Just a month ago, after listening as Mike Matthes briefed his City Council bosses on his plan to finance downtown infrastructure improvements with tax-increment financing, I wrote in praise of his political skills.
Monday night he (and we) learned that, like a Democrat in the Missouri legislature, he didn’t have the votes.
I gave Mike and his right-hand man, Tony St. Romaine, a day to lick their wounds before bothering them with two questions: Was the council rejection a surprise? What now?
Separately, they agreed that the 5-2 vote against pursuing TIF found them, in Mike’s words, “not overwhelmingly surprised.” Both noted that several council members — most vociferously Karl Skala, but also Ian Thomas and Barbara Hoppe — had publicly expressed doubts if not outright opposition.
I was surprised that only Michael Trapp joined Mayor Bob McDavid in supporting the proposal. In retrospect, I overestimated the appeal of a device that would have used the increased tax revenue from new development to pay for the necessary sewer, water and electricity upgrades and underestimated the influence of a strongly negative reaction from the vocal segment of the public.
Council members’ objections ranged from the recurring question of whether developers are paying their fair share of the costs they impose on the existing community to problems of process, especially what Ian Thomas and others saw as a lack of public involvement.
As Andrew Brown reported in Thursday’s Missourian, alternatives to TIF are already being floated. All would take a piecemeal approach to addressing the array of immediate needs. All present problems of their own. None is likely to be implemented as quickly as the TIF would have been.
Robert Hollis, an attorney who represents several developers with plans on hold, told the council Monday that he and his clients are agnostic as to TIF. They just want the capacity problem solved quickly.
He made no threats of withdrawal, but Mike Matthes told me Wednesday that he heard from the three biggest developers before Monday’s meeting that unless a solution was agreed to, they would pull out.
After Ian and I missed connections by phone, he sent me a pair of statements that outline both his objections to TIF and his proposal for moving ahead. It’s the most detailed I’ve seen.
He wants to move quickly to implement three strategies endorsed in the city’s most recent comprehensive plan: neighborhood planning, a change from the current anything-goes zoning downtown and creation of a plan for “fiscally sustainable growth.”
He also proposes creation of a “Downtown Infrastructure Capacity Deficit Task Force,” including city staff, developers and council members, to fill what he and others see as a deficit of hard information and to devise a better plan.
There’s a kind of irony in the current stalemate. A year ago, her colleagues refused to go along with Barbara Hoppe’s attempt to impose a six-month moratorium on downtown development.
By their action Monday night, they pretty well guaranteed that the de facto moratorium now in effect won’t be lifted soon. Ian’s proposal, which I’m sure will be one of many, envisions a timeline of six to nine months for implementation.
A guy with ties to the developers suggested to me another complication. Several influential owners of downtown property already occupied are quietly lobbying to delay or prevent the approval of more competition, he said.
Reflecting, at my request, on Monday night’s defeat, Mike Matthes was philosophical. He didn’t take it personally, he said, adding, “In a way, the outcome highlights our form of government.”
I thought I detected a note of insincerity, but that may have been my imagination.
In any case, he said, “We won’t cry in our beer too long. We’ll get started looking for those alternatives.”
Of course, the alternatives suggested by council members so far — drawing down cash reserves, delaying projects promised in last fall’s sewer bond issue, raising impact fees, taking another bond issue to the voters — appear to be the very ones he and the mayor have already studied and found inadequate.
I’m reminded of the curse variously attributed to the Irish and the Chinese: “May you live in interesting times.”
After this week, interesting times are surely upon us.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.