The Downtown Improvement District Exposed Burlington’s Pathetic Public Processes

(You Can Read More About the Downtown Improvement District and Burlington Business Association here.)

When local government thinks and act like a business, everyone but business owners and landlords lose. Burlington’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) process shows that while ‘stakeholders’ and self-selecting and unscientific ‘focus groups’ may work for businesses, they are quite useless and even harmful for effective, local democratic government. Lousy and rushed public processes have become a hallmark of Burlington’s Weinberger administration, and the DID process was the ugliest process yet.

Just take a look at the list of stakeholders included in the 38+ person PUMA focus groups to see how these meetings were made up of predetermined interest groups, not a cross section of local residents. PUMA met with ‘stakeholders’, interest groups with power or influence in a system, while obviously excluding more marginalized and disconnected citizens.

Even the online survey was heavily skewed towards native-English speakers with high levels of wealth. DID supporters, including the Burlington Business Association, who sent out the RFP for the survey in a clear conflict of interest and blurring of government and business lobbying, touted this flawed focus group and survey as evidence of mass public support for a new business district. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the 1,143 survey respondents, the bulk of collected ‘public’ opinion, were even asked if they supported a Downtown Improvement District.

The survey respondents were far, far wealthier and much, much older than the average Burlington resident. Those making over $100,000+ a year were over-represented by 20%, while those making under $50,000 a year, half of all Burlington residents, were under-represented by 33%. Young adults were under-represented by 31%.

” Mayor Weinberger, speaking at the Democrats’ party, said the DID expansion proposal marked a “very big change” that voters weren’t ready for. He said the authorization request left many details to be ironed out later, which made it hard to quell voters’ doubts. ” – Seven Days

The Downtown Improvement District is another in a long line of ‘public’ processes with very limited participation and predetermined outcomes. These processes are pinned on a series of lies that are designed to give the appearance of collaborative and inclusive democracy, while bowing to wealthy business and real estate interests. These lies further erode trust in our local government, further depresses daily civic participation, and leaves residents feeling powerless and disconnected from their own community.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) offers False and Flimsy Promises

The city of Burlington loves Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) – whether it be for the Moran Plant, waterfront improvements, the mall redevelopment, or the nontransparent private marina process – even though TIFs are seriously flawed. TIFs are sold on flimsy and false promises – from helping low income communities to boosting the economy when it wouldn’t have been boosted otherwise. On top of this, TIFs in practice are undemocratic. Politicians will ask voters to approve a supposed done deal but they often amount to a blank check finalized behind closed doors by a select few. It’s time to end TIFs and invest public funds in low-income communities.

TIFs are districts where cities can ‘leverage’ private investment by borrowing on future property value increases. While there may be some benefits, those benefits are unproven and do not outweigh the many many downsides to TIFs.

The 6 problems with TIFs:

  1. Once you vote on the idea, you don’t get to choose the final product even if the final product is drastically different than the initial idea. See: private marina, mall redevelopment, City Hall Park.
  2. Since the goal line on TIF projects always changes, it’s impossible to hold elected officials responsible for failing to act on their words. For example, first the $20 million mall TIF would buy a couple streets and fix streets around the mall, but in the final weeks before the vote it included fixing an additional two streets to get voters to approve it.
  3. While TIF money may have originally been used to help struggling downtowns, it is now used in mainly wealthy downtowns to improve infrastructure for wealthy land owners. For example, the mall is owned by a multi-billion dollar investment company but supposedly wouldn’t build this project unless taxpayers gave them 9% of their funding costs for free. TIF money never seems to be used for programs to support those in poverty, like funding new low-income housing.
  4. TIFs hurts our public schools by taking desperately-needed millions out of the education fund for 20+ years, as TIFs money is split 75/25 education fund and general fund. The money used to improve our downtown never reaches Burlington’s low income children.
  5. TIFs raise rents and cost of living for everyone else by accelerating property values in urban areas past typical levels of inflation. They, like Downtown Improvement Districts, lead to accelerated gentrification.
  6. TIFs are sold as being integral to spurring new development, but are based on a false and unproven assumption that the development wouldn’t have occurred ‘but for’ TIF money. In fact, the ‘but for’ clause means ‘but for that specific design/development plan’. So we have no way of knowing if some level of development would have occurred regardless. Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer has made is clear that this ‘but for’ clause is impossible to prove or audit.

The reality is that MANY people, when they vote for TIF, they vote for a specific project without realizing they’re writing a blank check for politicians who may be more interested in making wealthy interests and donors happy over ensuring the community meets everybody’s needs.

In the end, TIF money gambles on the future with little oversight or proof of its effectiveness. It takes badly needed property tax revenue, money that our schools desperately need, and gives it to investors so that they can boost their profits and wealth for the next 20 years while taxpayers pick up the tab. It’s time to end TIFs and fund local government through taxes, and if necessary, bonds.