Governance

Helen Burns Sharp for ATM

On March 2, 2021, Chattanooga voters will elect a mayor and nine city councilors. All elections matter, but this one seems especially important, given the millions of dollars of projected revenue loss due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice concerns that have mobilized a lot of citizens. The upcoming election provides a great opportunity to have a community discussion about issues laid out on this website relative to tax breaks and transparency. 


Several years ago the Times Free Press penned these wise words: "Local elections are the ground zero of our democracy. It is a daunting endeavor to run for public office, to put yourself out for public scrutiny, to outline policy positions on thorny issues. Running for public office takes courage, a thick skin, and money."


ATM appreciates those who are willing, in Teddy Roosevelt's words, to get into "the arena." We have followed our city government for eight years. You cannot do this without coming away with an appreciation of all of the hours our elected officials spend on complex issues.


While I have at times been critical of the decisions of our elected city officials, I have not meant the criticism as personal attacks. After years of banging my head against the wall advocating for PILOT policies at City Council and not understanding why ATM's comments fell on deaf ears, a light bulb finally went off. I had worked as a Community Development Director for a city in Oregon for 18 years. The elected officials there were not any smarter or more honorable than ours in Chattanooga. The difference was the structure of the city government. The Oregon city was a Council-Manager government. That made all the difference.


The form of city government may seem boring but it really matters. Below is a summary of areas that need attention. 


I. Property Tax Incentives

PROBLEMS


• PILOT tax breaks to large companies significantly reduce city revenue for needed services.
• The City gets almost 60% of its general fund revenue from property taxes.
• The City forgave $16 million in tax revenue in 2019 with PILOTs and TIFs—most agreements last between 10 & 30 years.
• The City has been overly generous in both the number and terms of PILOT agreements.
• No rules on how city government decides which companies get “jobs” PILOTs, leaving awards open to political influence.
• The City does have policies on TIFs but ignored them on the MLK Extension project.
• Most agreements are one-sided in favor of the businesses.
• Many PILOT and TIF companies likely would be here anyway, paying taxes (the "but/for" test).
• Housing PILOTs allow companies to charge more than $1000 in rent for very small units.
• Weak/no enforcement if companies don’t meet their commitments.


SOLUTIONS


• Adopt rules for PILOT jobs tax breaks. The Policies and Procedures recommended by ATM could be a starting point.
• Follow adopted policies for TIFs.
• Aggressively pursue (“clawback”) money due to taxpayers when PILOT businesses have not met their commitments.
• Consider earmarking the city portion of the money that is clawed back for a new fund dedicated to meeting high priority needs in urban neighborhoods. Include community representation in the discussion for how money is allocated.
• Require Jobs and Housing PILOT beneficiaries to pay a significant fee at closing. (Example: Memphis collects 1% of the total project cost for Housing PILOTs.) Create a role for the City Council in determining how these fees are spent.
• Define roles in economic development program (Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise Center, Convention & Visitors Bureau, City Hall.) Make clear who is doing what, where the money comes from, and what it goes for. 


II.Transparency/Professionalism


PROBLEMS


• Mayor's office does not provide enough written staff analysis to City Council.
• Mayor's office does not provide enough staff analysis to non-elected boards (IDB, HEB, CDRC).
• Resolutions and ordinances from City Attorney do not provide "findings” to explain the reasons for the actions.
• It is challenging for citizens to get information about public records or meetings.
• It is challenging for citizens to navigate the city web site.
• It challenging for citizens to present ideas or give feedback to City Council and Mayor.
• It uncommon for officials to disclose bias or possible conflicts of interest in zoning or tax incentive matters.
• The deck seems stacked toward development interests in the tax incentive & zoning processes.


SOLUTIONS


  • Add more content to city resolutions, ordinances, and minutes to give public officials and citizens better knowledge of what is going on and why.
  • Convene a small focus group to brainstorm improvements for accessing city public records and improving city website. (Include citizens who have been frustrated with the records process or the website.)
  • Hire independent professional to rewrite PILOT in-lieu -of-tax and lease agreements to make the documents better protect the public interest and to be more understandable. 
  • Provide regular training for elected and appointed officials and staff from MTAS or TCOG on the meaning (and the spirit) of the state’s Sunshine Law.
  • Evaluate opportunities for public comment. Add a Council public hearing requirement for adoption of City budget and approval of tax breaks (PILOTs and TIFs).
  • Establish a policy whereby the Council or Commission Chair asks, at the beginning of any meeting where there will be a vote on zoning or tax breaks, if any Councilor or Commissioner wishes to declare bias or the possible appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • Appoint neighborhood voices to the Planning Commission as vacancies occur. (Almost all current members of the Planning Commission have development ties.)
  • Adopt environmental regulations to address development in environmentally sensitive areas, such as hillsides and floodplains.
  • Convene a small city focus group to explore if a different form of government would better serve Chattanooga. Invite representative of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to speak about the Council-Manager form of government.


EXAMPLES


1) Here are resolutions, one from Chattanooga and one from San Diego. Both deal with the disposition of surplus property. 


In the case of San Diego, the resolution explains how the city got the property; why they do not or will not need it for any public purpose, and details on a purchase and sale agreement. San Diego Resolution


Contrast this resolution with the one the Mayor's Office and City Attorney asked City Council to pass in 2016 regarding the King Street parking lot, which was being actively used as a city employee parking lot. (See the "Sunshine" web page for history.) Note that there is nothing in the resolution to explain anything. Chattanooga Resolution 


2)  Homebuilders and other development have been successful in recent years in weakening the City's stormwater standards on South Chickamauga Creek and in slowing down the adoption of regulations about development on hillsides and in the floodplain.


III. Form of Government


PROBLEMS


• Unequal balance of power between Mayor and City Council


OPPORTUNITIES