EDITORIAL: A worthy development at risk by past TIF excesses

Those big birds seen in Port Washington last week were not just the white pelicans that fascinated birdwatchers at the harbor. Some were chickens that had come home to roost in the city’s TIF-funded henhouse.

There were sightings at the June 4 Common Council meeting of the unintended consequences of the city’s profligate use of tax incremental financing to reward developers.

The council was asked at that meeting to create a TIF district to support a development that almost perfectly matches the profile for this type of taxpayer subsidy, yet doubts were voiced on the grounds that the city has overspent in TIF funding, to the detriment of taxpayers.

The development is the proposed conversion of St. Mary’s Catholic School into an apartment complex. This is a worthy project that will turn a potential blight into an asset for the city and clearly qualifies to be facilitated by TIF funding.

Even so, the request was met with this comment by Ald. Deb Postl: “I know there’s a certain level of sentimentality with St Mary’s. But I don’t believe the city can afford any more deferred revenue plans. We have budget challenges.”

The statement was a minority opinion; some of the other aldermen expressed support for creating the TIF district, and it is likely the city will find a way to do it. Still, Postl hit the issue spot-on. Port Washington’s ability to support needed new projects through tax incremental financing is hampered by the fact that it will have to meet its spending needs for many years without tax revenue from a number of developments it has already gifted—dubiously— with TIF funding.

Wisconsin statutes allow municipalities to set up TIF districts in which they can issue bonds to finance private developments and use the tax revenue from the projects to repay the loans. However, until the bonds are retired, in some cases after 20 years or more, none of the new tax revenue can be used for municipal services and other operating needs.

The TIF legislation was intended to give cities and villages the means to improve blighted areas or make developments that wouldn’t happen without this type of funding possible.

But the City of Port Washington in recent years, like a number of other Wisconsin municipalities, has stretched TIF criteria to accommodate developers that had the means to finance the projects on prime, high-value land without taxpayer help.

Now comes the Port Washington-based real estate company Ansay Development Corp. with a plan to create about 30 apartments in the vast school building overlooking the downtown from St. Mary’s Hill.

There is ample potential for business success here, but nonetheless it is a daunting challenge for a developer, one unlikely to be taken on without TIF support. The 103-year-old building, which closed its doors as a school for the last time June 7, is a prime candidate to deteriorate into a blighted state without the renovations envisioned in the Ansay plan.

Besides forestalling the possibility of a dilapidated building sitting incongruously beside the city’s most famous edifice, the dramatic gothic-design St. Mary’s Church, the apartment plan would put the school property on the tax roll for the first time, to the tune of a valuation in excess of $3.5 million. The remodeled building and, judging from Ansay’s drawings, attractively landscaped grounds would be a magnet for new residents, adding the vitality of a growing central-city population. It is the model of a TIF-worthy development.

The current Common Council would have been in a much better position to help make this needed project happen by granting TIF support if preceding councils had not been so generous with developments that would likely have gone ahead without taxpayer subsidies.

This should serve as a lesson learned, but not at the expense of the Ansay-St. Mary’s project, which deserves adequate TIF financing.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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