Boonville TIF: A Slippery Slope
One of the first lessons I learned growing up in Boonville was to say what I mean and mean what I say. Unfortunately, the economic development consultants pushing tax-increment financing (TIF) deals don’t seem to have learned the same lesson.
The City of Boonville is considering awarding a $40 million TIF to subsidize the development of 400 homes on the land between the Hail Ridge Golf Course and the city’s airport. Before city officials move any further with the proposal, it’s time to take a closer look at the proposed redevelopment plan.
To qualify for a TIF, state law requires a few conditions be met. For an area to be eligible, it must meet the qualifications to be declared blighted, be a conservation area, or be an economic development area. In Boonville’s case, they have decided to classify it for the TIF as a conservation area. No, not like the wildlife refuge at the Overton Bottoms; for TIF the term has a different meaning. Here’s what the developer means by conservation area and why it applies to the land in question:
Fifty percent or more of the structures within the Area are thirty-five years or older, and, while not yet blighted, are detrimental to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare.
This farmland is detrimental to public health, safety, morals, or welfare of Boonville? Really? If the area next to the city’s golf course meets this definition, what plot of land in Cooper County wouldn’t?
Next, the developers need to pass the “but-for” test, which is supposed to demonstrate that such a project could not happen “but-for” the proposed taxpayer assistance. In the case of the currently proposed TIF, the developers say the following:
the declining condition of improvements within the Area provides evidence that, on the whole, the Area has not been subject to growth and development through private investment and would not reasonably be anticipated to be developed without the implementation of this Plan and Project represented by the concept herein.
In other words, without explaining why it’s needed, the developers are saying that the farmland is in such bad shape that no private investor would be willing to take on any project in the area, and that the recent lack of investment justifies the taxpayer expense their proposal entails.
Looking around Boonville, it’s easy to see that these claims are baseless. In the past few years alone, several residential subdivisions have been developed on similar land without the need for tax subsidies. The expansion of Holliday Hills, Legends West, and the proposed Boone Point subdivisions are a few that immediately come to mind.
Boonville is certainly not the first place urban planners and their economic development consultants have pushed these ridiculous claims to get taxpayer assistance, but they’ll keep doing it as long as cities keep rewarding them by approving their requests. What were originally meant to be tests to limit the use of TIF to areas in serious need have turned into nothing more than a rubber stamp. In fact, I can’t find a single Missouri TIF proposal that has failed its “but-for” test, and I can only find one case where a “blight” designation was successfully challenged.
While playing fast and loose with state-defined TIF terms may have fooled Missouri’s local officials in the past, there should be no excuse to make the same mistakes going forward. Approving a project with these glaring issues would set a bad precedent for Boonville and put the city on a slippery slope toward approving even worse proposals in the future. Words should still have meaning, and the best way to ensure they do would be for Boonville to resoundingly reject the $40 million TIF proposal.