June 18, 2019

Prayers, Appointments, and More TIF

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 26, 2019

It was an interesting start for the new Grand Traverse County Commission. Things will certainly get even better now that they'll begin meetings with an invocation. Some would call it a prayer. 
 
Our Commission says, or at least the four commissioners voting in favor did, the invocation will create an atmosphere of greater solemnity and unity. Well, of course it will, you know, like it does for Congress and legislatures around the country, all solemnly working in harmony. 
 
One new commissioner, having received negative comments about the idea, said they weren't from his district or his party, so he was unmoved by them. See? There's your unity right there.
 
The United States Supreme Court has already ruled that such invocations meet the constitutional test as long as they are not specific to particular religions or denominations, do not involve proselytizing, and no one is forced to participate among other proscriptions. 
 
The Commission will have to be a bit careful as there are plenty of ways to slide down this slippery slope. Who's going to give the invocation? If it turns out to be all Christians, that can be construed as promoting a specific religious belief for which they would undoubtedly be sued. 
 
Unless the invocation is uniquely secular, the real problem here is there are lots of religions, and each of them is entitled to a bite at the invocation apple. The Internal Revenue Service recognizes nearly 350 different belief systems and classifies them as tax-exempt religions. If the invocation was alternately delivered by a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu, it wouldn't even scratch the surface. 
 
The video gaming company Electronic Arts is now considered a tax-exempt religion for some transactions due, at least in part, because gamers “donate on faith” to the company.
Wiccan is also recognized, as are dozens of indigenous nation's beliefs, polytheists of all sorts, and — in a delightfully ironic decision — the IRS even classified organized atheists as a tax-exempt religion. 
 
The County Commission might well be confronted with requests from all manner of folks, followed by protests from others. A better plan would have been for commisioners to have a private moment at home. They could have asked for brevity, and that the roads were plowed before people tried to get to their 8:00am meetings.
 
Then they spent some more time on an appointment to the Traverse Area District Library Board (TADL), a position with no remuneration.
 
The previous County Commission appointed Susan Odgers by a 4–3 vote. One of those voting in the affirmative was Odgers' husband, then-commissioner Tom Mair. Most people believed that was a pretty obvious conflict-of-interest since his spouse was the direct beneficiary of his vote. Mair saw it otherwise, saying there was no conflict because there was no monetary benefit as a result of his vote.
 
Then there was the November election, and a new Commission took over. Odgers' appointment was rescinded on the advice of counsel. Then the commissioners re-appointed — that's right, re-appointed — Susan Odgers by a 6–1 vote. Whereupon a TADL board member and an Interlochen resident immediately filed suit, claiming that Odgers' appointment violated an agreement regarding the geographic distribution of TADL board members.
 
Lost in all this is the fact that Ms. Odgers is an imminently qualified person who applied for the position in good faith. Appointed, rescinded, re-appointed, and now, an attempt to remove her again. She deserves better than to be whacked back and forth like a human ping-pong ball. 
 
Meanwhile, over at Traverse City's City Hall, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) would like to extend one of their tax increment financing (TIF97) districts for another 25 years.
 
It works like this if you're a property owner in the TIF district: Your taxes at the time the TIF goes into effect are considered the baseline. As that tax increases over the next 25 years, any tax above the baseline is captured and used by the DDA to fund projects in that district. 
 
And they have plenty of projects on which to spend plenty of money. There's the eight-story parking garage on Front Street that could cost as much as $19.5 million, the multi-million-dollar farmers market extravagance, no one knows exactly how much for a civic park, heated sidewalks ... it's a long list. 
 
(This is the same group that said a storefront medical marijuana dispensary wasn't in keeping with the “character” of downtown but an 80-plus-foot parking monolith looming over the street is.)
 
They apparently intend to spend money for a long time, too. TIF97 doesn't even expire until 2027, so their proposed extension would last until 2052. 
 
It's impossible to know if some other part of the city might need that money in the next 33 years. But the DDA knows they'll need more. They always do. 
 

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