Let’s right-size Thomas Street
Federal officials notified the City of Wausau several months back that they would not participate in funding a project to reconstruct Thomas Street because the city failed to follow the correct standards when it began purchasing property for the project. That’s a huge problem with a project that could range up to $15 million, but it also provides a chance to re-evaluate the whole premise and purpose of the Thomas Street project. In so doing, the city has the opportunity capture some real advantages:
- Instead of replacing the existing 2-lane street with a high-capacity (and inevitably higher speed) 4 or 5 lane roadway, the city can take a look at a safe, calm, neighborhood-friendly design that incorporates turning lanes to facilitate traffic flow, but doesn’t slice through with a 17th Avenue-style upgrade that would forever fragment that area.
- Instead of spending $9 million buying private property and reducing the tax base under the guise of an “economic development” project, tax base can be preserved. While there is significant blight along that stretch, part of that problem certainly stems from property owners spending the better part of a decade in limbo. With the potential road project hanging over their heads, they couldn’t sell their property very easily and many couldn’t see their way clear to make substantial improvements or even moderate maintenance outlays.
- With a new, right-sized plan, the city will have the opportunity to regain federal participation and that’s a very important component in a project of this magnitude. Replacing federal funds with local taxes is a losing proposition and it should be avoided to the greatest extent possible, but that’s what insisting on forging ahead with the same plan would necessarily mean.
Take a look at this website about right-sizing to get an idea about what such an effort might encompass and keep in mind that not only can we have a far more attractive and functional piece of infrastructure, but we can do it for many millions of dollars less than the present plan anticipates. This will immediately lower the bar for the level of private investment required to make it all work:
Thomas Street is in serious need of reconstruction and safety enhancements, but it’s not the city’s job to build a speedway to the Rib Mountain commercial district. Importantly, such a roadway will still be constricted by the two-lane bridge over the Wisconsin River for years to come. The city would be using up more of its capacity on a project that has limited potential to build significant positive value in the tax base for the foreseeable future in relation to its cost. Simply put, the interests of promoting “though” traffic can easily be at odds with the interests of neighborhoods (“to” traffic.) Tax increment financing, on the other hand, is all about building value within a district.
Starting out with the removal of millions of dollars in tax base and no near-term prospects for significant new development, a big, wide Thomas Street would be subsidized mostly by unrelated developments far from the street’s project area and almost certainly a good dose of general revenues, too. Under the prevailing limitations on property taxes, we could easily end up making substantial sacrifices to fund the project. An important additional risk is the potential erosion of taxpayer confidence in the tax increment financing process itself if projects are not thoughtfully advanced with attention to producing sufficient revenue streams of new property taxes from private development that would not otherwise have occurred “but for” the public investments being made via the TIF. (My rule of thumb when I was working with such districts was that I was looking for a net of at least four dollars worth of taxable, private investment for every one dollar of public investment on an overall basis.)
Compare such an outcome with what the specific TIF plan amendment involved states as a couple of its objectives:
- Reduce the financial risk to the taxpayer by timing the implementation of the Project Plan with the creation of additional property value through business expansions. (Are you seeing that?)
- Generate new property tax increments within a reasonable time from each specific development project within the TIF District to fully repay the City’s TIF project expenditures associated with the development project. (What do you think the chances are for that?)
You can look at the TIF Plan amendment here and decide if either is likely to happen:
It’s therefore a good time to be more innovative and cost-efficient, while trying to gain far greater leverage from whatever local dollars we need to invest to create better overall conditions for economic development. And that, after all, is what TIF districts are about.