The city of Burlington is in a spot of bother over “numerous errors’ in its Waterfront Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. According to Auditor Doug Hoffer, the city owes the TIF district $1.2 million and owes the state Education Fund nearly $200,000, because it couldn’t keep proper accounts for its Waterfront TIF. He also found that the city spent $173,000 on bike path improvements that were, uhh, outside the TIF district. Since the total scope of waterfront improvements was $16 million, those mistakes add up to almost 10% of the whole ball of wax. Not inspiring, that.
But Hoffer doesn’t blame Burlington so much as the complex structure of the program itself. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising; after all, it’s comically difficult to even explain the TIF concept in lay terms, let alone successfully manage one of the damn things.
But heck, let’s give it a shot. A tax increment financing district allows a municipality to incur debt for infrastructure improvements needed for development in the district and pay the debt out of future higher tax revenue. If it works, everybody wins. But the devil’s in the details, and there are hordes of pesky details in Vermont’s TIF program.
Whew. I think that’s in the ballpark at least, but don’t cite me as gospel. The point is, TIFs are complicated as all getout, and Hoffer’s audit indicates that it’s too much for our cities and towns to handle. In his words, ““Managing the complexities of this TIF district proved challenging for even the largest municipality in Vermont.” Says here if we can’t build a program amenable to proper management, maybe we should ashcan the whole thing.Continue reading