Cook: Keeping a Sharp eye out for taxpayers

Cook: Keeping a Sharp eye out for taxpayers

August 10th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Helen Burns Sharp

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

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 dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.