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Columbia's consultant paints bleak image of central Columbia

Thursday, July 3, 2014 | 10:34 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Months after the Columbia City Council shot down the idea of developing a tax increment financing district in the central city, Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine has released a consultant's analysis that declares the area a "menace" to public health, safety and welfare.

The report, which cost $60,000 and was done by St. Louis-based Development Strategies, describes and documents conditions in the central city. It argues that without a tax-increment financing district the area will continue to erode and "continue its economic liability for the City of Columbia, its residents, and the taxing districts that depend upon it as a revenue source," principal consultant Larry Marks wrote in the report.

St. Romaine said the report he released remains a preliminary draft.

The subject area of the analysis, referred to in the report as the Central Columbia TIF Redevelopment Area, encompasses about 577 acres. The area is generally bordered by Interstate 70 on the north, Bowling Street and College Avenue on the east, MU on the south and Providence Road on the west.

The redevelopment area’s existing conditions meet the state definition of a “conservation area,” which is defined as an area where 50 percent or more of the structures are 35 years or older. Of the 1,166 structures in the redevelopment area, 82 percent are 35 years or older.

Under state statutes, the designation of a conservation area allows for the use of tax-increment financing.

“As a result of these conservation area factors, the area is an economic and social liability and is detrimental to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare to the City of Columbia,” Marks wrote.

The redevelopment area, the report says, suffers from a multitude of deficiencies, including:

  • Obsolete structures and commercially zoned properties that because of their irregular shape or small size will likely never be developed.
  • Deteriorating buildings, property, streets and sidewalks. Of the area's 1,166 buildings, 97 percent were found to have some level of deterioration, and 51 percent were determined to require significant rehabilitation.
  • Structures that fail to meet zoning standards.
  • Excessive numbers of vacant properties.
  • Inadequate utilities.
  • Poor land use or layout, resulting in development that is incompatible with heavily traveled roads serving the area.
  • Lack of maintenance on some streets, sidewalks and buildings.
  • Lack of community planning that has resulted in haphazard development not conducive with planning standards and the desires and goals of the city.

The report argues these deficiencies are a detriment to the central city in numerous ways, including:

  • Lower growth in assessed value for the vast majority of properties compared to the rest of Columbia.
  • Safety concerns resulting from dangerous traffic, vacant property, old buildings and lack of adequate sidewalks.
  • Increased crime in the area compared to other residential areas.
  • Inadequate tax generation, which has a negative impact on Columbia's general welfare.

Improving water, sewer and electric infrastructure with money raised from a tax-increment financing district would help the area contribute to the city's economy in a manner more proportionate to its size and potential, the report states.

"Without access to the powers of redevelopment under the TIF Act, the area will continue to be economically underutilized and fail to produce fiscal and economic benefits essential to sustain a vital city," according to the report.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said statements in the report about the central city being an economic liability are "outrageous."

"Most of us are working very hard to try to make this an economically viable place to live," he said. "That language, to me, is offensive."

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said the report makes a "decent case" that there is a need for both public and private infrastructure investments in the area. He said it's clear the central city qualifies as an improvement area, he said.

The report divides the redevelopment area into three parts. RPA-1 encompasses downtown, while RPA-2 is immediately to the north and stretches to Business Loop 70. RPA-3 is just north of Business Loop 70.

The report offers a cost-benefit analysis for RPA-1 that breaks down the revenue a tax-increment financing district might generate. A tax-increment financing district would have raised $37.6 million over 23 years, according to the cost-benefit analysis.

The report does not contain those analyses for RPA-2 and RPA-3, which it stated were the worst areas in terms of vacant properties and deteriorating conditions.

Development Strategies did not get to complete the analyses for RPA-2 and RPA-3 after the city dismissed the idea of establishing a tax-increment financing district, St. Romaine said. The city had the consultant focus on RPA-1 because it is the "downtown core" area where a majority of projects had been planned, he said.

St. Romaine said he did not know if the conditions in RPA-1 alone met the classifications for a conservation area.

“You probably need at least RPA-2 and RPA-3 to classify it as a conservation area," he said. "There are less parcels and less buildings in RPA-1. Most of the density is in RPA-2 and RPA-3."

St. Romaine said that while the report is incomplete, the cost-benefit analysis section of it "proves the point" that the city could structure a tax-increment financing district in a way that ensures that other taxing jurisdictions, such as Boone County and Columbia Public Schools, wouldn't suffer tax revenue losses over the long term.

St. Romaine said he would like the city to consider a more limited tax-increment financing district in the future.

"We thought, and we still think, that this discussion at some point would be an idea that we could eventually consider again on a much smaller scale," St. Romaine said.

St. Romaine said a pending lawsuit filed by Boone County Counselor C.J. Dykhouse might prevent the city from approving a tax-increment financing district in the future. He said that there most likely will not be another TIF discussion for at least five years.

City staff originally planned for the report, which is dated February 2014, to be completed for a TIF Commission meeting in February, St. Romaine said. After the City Council voted 5-2 against a downtown tax-increment financing district on Feb. 18, the city put the report on hold, he said.

There was a delay in the report's release because completing it became less of a priority than finding ways to pay for downtown projects, St. Romaine said.

At its June 16 meeting, the City Council took steps to address infrastructure needs without tax-increment financing. It approved money for a new power line from the Rebel Hill substation to downtown and asked that city staff draft legislation to pay for the Flat Branch relief sewer projects.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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Comments

Mike Martin July 4, 2014 | 7:23 a.m.

Please folks -- and reporter -- READ the consultant's report. Don't rely on Tony St. Romaine, one of the least forthright of city administrators and the "go to" guy on TIF.

Not only is the report "outrageous," as Councilman Skala says -- it's inaccurate; self-contradictory; poorly-researched; and has findings that don't support its conclusions:

"NO buildings in the Redevelopment Area were found to be dilapidated.

"NO buildings in the Redevelopment Area were found to be obsolescent.

"The December 2013 and January 2014 surveys of the Redevelopment Area found NO signs of illegal use of individual structures.

"NO properties in the Redevelopment Area were found to be abandoned.

"NO properties in the Redevelopment Area exhibited overcrowding.

"NO properties in the Redevelopment Area were found to lack adequate light, ventilation, or sanitary facilities.

"NO properties in the Redevelopment Area were found to lack adequate light, ventilation, or sanitary facilities."

And yet, the area is a "menace to Public Health, Safety, Morals or Welfare." Ridiculous!

What did they find? Mostly issues that might upset a developer.

"193 parcels (31%) in the Redevelopment Area are commercially zoned and are less than 7,000 square feet in size. Due to the insufficient size, it is unlikely that these parcels will be developed."

"Seven (7) parcels within the Redevelopment Area are irregularly shaped and inefficient to utilize for modern commercial development."

The report also cites issues that apply to many parts of the city, including the Old Southwest. "On the whole, the stock of buildings in the Redevelopment Area is quite old." Big deal!

Among the report's major flaws is a lack of onsite visits and interior examinations. Drive-by photos of building exteriors from the street don't tell much.

They don't tell, for instance, if the plumbing and electrical has been updated (most has); or the condition of walls, floors, appliances, ceilings, doors, roof, etc.

Lacking access to the properties, the consultant instead focused on minor exterior issues:

"Many parking lots have only a gravel surface."

"Lack of, or deteriorated, fences and screening around outdoor storage areas."

"Poor landscaping."

Finally, out and out error.

"There are a total of 23 vacant structures in the Area, representing almost a third (29%) of all buildings."

"There are a total of 1,166 structures located within the Redevelopment Area."

23 vacant structures of 1,166 total is 2%, not 29%!

City Hall wasted $60,000 of our tax money on this bogus report, trying to get a result that would, in the words of the report, "provide access to the powers of redevelopment under the TIF Act."

Those powers include eminent domain and taxpayer handouts to private developers.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 4, 2014 | 8:36 a.m.

One must also wonder what a $60,000 survey and report would say if made by this same firm for each of our domestic cities having betweeen 100K-200K population (with or without a university).

Obviously, Columbia's problems ARE Columbia's problems, and need to be addressed by its citizens as such, but perhaps there needs to be some larger standard applied (that is, what's typical of other cities in this population class).

Also, what are those other cities doing about similar problems that might be of assistance going forward?

During my 23 years of living in Columbia and my much longer and continuing association with University of Missouri one constant seems to be there's a tendency to see problems and act on them as if they were the ONLY such situations in the entire United States. Don't we know by now that isn't so?

(Report Comment)

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