published Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Cook: Keeping a Sharp eye out for taxpayers

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    Helen Burns Sharp
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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By now, you’ve probably heard of Helen Burns Sharp. Lots of folks have.

They’ll see her in the grocery store and walk straight from produce to cereal, just to shake her hand. From the back of the courtroom, they cheer for her. Others, strangers, send her money.

And that’s too bad.

Too, too bad.

Because had our local democracy been functioning correctly — not utopia, just correctly — then Sharp wouldn’t be a household name. She wouldn’t be burning through her retirement account — $52,000 as of last week — in lawyer’s fees. Wouldn’t be a thorn in the side of some quite powerful institutions, from local government to pinstripe hedge funds.

All she’s doing is what government is supposed to be doing.

“I’m just trying to make sure the public has a seat at the table,” she said.

It all began one morning as she sat, coffee in hand, newspaper in the other. An article caught her eye: A new mountaintop development called Black Creek was being planned in Chattanooga, and leaders were thinking about offering a new type of subsidy to help build it.

“Tax increment financing,” the story read.

She sat up straight.

For years, she’d worked with tax increment financing, or TIFs, as a city planner in Oregon. Knew they were good tools in promoting development. Knew they could also turn sour without the right safeguards in place.

I think I’ll pay attention to this, she said to herself.

That was two years, one lawsuit and half a savings account ago.

“The more I paid attention, the more of a head-scratcher it became,” she said.

Sharp began questioning local leaders about the criteria used to grant developers a TIF — in this case, $9 million to be used to build a road up Aetna Mountain, and then paid back using tax revenue gained from the development.

“You might want to slow down a little bit here,” she would tell local leaders.

Finally, believing that slowing down was not in the cards, and that the public was being kept in the dark, Sharp filed a lawsuit in 2013 against the city, county and the Industrial Development Board, claiming two things: 1) the TIF was inappropriate and 2) it had been approved in illegal ways.

A judge recently ruled in her favor.

Anything but confrontational, Sharp is the kindest, most gracious plaintiff in legal history. She compliments city leaders, even though she’s suing them.

“I actually like Black Creek a lot,” she said. “I have nothing against the two local developers, whom I have heard are good guys who give back to the community. I don’t have a problem with their plan to develop the top of the mountain. What I do have a big problem with is the use of $9 million in taxpayers’ funds from throughout Hamilton County being diverted to subsidize a road.”

Sharp’s gift to our city has been to raise awareness about the way our leaders use tax dollars — from TIFs to PILOTs, which are “payments in lieu of taxes” and allow corporations to pay fewer taxes if they locate here.

She wants people asking more questions about this.

“When you ask the right questions, you get good answers,” she said.

Here are some questions she keeps asking:

1. Why do we feel the need to give away so much in tax breaks?

“It’s like an inferiority complex,” she said. “We still feel like we need to give things away to get people to come here.”

Sharp cites research showing that tax incentives aren’t as important as we think, and that business leaders have already made their decision once they knock on the Chamber of Commerce’s door.

“Any subsidies are icing on the cake, but the cake is already baked,” Greg LeRoy writes in “Great American Jobs Scam.”

2. What is the formal application or criteria process for receiving a TIF or PILOT? Why doesn’t a developer sign an affidavit, promising that without this tax incentive, their project couldn’t continue?

3. Why don’t the City Council and County Commission take real control over this process, instead of acting like a ratifying, rubber stamp? There are times when our city leaders spend more time talking about urban chickens than multimillion-dollar tax breaks.

4. Whose job is it to monitor the PILOTs and TIFs, to ensure they are used correctly and corporations are holding up their end of the deal?

5. And why isn’t anyone in city or county government listening to her?

“It’s like I’m not here,” she said. “And that’s the hardest part.”

At 11 on Monday morning, at City Council, there’s a public meeting to discuss the Black Creek TIF and whether the city, county and IDB will appeal the judge’s ruling against them.

There, someone will probably mention something called the “but-for” test, which asks developers to prove that “but for” a tax incentive, their development would not happen.

But for Helen Burns Sharp, many of us wouldn’t even be asking these questions to begin with.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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aae1049 said...

Great article David. Our city council and county commission passed the Black Creek TIF with no deliberation. It was really scary to see how easy it is to rip off the taxpayers for $9 million plus interest for 20 years. Thank you for covering such an important subject, when media has not adequately covered this robbery of we the people. BTW TIF should be reserved for blighted area, not the rich golf course subdivisions that don't even need the money.

Thank you Helen Burns Sharp for covering the taxpayer's back.

August 10, 2014 at 1:10 a.m.
John_Proctor said...

“When you ask the right questions, you get good answers,” she said.

No, Ms. Sharp; in Chattanooga, when you ask the right questions, you get more lies for answers. You have exposed some of those lies by asking the right questions and taxpayers are in your debt, rather than the developer's.

August 10, 2014 at 1:21 a.m.
Ki said...

The way any money has been used for those blighted areas did nothing to uplift and support the people living in the targeted areas anyway. The way in which the money was used to force citizens out who had long resided in those areas without concern or worry where they would end up anyway. Under a bridge? Sleeping in a tent in the woods? Having to rely on the generosity of homeless shelters? Didn't matter. It became gentrification at its most dark and diabolic.

August 10, 2014 at 6:47 p.m.
aae1049 said...

At this mornings Industrial Development Board meeting the Tiffers claimed they have spent $989,000 of the $9 million approved for TIF at Black Creek Subdivision. Of the $989,000, $240,000 are legal fees billed to the developer from Miller and Martin at the taxpayers expense.

August 11, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.
gypsylady said...

You wouldn't necessarily expect elected and appointed officials to know everything about every subject. What you should expect, and demand, is for them to slow down and research the subjects they don't understand. As soon as Ms. Sharp started asking her questions everyone who is supposedly representing taxpayers should have stopped what they were doing and found out if, just possibly, she knew what she was talking about. It was obvious from the beginning that she knew more about it than they did. She's paying for the lawsuit with the help of whatever people kick in, but we're all paying for the suit on the government's behalf. A suit that didn't have to happen.

August 11, 2014 at 4:43 p.m.
TheCommander said...

Good work aae on keeping us informed. I am glad you are going to these meetings of the IDB. Just a few years ago no one ever knew there was anything called an industrial development board. How can we continue to support one another in getting the word out? Is there a website we can post locally? Are you organizing in-person meetings?

August 11, 2014 at 6:28 p.m.
aae1049 said...

All, and TheCommander. Here are citizen groups working on opposing the TIF Robbery of the poor to give to the rich at the Golf Course

1) 2) 3) 4) Aetna Nation on Facebook 5) The Chattanooga NAACP

and every political party that has completely different views, all agree this TIF is a damn robbery.

August 11, 2014 at 6:44 p.m.
Ki said...

Wasn't all that long ago some of these individuals now slithering up to the NAACP would not have gotten caught dead in the same room with them. Now the sudden love and friendship? hmmmm. NAACP had best watch their backs.

August 11, 2014 at 7:53 p.m.
TheCommander said...

aae, you are so correct and that is the exactly what we discovered: the offering of our tax money to developers and corporations is universally opposed regardless of political ideology. I have research from the John Birch society all the way to the NEA that all perfectly agree on the negative effects of tools like TIF and PILOT. One of the very best single resources I have on TIF and redevelopment for people to read to come up to speed is a PDF from a former California State rep. Chris Norby called "Redevelopment; The Unknown Government". I point everyone to that publication. I hope we can all meet someday very soon around this most important issue. It is exciting to see people come alive about this in Chattanooga. Until Helen B.S. came along, most people never knew there was something like an IDB. If they really understood its origin, organization and purpose, they would be horrified.

August 11, 2014 at 8:33 p.m.
aae1049 said...

KI, distaste for corporate welfare crosses all political lines. You are a bigot.

August 11, 2014 at 11:41 p.m.
Ki said...

Guess y'all needed to add a lil color? Hope NAACP realize they're making a pack with the devil. Weren't you guys just as much, more so actually, against tax dollars being used for those blighted areas and the poor not all that long ago? How much did it cost to dupe the NAACP into believing you're on their side? I heard the Koch's now own the UNCF (United Negro College Fund). Bought'em for a sum of $ bucks. With lots and lots of strings and conditions attached, of course.

I know y'all were given y'alls marching orders to pretend to be nicer to african-americans. The surprise is how easily they allowed themselves to be misled.

August 12, 2014 at 12:46 a.m.
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