Cook: Helen versus Goliath

Cook: Helen versus Goliath

July 11th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Helen Burns Sharp

Forget Argentina. You want somebody to root for?

Meet Helen Burns Sharp, a regular Chattanoogan in most accounts -- she's in a book club, is comfortable at the Camp House or the Waffle House -- except for this:

She's draining her own retirement fund in a Helen vs. Goliath lawsuit against power structures near and far to repair a system that is able to steer millions of taxpayer dollars into the hands of the already-wealthy and away from the public good.

And Thursday, she got a big victory.

Hamilton County Chancellor Frank Brown refused to let the Chattanooga and county governments off the hook, which means Sharp's lawsuit against them may be headed to trial next week.

The story begins with a road up a mountain. A $9 million road, to be exact, up Aetna Mountain and built by the developers of the Black Creek Mountain project.

But first, an acronym to untangle: Tax Increment Financing, or TIF.

Cities use TIFs as an incentive to attract business and industry. Developers promise to pay up front for certain improvements. New roads. New wastewater systems. Something -- here's the kicker -- that has to benefit the common good.

Cities repay the developers for their initial investment by reducing their long-term tax bill, which means taxpayers are refunding them for their initial cost. Tit for tat. (Or TIF for tat.)

TIFs work when they revitalize forgotten and blighted areas. They don't when they cater to special interests, which then bring development to places that don't need any. Without strong oversight, TIFs can encourage a lack of accountability and you-scratch-my-back corruption.

"To prevent these problems, states and municipalities should adopt strong rules governing the use of TIF districts and similar development subsidies," states a 2011 U.S. PIRG report.

Hence Sharp's lawsuit. She claims the city and county acted in egregious ways when they approved a $9 million TIF for Black Creek developers to build a road up Aetna Mountain.

"This $9 million needs to go into city and county tax coffers for needed services rather than to the Wall Street firm that now owns the controlling interest in the Black Creek Mountain residential subdivision," she writes on her website, helenburnssharp.com.

On Thursday her attorney, John Konvalinka, laid out some troubling claims. Here are but a few:

• The road won't cost $9 million, which means the developers and their contractors will profit off taxpayer dollars. "An illegal gift of taxpayer funds to developers who already have plenty of money," Sharp says.

• There is no proof of obligation the developers ever have to build anything other than a road.

• The TIF is void, since portions of the development will fall outside Hamilton County.

• There is no overall public good accomplished by this TIF and it did not meet the requirements of state law.

For Sharp, who spent her career in city planning, the larger goal is not to destroy the Black Creek project, but rather to awaken citizens to something that's costing us millions each year.

She calls it "our mindless embrace of corporate welfare."

City and county governments use PILOT agreements to recruit business and industry. PILOTs, or payment in lieu of taxes, are incentives that reduce the property tax bill for businesses that may expand or build here.

Sharp counts close to 50 PILOT agreements active now in our city and county governments.

"It would be interesting to get the number of how much city and county general government would have collected in, for example, 2013, if these companies had paid their fair share of taxes," she said.

Recently, the city approved a PILOT for Coca-Cola Bottling Company United to build a $62 million distribution center. Coke will now pay only the school portion of its property tax bill, far less than what it would pay without a PILOT.

Remember, this is Coke, the world's largest soft drink maker. Sure, they provide jobs, but do we need to give them a tax break to do so?

Plus, PILOT agreements are usually only offered to companies investing $5 million or more and creating 50 or more jobs. That ain't the mom-and-pop, small business owner.

Double plus, the system doesn't seem to be working right. Even with all our PILOTs, our poverty rate is nearly double the national average.

"I'd just like to see policies and procedures in place to ensure that that the public is on the list of beneficiaries," Sharp said.

As the hearing began Thursday, a man on the back row of the courtroom looked in her direction.

"Go get 'em," he said.

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