A New Direction For The Missoula Redevelopment Agency?

by Travis Mateer

Because Republicans at the state level did NOTHING to address how “blight” is defined–the determining factor driving the use of Tax Increment Financing–the Missoula Redevelopment Agency is up to some new shenanigans.

The confusing reporting from the Missoula Current begins with the title of the article: City Council targets MRA for changes; strays from economic development to housing and daycare. From the link:

Members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday tightened their grip around the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, introducing a resolution that would limit the amount of tax increment available within the city’s urban renewal districts.

The resolution would also appoint new ex-officio members from three large taxing jurisdictions and ensure all MRA projects are “consistent” with the goals of the city around infrastructure and housing. Supporters also added daycare as new priority worthy of MRA funding.

The language of this report is interesting. City Council is TARGETING the Missoula Redevelopment Agency in order to TIGHTEN THEIR GRIP on how public money can be used. But is the language accurately representing what is actually happening? Because it sounds to me like the potential uses of TIF is EXPANDING to include things that have nothing to do with blight, like daycare.

Here’s more from the article:

The resolution doesn’t mention job creation or economic development, and it marks a dramatic shift in the program’s original approach to boosting the local economy.

“This really gets to how we’re going to benefit the community,” said resolution co-sponsor Gwen Jones. “Our MRA has been investing in affordable housing for decades. This isn’t new.”

If Gwen Jones is a co-sponsor of this shift in the use of TIF, then Missoula citizens should REALLY be paying attention, especially considering how Jones got herself installed as the chair of the Finance Committee at the beginning of 2020.

The propaganda value of this Missoula Current reporting can be found in the depiction of criticism, which exists, says the Current, but no one is directly quoted. Instead of including the perspective of a TIF critic, like City Council member Jesse Ramos, we get this:

Advocates suggest the changes will strengthen the way the city allocates TIF funding and resources, though skeptics remain critical, seeing it as a sudden shift away from projects that create jobs and provide a return on the city’s taxable value.

Who are the skeptics? The article doesn’t say, though I guess it’s nice that Martin Kidston included the fact the unnamed critics “remain critical”.

I think our illuminated braintrust is hoping, with the help of propaganda like this article, that Missoula citizens will be bamboozled by the notion that the use of TIF is being restricted in some new way. But is it?

The resolution covers three policy areas, including a limitation on the amount of TIF available within the city’s six urban renewal districts. It would also ensure comments from all taxing jurisdictions are “considered” as part of MRA decisions.

Is limiting the amount of TIF available within URDs a way of appeasing those angry citizen that rose up in outrage at the end of 2019 as Missoula was poised to give Nick Checota over 16 million dollars for a convention center? I’m sure that’s the impression MRA is hoping we take away from this, but I suspect something else is afoot, like merging County redevelopment efforts with City ones. That’s the reason, I believe, for changes to who is appointed to MRA’s board.

The resolution would appoint the chair of the City Council’s own Administration and Finance Committee to the MRA board, along with a representative from Missoula County and Missoula County Public Schools, the latter representing the single largest portion of a property owner’s tax bill.

“This is an area where we’ve done a lot of work, and there’s a good opportunity to formalize those relationships,” said city CAO Dale Bickell. “It would ensure comments from local taxing jurisdictions are part of comments around MRA deliberations.”

One thing I can safely say is that our illuminated braintrust doesn’t give two shits about public comments, so ensuring comments from local taxing jurisdictions is NOT the goal of this resolution; the “formalizing” of relationships is.

While I don’t think “caring” what the public thinks is a big priority, our illuminated braintrust is definitely AWARE of how criticism can derail their gentrification dreams, which is why they are shifting TIF in a new direction. This is explicitly stated in the article:

Throughout its history, tax increment has in principle recognized areas of the city in need of redevelopment, including those with a stagnant or declining tax base. The incentives offered by TIF were intended to fuel private investment, which in effect lifts taxable values and grows the city’s general fund once a TIF district expires.

City Council members once described it as one of the most powerful economic development tools available to municipalities in Montana. But the changes appear to take a different tact, inspired by what some on City Council described as targeted opposition to the program in general.

I added the emphasis because this blog has been a big part of that TARGETED OPPOSITION and will continue to be, regardless of changes and tweaks to the Engen slush fund.

My position is TIF should be ABOLISHED. No more slush fund for ANY politician or pet project. Let ALL the Urban Renewal Districts sunset and return the millions and millions of taxable skim to the general fund where it belongs.

The daycare fig leaf being developed here is something I’m very curious about because daycare seems like a major deviation from how the state of Montana directs the use of TIF. But using TIF for daycare DOES align quite conveniently with the ZERO TO FIVE ambitions of the United Way, where Missoula County School Board Member and zero to five coordinator, Grace Decker, works.

Isn’t that nice?

I hope this new direction for MRA is something our municipal candidates are paying attention to. It’s a big deal, and propagandists like Martin Kidston aren’t going to be reporting honestly on the power dynamics at play, so read his rag with discerning eyes.

And keep tuning in here, because I’m not shy about calling it how I see it.

Thanks for reading.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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2 Responses to A New Direction For The Missoula Redevelopment Agency?

  1. TC says:

    After even a cursory review of MT State Code 7-15-42 it would appear that the City/MRA are stretching the legal bounds of Urban Renewal/TIF. It will take semantic magic to equate daycare and blight. Additionally, it would be assumed that TIF funds will largely be funneled to non-profits to provide housing/daycare. This will result in no future “increment” to be returned to the General Fund; rather it is direct transfer of Public funds to Private coffers. Finally, since the MRA can place one of these heartwarming projects in each district they can also extend out the Sunset date at least 15 additional years in each. Therefore it is unlikely that the General fund will see any money from our mass gentrification for 2 decades or more.
    The only relief from TIF will have to come from the Legislature; they will have to save Missoula from itself. Time to start reaching out to legislators to take action

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