TIFS: the best-kept secret in town

Bangor Director of Community and Economic Development Tanya Emery outside the Cross Insurance Center.
Photo courtesy of the City of Bangor
Bangor Director of Community and Economic Development Tanya Emery outside the Cross Insurance Center.
Posted Feb. 19, 2014, at 5:33 a.m.
Roland Miller is the economic development director for the city of Auburn.
Naomi Schalit | Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
Roland Miller is the economic development director for the city of Auburn.

HALLOWELL, Maine — Are you interested in where those millions of dollars in tax increment financing deals are going in your town?

You won’t find that information readily available on your town’s website.

“I don’t think we have anything publicly posted that lists them,” said Tanya Emery, Bangor’s director of community and economic development.

In town after town, officials said the same thing.

Transparency about TIFs is not the norm in Maine, where details about the complex deals only may be available at the time they’re considered by town government.

Then, TIFs recede from public view.

The millions of dollars spent over decades on a TIF “is typically far harder for residents to follow and monitor than ordinary spending,” write the authors of a 2011 report on TIFs by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “TIF district budgets are separate from general municipal budgets; they are ‘off-budget.’”

That report recommended a series of measures towns could take:

— Budget information about all TIF districts should be accessible online — how much the TIF is worth, how much has been expended to date.

— Officials also should post online the goals of the TIF district, the TIF value, the recipients of the TIF funds, specific benefits the TIF aims to produce and current information on whether benefits have been produced.

There is one Maine city that does provide TIF information to the public.

Roland Miller, Auburn’s economic development director, wants city residents to be aware of all TIF deals the city has with private developers.

So he posts it online. On pages 54 and 55 of the city’s 2012 financial statement, there’s a paragraph describing every current TIF deal in Auburn.

At the state level, despite the fact that the state must approve every TIF, the Department of Economic and Community Development does not systematically collect data on them. That has created a roadblock to evaluating the TIF program for more than a decade.

DECD “does not have sufficient resources to monitor all of these municipal TIF development programs in a comprehensive and detailed manner,” wrote the state’s Economic Development Incentive Commission in its 2000 report to the Legislature.

“The commission believes that additional data is necessary in order to fully evaluate the MTIF program and its impacts at the local, regional and state levels.”

DECD had collected a limited amount of information about TIFs after passage of a 1998 law requiring that the department annually report to the Legislature about economic development incentives and their public benefit.

Likewise, businesses that got more than $10,000 a year in certain state and local economic incentives, including TIFs, were asked to report to DECD details such as type and wage levels of jobs and employment level changes.

But none of the DECD annual reports are available online, only two of them are in the collection of the Legislature’s Law Library and the rest could not be found by DECD staff when asked for them in January. And the reporting requirements for both DECD and businesses getting incentives were repealed by the Legislature in 2009.

 

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