In this gold rush, it's developers vs. taxpayers

By Ken Midkiff

COLUMBIA, Mo 9/13/14 (Op Ed) -- I have racked my brain, reviewed my bank accounts, driven around town, tried – and failed – to determine how I have benefited from various developments touted for their “economic development” potential.

From tearing down a low-income mobile home park to build Aspen Heights;  to sending mud into Rockbridge Memorial State Park while clearing land for Parkside Estates; to an almost endless list of other high-profile asphalt and concrete constructions – CrossCreek, Old Hawthorne, Discovery Ridge, the Links – I can find no way I’ve gained.

And yet, like you, I’m paying the bills.   We taxpayers pick up the tab for 85% of new development costs, according to a comprehensive study 4th Ward Councilman Ian Thomas recently released.

What I have found are several ways I’ve been harmed:   More traffic, air pollution, sewage in creeks; more sprawl, less open space, more negative impacts to State Park trails.   Taxes and utility bills have supported all this development, and there’s more of those, too.

In short, there’s more of everything that makes this area a less desirable, more expensive place to live for people like me who pay the bills.

The citizens of Columbia cannot justify paying one penny for electric lines, water pipes, sewers, roads, bridges, law enforcement, health emergency services, and other so-called "infrastructure costs" required for major developments.

Adding environmental insult to taxpayer injury, the City of Columbia Public Works Department will spend $7.6 million on a sewer line that crosses Hinkson Creek at least seven times, to service a proposed industrial park at which the only enterprise went bankrupt.

Intent on carrying water for developers and large businesses, the City wants to make a bigger mess upstream without cleaning up the existing mess downstream.   Rather than using the money to clean Hinkson Creek (which fails to meet federal Water Quality Standards), the City will instead use it to add more stress to an already-polluted waterway and overtaxed sewer system.

Likely reacting to years of public pressure, City Hall is proposing some modest development fee hikes – a first step, but a baby one.  Notably, Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid is standing in the way of this baby.  Hizzoner seems to represent developers, not the ones who brung him, the thousands of citizens who have twice elected him to the city’s highest public office.  He parrots the developer lines, claiming all sorts of "economic" gains, from "good jobs" to affordable homes. 

If development fees are raised, developers continually claim, those costs are just added to the price tag of a new home or business and passed along to consumers.  Raise or add fees, and “low-income” housing cannot possibly survive, they warn.

But that claim is patent nonsense!  

Almost no affordable housing is being built now, and low-income families are already priced out of the market.  For what little affordable housing they do build, developers – notably Columbia’s Jeff Smithsign up for low income tax credits that pass development fees and other costs to taxpayers.  Again.

Why can’t developers pay for their projects?   Pay 100% of their costs, like the rest of us?

Why do they get the gold mine while we get the shaft?