Black Creek watchdog victorious: Vows further scrutiny of government tax breaks

Black Creek watchdog victorious: Vows further scrutiny of government tax breaks

July 17th, 2014 by Ellis Smith in Local Regional News

New houses are being constructed in the Black Creek Mountain community.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

The name of Helen Burns Sharp was on the lawsuit, but it was the taxpayers who won when a judge voided a deal that gave $9 million in public money to the developers of the high-end Black Creek Mountain golf course community.

Sharp spent more than $50,000 of her own money fighting to stop what she saw as an improper use of tax dollars, and she said that winning a lawsuit against the government was the first step toward establishing more transparency and accountability over tax breaks granted to businesses.

She already has her eye on a new target. And next time she may not be alone.

Sharp's victory helped establish her as one of Chattanooga's most vocal citizen watchdogs, and she said she already has been contacted by others who see the need for greater scrutiny of government tax breaks and want to form a watchdog group.

A retired city planner, Sharp has been sharply critical of the drumbeat of deals between local government officials and large companies, deals that she says are negotiated behind closed doors and rubber-stamped by elected officials with little accountability for businesses that fail to uphold their end of the bargain.

Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Chancellor Frank Brown on Wednesday agreed with Sharp in part, voiding a deal between the Black Creek Mountain developers and the local Industrial Development Board because of violations of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.

Developers will have to seek reapproval, as well as an unqualified opinion from the state attorney general or another third-party attorney stating that the project is legal. Lacking that, they may have to change the project's scope. It is unclear what will happen to the $9 million in Industrial Development Board-backed bonds that have been issued and paid for, after Brown declared that those, too, are now null and void.

Yet under Tennessee law, Sharp won't be eligible to recover her attorney fees, even though her questions about the process that awarded $9 million to build a road up Aetna Mountain were justified in court.

That won't stop Sharp from pushing for more accountability and transparency in the murky world of public-private partnerships.

Sharp said her next target could be payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, agreements that officials have awarded to large companies such as Chattem, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen.

Under those agreements, companies agree to create jobs and spend money on capital improvements in exchange for low or no property tax payments, other than school taxes, for a specified period.

"These things are crafted by our economic development partners who are good people and do good work, but we didn't elect them to make decisions about who pays property taxes," Sharp said.

"To have these deals struck and then come to local governments with virtually no discussion, you put local officials in the position of thinking, 'Oh, I better not ask a question about this, because they might think I don't care about jobs.'"

Sharp's approach to good government has won plaudits from those on both sides of the political spectrum, from conservative former City Councilwoman Deborah Scott to Perrin Lance, executive director of Chattanooga Organized for Action, a social justice group.

"If there was an award that the city itself should give to somebody, it should go to Helen Burns Sharp because she used her own money, time and energy, not only to be a watchdog for taxpayers, but to be a watchdog for fairness," Lance said.

Lance called for a solution to what he sees as the lack of checks and balances between developers and businesses that want taxpayer money for projects, and the government officials who often give it to them.

"Is it going to be a new group, an existing group, I don't really know yet, but I know we need to have the conversation," Lance said.

"Something is going to come out of this, and it's going to be more empowered citizens who see that David can beat Goliath, and that right can prevail."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.