Complexity and confusion highlight packed City Hall presentation

COLUMBIA, 3/8/12  (Beat Byte) --  Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid, M.D. set an uncertain tone for a public meeting Tuesday about the Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ) program and the Blight Decree that makes it tick. 

"Blight doesn't really have a definition," the Mayor told a packed house.  But in short order, State of Missouri EEZ program administrator Carol Shoemaker contradicted him.   

A six-part legal definition of blight appears on the first page of the February 6 Council Resolution R20-12, and the state statute, RSMo 135.950 (2), governing EEZ.   Blighted areas "constitute an economic or social liability or a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare," the law reads, in part.

"I introduced an amendment removing the word 'blight' from our EEZ application and changing the language to 'conditions that lead to blight,'" the Mayor explained.   But as Shoemaker pointed out, the Mayor can't do that.    The definition of "blight" and the word itself cannot be altered, as city attorney Fred Boeckmann told both Mayor and City Council on February 6, when Dr. McDavid tried to "amend" the language.

"The word 'blight' is just semantics," Dr. McDavid told the crowd.  But with all due respect, he was wrong again.   It's not just semantics, but a powerful legal concept with serious implications, as Shoemaker explained while audience members quietly read the blight definition on a screen overhead.

Shoemaker added that her office could not accept an EEZ application with any changes to the blight definition, the word itself, or any attempt to water down the language.

The two-hour meeting proceeded the same way, with audible gasps from an incredulous audience as EEZ proponents tried to make their case.   Between trips into a hopelessly complex maze of "what ifs," "wherefores," and "maybes," Shoemaker and REDI director Mike Brooks tried to answer questions from dozens of people who formed a long line in the Council chambers.

Does the EEZ program include job training?   Answer:  Not specifically.   What, if any, environmental protections does the program guarantee?  None.   Why has this program been so quickly and haphazardly presented?   You'll have to ask your local officials, Shoemaker said. 

What about the regulation waivers the program can grant?   What about the shifting tax burden?   Why is the blighted area so large?  Why aren't you using current Census Data?   And so the questions continued.

There were also some miscues and public relations gaffes.  "Blight can be invisible," Brooks and Shoemaker explained.  "We're trying to catch up to Kansas," Shoemaker told the crowd.  "All of Kansas is blighted."   But after being asked how all of Kansas could possibly be blighted, or why Missouri needs to catch up to Kansas -- a true PR faux pas here in Tiger Town -- Shoemaker said she meant that all of Kansas has enterprise zones, and Missouri must catch up to that.

In the evening's most surprising omission, neither Shoemaker nor Brooks provided any hard evidence of EEZ success.  They talked about job creation and higher wages, but had no charts nor graphs nor third party reports that depicted "before EEZ" and "after EEZ" results. 

When Dean Anderson and Tracy Greever-Rice, Ph.D. asked for evidence of EEZ success, Shoemaker could recall nothing from memory.   She told Greever-Rice to "email her," and to Anderson, seemed uncertain what "evidence-based results" -- a concept basic to virtually every discipline -- meant. 

When this writer asked Shoemaker --  who mostly stood alone calmly and patiently answering questions -- what might have made Mayor McDavid think he could change the wording of a state law to qualify for her program, she told me to ask the Mayor himself.  

I turned to the audience and did just that.   But the doctor was no longer in the house.