by William Skink
UPDATE: how MRA compensates the private sector seems more complicated than this post reflects, see comment section.
In yesterday’s post about the Mayor losing the narrative on TIF and the role of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency I used the Missoula Current as the source of Engen’s quotes, but in the Missoulian today more of what Engen said to the MRA board is being reported:
Engen said he hopes to launch some sort of public relations campaign to extoll the benefits of Tax Increment Financing.
“There is considerable noise around TIF and considerable misunderstanding in the community about what TIF does and the purpose and reason we have redevelopment districts,” he said. “We’re doing some work to help folks better understand that. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding that we’re just, we’re giving money to the private sector.”
Engen feels that isn’t true, and hopes to convince people otherwise.
“We’re producing some explainers that will help folks understand that we’re actually creating public infrastructure that supports private investment, that creates taxable value, that expands our base that allows us to levy fewer mills to tax individuals less and to get more done. This is a success story at the end of the day and I think we have an opportunity to share in that success,” he said.
A public relations campaign? Are you kidding me? What is that going to cost? And where will the money come from? Is the Mayor off the wagon?
I guess Mayor Engen doesn’t like that the public is starting to think critically about how MRA uses the tax revenue it siphons from Urban Renewal Districts. Instead of acknowledging that critics have legitimate concerns, it looks like Engen is going to take the linguistic smoke-screen route in an attempt to re-obfuscate what’s going on.
When Engen states that MRA doesn’t “give” money to the private sector, he’s technically correct because MRA is not cutting a check to the Marriott directly for a million plus dollars. But Engen’s perception management here is really just a linguistic shell game. If MRA wasn’t paying for things like sidewalk improvements, then the project would be on the hook for those costs because there are building codes and those can be enforced.
Saving the private sector these costs means the private sector makes more money on these projects. It is NOT a direct gift, but it IS tax money that goes to increasing the profitability of a project. Engen can try to pull a Bill Clinton by getting all shifty with defining what “give tax money to the private sector” means, but it’s not a strategy that’s likely to work.
I’m sure other aspects of this coming PR campaign will include explaining what the public gets in return for their TIF investment, things like nice sidewalks and no more above-ground electrical lines and jobs and more restaurants with dude’s who want to call South Broadway SoBro.
But other arguments may get omitted, like how none of these projects would happen without that sweet TIF infusion. Missoula is booming and trying to become Bozeman 2.0 with a slobbering, red-carpet roll-out for tech, and then there’s a chance the University is slowly turning the corner. With all this success, have Urban Renewal Districts done their job and now need to sunset?
Another thing I’ll mention before wrapping this post up is the conspicuous silence of MRA director, Ellen Buchanan. Last year, when Engen tapped the MRA piggy bank, Buchanan said she hoped it would be a one-off patching of the budget. I wonder if there’s some frustration that, feeling the political heat with an upcoming election, Mayor Engen is back this year for more so he can brag about mill levy voodoo and rainy day funds.
Missoula could have some interesting political developments this fall. Stay tuned.