Lessons Learned: the TIF vs. abatement fiasco (which maybe wasn't so bad after all)

On December 14, the Enquirer ran an editorial  I wrote titled City Rushing to Mystery Giveaways and I said it was a vote on ‘abatement’ when it was really a vote on ‘Tax Increment Financing,’ causing my knowledge of the subject to be questioned.
I was in Italy, which is where I was crying on the edge of my bed when I wrote this email to Cindi Andrews, Opinion Editor at the Enquirer three days later:
I am so sorry I got it wrong in the editorial on Sunday.  I shouldn’t have tried to understand the ordinances stuck in the middle of a 500 page agenda, jet-lagged and running out the door to a festival.  There’s no excuse.  I feel terrible that I reflected on your credibility.
Margy Waller heard my call and negotiated a compromise.  Yvette got public hearings written into both TIF approvals.  The public actually gets to talk with the developer and be a part of this process.
From my perspective, it was worth it.  I hope it was from yours as well.
Cindi answered me right away:
Eh, I ran it past Bow and Sherry, and even looked at the agenda myself, tho obviously not that closely.
And it certainly proves the “this is what happens when u rush things” point!

4 intelligent people, 3 of them respected journalists with decades of professional experience.  We all looked at the ordinances before the Enquirer published my editorial and we all got it wrong.

But if that’s the case, maybe the problem isn’t us.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from Katherine Durack’s attention to the Plain Language Act of 2010, it’s the importance of how documents are worded.

Let’s take a look at the standard language that appears in the summary section of City Council Online of a typical Community Reinvestment Area Tax Exemption.  These come through Council on a regular basis.

ORDINANCE submitted by Harry Black, City Manager, on 12/17/2014, approving and authorizing the City Manager to execute a Community Reinvestment Area LEED Tax Exemption Agreement with Gaslight Gardens, LLC, thereby authorizing a 15-year tax exemption for 100% of the value of the improvements made to real property located at 3224, 3250, 3234, 3238, 3240, 3242, and 3246 Whitfield Avenue in Cincinnati in connection with the construction of two apartment buildings totaling 117 residential units locat… 

Notice the details available without even clicking through to look at the complete text of the ordinance:  the name of the developer, time period of the exemption, percentage of exemption and exactly what is being developed.

Tax Increment Financing Districts are much more rare.  In the year I’d been looking at City Council votes, I’d never seen one before and probably would have missed this one altogether if a wonky friend hadn’t sent me an email.  Here’s the language included in the summary of this one:

ORDINANCE (EMERGENCY) submitted by Harry Black, City Manager, on 12/15/2014, declaring improvements to the real property located at 644 Linn Street, 801 W. Eighth Street, and 695 Gest Street in Queensgate to be a public purpose and exempt from real property taxation for a period of time. 

What’s fascinating here is the complete and utter lack of detail.  The words “Tax Increment Financing” never even appear in the summary.  Weeks after the vote, Council staff still couldn’t specify if this was a District or a Project.  The name of the TIF doesn’t appear until page 2 of the full ordinance:  Gateway West.  The Ordinance never names the owner of the property, although my notes show it to be Neyer Properties (not to be confused with Al. Neyer LLC).  There is no specified purpose.  No specified time period.  And yet it was an emergency to get this passed.

A few simple changes in the language of the Tax Increment Financing votes would go a long way to making it easier for the community to understand.  As it stands now, the wording gives the impression that the administration is being purposely obtuse, trying to slip ‘mystery giveaways’ onto the agenda at the last minute and avoid public scrutiny.

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: the TIF vs. abatement fiasco (which maybe wasn't so bad after all)

  1. Jay Kincaid

    Kathy — The problem with your conclusion is that the ordinance did indeed reference TIFs. You quoted only the summary of the ordinance that is included on the meeting agenda. The full ordinance which is titled “GATEWAY WEST PROJECT TIF ORDINANCE” is 4 pages long and makes multiple references to the TIF. That ordinance can be found at http://bit.ly/1KgwHPz. Also at that link is a copy of the transmittal from the Manager to Council that is titled “ESTABLISHING GATEWAY WEST PROJECT TIF.” That transmittal gives background on the project, an overview of the ordinance, and the Manager’s recommended action.

    You can find all of this information for every Council item by going to Cincinnati City Council Online. Here is the link – http://bit.ly/1Op01Jy.

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Hey, Jay – thanks for participating in the cincyopolis conversation. — When I went back and looked after the fact, of course I saw the Gateway West Project TIF references. — But is there any way we could make it a little easier to see the details in the synopsis that appears online, like they do with the CRAs? It’s a little change – but it could really help transparency. Because nobody is claiming the information is not there at all. But 3 journalists looked at it and didn’t see the distinction. These TIFs don’t happen every day. It would be nice if we could get the words ‘Tax Increment Financing’ in the online summary to make things very clear. And I have a dream that someday these votes might go on the agenda before Friday afternoon the week before the last Council meeting in December and June. Who knows? Someday the city might even include the public in discussions on these public/private partnerships. A girl can dream, can’t she?


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