.
NorthSide Regeneration LLC, the company behind an enormous and ambitious project slated to occur in north Saint Louis, received the $8 million. However, the tax credits that the DED awarded must be tied, according to state statute, to a “redevelopment agreement.”
State statute specifies that such a redevelopment agreement exists only when a city has selected a developer (in this case, NorthSide), by passing an ordinance to award additional local tax incentives to the company. Unfortunately for the NorthSide company, although city alderman passed such an agreement, it was thrown out by a judge in July — so, according to the statute, NorthSide simply isn’t entitled to the money. The judge, in his ruling, stated:
FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that defendants [including NorthSide and the city of Saint Louis], their officers, agents, employees, and all persons acting in concert with them with notice of this Order and Judgment be and they are hereby permanently restrained and enjoined from implementing Ordinances 68484 and 68485 [the city ordinances that authorized the redevelopment agreement] of the City of St. Louis, including but not limited to implementing any special allocation fund pursuant to said ordinances, transferring revenues to or from any fund pursuant to said ordinances, or otherwise taking action under said ordinances.
I find these lines from the Post-Dispatch to be sadly amusing:
The credits, which come on top of $20 million the developer received in 2009, were authorized under the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage program. Economic development officials said that after McKee met all the law’s requirements, they had no choice but to issue the credits.
“We have to abide by the statute as it stands and as it stands, there are no safeguards for taxpayers,” said agency spokesman John Fougere. “We thought it was very important to demand the protections we secured in this agreement.”
Of course, what Fougere fails to mention is that one easy way of safeguarding Missouri taxpayers is not to award $8 million to a redevelopment agreement that has been thrown out by the court. Instead, the department awarded the tax credits, but with a specification that if a court were to throw out the redevelopment agreement again, the company has to give back the money.
In essence, the DED has awarded NorthSide an interest-free loan, just in case the company manages to prevail in court at some point in the future. I admit that I am flabbergasted as to why the DED would do this. Surely, DED employees wouldn’t ignore their statutory obligations?
A possible reason is that because NorthSide is in the process of appealing this ruling, the DED viewed the judge’s ruling as not final — it could be overturned. However, it is strange that the DED, especially in light of recent public scrutiny, would not take the more prudent course of awaiting the result of the appeal before awarding tax credits.
Not only does Missouri desperately need a thorough, critical review of tax credit programs in general, it is clear that the workings of the DED need to be examined. This agency awards hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and is neglecting its duty to safeguard taxpayer money.