Are We Seeing The Sunset Of Tax Increment Financing Abuses In Missoula?

by Travis Mateer

I really didn’t think I’d be standing where I was standing minutes before recording a short video clip outside the Capitol building in Helena, which the still image above is taken from. Why? Because I had written off the knowledgeable conservatives who aligned with the motley crew I was a part of during the great TIF uprising of 2019/2020.

Thankfully I was wrong to write off people like Jesse Ramos and Greg Hertz, because HB 523 exists, and yesterday I waited for over two hours to take my 90 second shot at the Local Government Committee’s hearing of this lovely piece of legislation.

Before getting to the testimony I provided the committee, I should point out this bill, if it makes it out of committee, still has a ways to go if it’s going to survive the session and become law, but the mere fact it exists is a victory everyone involved in the documentary Engen’s Missoula can take a moment to appreciate.

And we DID have plenty of moments to marvel at the surreal assemblage of people killing time in the small waiting area outside the hearing room. The former Superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, Rob Watson, was there in his new capacity as the Executive Director of the School Administrators of Montana, and OF COURSE Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, was there.

Another person I took note of is Emily Bentley/Brock, a local official who was eager to push the Fairgrounds into a TIF generating Urban Renewal District in 2017. From the link:

Missoula’s Urban Renewal District III Tax Increment Financing (T.I.F.) District has grown over the years and now includes Southgate Mall and a pedestrian bridge over Reserve Street. Missoula County Fairgrounds Director Emily Bentley believes it is time for that district to grow again.

“The fairgrounds is now excluded from URD III, which is the Urban Renewal T.I.F. district in midtown and we would like to be included in the T.I.F. District. We are embarking on a major redevelopment here at the fairgrounds and the county has allocated money to do that, we would like the city and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to be a partner.”

This is good context to have when considering the trajectory of Emily B’s rise, which can be challenging to track when different last names bring up different results in the search engine. Here is the promotion Emily got in 2021 (emphasis mine):

Missoula County intends to hire fairgrounds director Emily Brock for a newly created position called the director of lands and economic development.

The county commissioners discussed the transition on Thursday with county chief administrative officer Chris Lounsbury.

Not all the details are worked out yet, but Brock will continue to oversee the fairgrounds. Essentially, she’ll combine her current position with new duties that include overseeing special economic development districts in the county.

Has Emily Bentley/Brock prepared for the rainy day that’s coming if this economic tool can’t be abused anymore? Possibly YES, if the purple umbrella is any indication.

An umbrella is a good tool to use when it’s raining, and using the appropriate tool is what my TIF testimony was all about. Here it is:

For a tool to be effective you need to select the right tool for the job. If you’re fixing a flat tire, for example, grabbing a sledgehammer would be a waste of time.

Tax Increment Financing, the supporters say, is not only a great tool to incentivize development within Urban Renewal Districts, it is one of the ONLY tools they have to work with. That’s how these supporters are going to justify using TIF like a Swiss Army Knife, claiming the additional functions added to its little red core are not only beneficial, but necessary to keep aiding and abetting development in Missoula.

Tax Increment Financing, as it’s being used in 2023, is no longer just a tool to incentivize private sector economic development. By creatively interpreting and applying the various criteria for what constitutes “blight”, TIF has become an economic time-bomb, weakening a municipal general fund already riddled by mill levies and other financial shenanigans. When the pandemic came along and blew the lid off our city’s lack of sound financial policies, the reaction was NOT a halt on TIF schemes, but a full-throated threat to expand the program into new areas, like land acquisitions and the development of workforce housing.

What do you do when a toddler grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen counter? Do you quibble about the intended function of this sharp kitchen tool, or do you take immediate action to remove it from the human hands wielding it in a harmful manner? I am here today giving testimony because the citizens of Missoula need YOU to be the adults in the room, and this legislation provides concrete restraints on the hands that have acted recklessly for far too long, creating a laundry list of examples I don’t have time to get into today.

Thank you for your time.

And here’s the video clip:

On my way out of town, with a REAL sunset making impressive colors in the sky, I listened to the live feed featuring information witnesses getting grilled by the committee chair on how TIF is being abused across the state. It almost sounded like a criminal trial. I think it’s safe to say this bill is going to have a decent chance of becoming law.

If that happens I don’t want to take the credit because the credit SHOULD go to our former Mayor, John Engen, the greedy developer, Nick Checota, and Ellen Buchanan because without their hands liberally using the TIF tool with reckless abandon, yesterday would have never happened.

If you would like to support my efforts, I’m expanding the methods to do so by launching my own TIF (Travis’ Impact Fund), getting a Patreon account going (more on that later this week), and continuing to encourage the use of my donation button, which can be found at my about page.

Thank you for supporting independent journalist, and stay tuned, because there is SO MUCH MORE to come!

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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