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Joe Lane: Commissioners giving CHIEF a sweet deal

April 05, 2012|By JOE LANE

The headline on a February editorial inThe Herald-Mailread “CHIEF saving taxpayers’ money by sharing cost of project.” I beg to differ.

CHIEF’s Mt. Aetna Farms development is on track to receive the largest taxpayer subsidy in county history. No other business venture in the history of this county will have contributed so little and received so much. This is the latest and most outrageous misuse of taxpayer funds that have been showered on developers since the current commissioners took office. While there seems to be no limit to the amount of help developers receive from these commissioners, the needs of the average taxpayer go unmet. 

In June,The Herald-Mailreported the backlog of road maintenance projects exceeds $50 million dollars, according to Washington County Public Works Director Joe Kroboth. Kroboth said he did not think it was realistic to expect the county to catch up on that backlog in the immediate future, and he explained the county’s plan to reduce the maintenance budget to half what is required to keep the problem from getting worse. While the taxpayer has a right to expect his taxes are used to maintain roads, these commissioners have decided to allow the county roads to keep getting worse. Time and time again, whether schools, roads or fire and rescue, these commissioners have repeatedly told the taxpayer there is no money in the budget to meet these and other basic needs. “There’s too many other priorities in the community …,” Kroboth said.

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This is in stark contrast to what these same commissioners have told developers. The developer of a large subdivision off Poffenberger Road, unwilling to pay for the road upgrades his project requires, received more than $1 million from the county for upgrading roads. Commissioners President Baker objected, but commissioners Barr, Callaham, Cline and McKinley voted to let the developer off the hook. These same commissioners have voted to reduce or eliminate the excise tax so developers will not be required to pay their share for schools, police, fire and rescue, and other costs. The taxpayer will pay for these instead.

Since taking office, these commissioners have voted to enact a dizzying array of subsidies for developers. In addition to the residential excise tax reduction, they recently voted to reduce the already low commercial excise tax as well.  When the excise tax is eliminated for developers, this does not make the costs of roads, schools, police, etc., go away. The cost is shifted to the taxpayer. The level of generosity these commissioners have showered on developers seems to have no bounds. A developer off Eastern Boulevard received an outright gift of tax dollars with no strings attached and no requirement for job creation. What do the taxpayers get from this largess? We get to pay for it and we get deferred maintenance on our roads.

While all developers benefit from these policies, the business that stands to reap the largest taxpayer subsidy in county history is CHIEF. A private business according to the recent editorial, CHIEF purchased the Mt. Aetna Farms property for $3 million. This property has been commonly considered to be the future site of the new Eastern High School. CHIEF has since refused to offer any of this property to the school board, and the school board is now searching for a new and likely much more expensive site.

During a meeting about the future of this property, Kroboth told the audience that it would be economically unfeasible for a business to develop this property. It will require tens of millions of dollars to provide roads, bridges, water and sewer. At this same meeting, Kroboth announced the county’s plan to spend $9 million on roads to develop this property, even though there is no money to maintain our existing roads. Now, for every dollar CHIEF has invested in this project, the taxpayer was on the hook for three. If John Q. Taxpayer bought a property that could not be profitable developed, would these commissioners give him $3 for every dollar he invested? They would not because it would be a flagrant misuse of tax dollars. CHIEF, on the other hand, seems to have some magic ability to play by a different set of rules.

The commissioners latest million-dollar subsidy for this project has the taxpayer covering the cost of stormwater management for the entire property. Usually, developers would be responsible for all these costs. How on earth did The Herald-Mail conclude CHIEF is saving taxpayers’ money by sharing the cost of the project? In reality, CHIEF agreed to pay for engineering its own project. Is that cost sharing?

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