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If you go to enough of the Ypsilanti Town Hall Meetings, you quickly realize that everyone has their empire and their empires are untouchable. The presentation by former-DDA head Jennifer Goulet was a very fascinating presentation, but her message was no different that those of the State or County.
DDAs are powerful organizations that invest in business districts. They have the ability to levy taxes and issue bonds in order to fund such controversial projects like the Michigan Avenue median or the North Huron Street parking lot. The theory behind all of this financing is that their projects will increase property values and create revenue so they may do more projects in order to increase property values and create more revenue. It’s a vicious circle of unaccountability.
When Ms. Goulet was asked about how the DDA calculates their Return on Investment (ROI), she said the DDA probably did a poor job of capturing that. That’s a very interesting answer. If asked my broker what the ROI of my account was and she gave me that type of answer, I would probably sue her, or at the very least,
egg her house pull my investments from her firm.
At the risk of sounding snarky, I want to be serious for a moment. If the DDA cannot properly calculate their ROI, how do we know what they are doing makes financial sense? If the Michigan Avenue median experiment has not provided a sufficient ROI, why would we ever allow them to duplicate this project in Depot Town? According to downtown business owners, they are losing over $3K a DAY or $90K a MONTH because of the North Huron Street debacle. With losses like that, how can you not determine ROI in order to evaluate your projects?
For some reason that just floated under the radar.
Another rather interesting point that went unheralded was a question by potential mayoral candidate Steve Pierce. As part of the Cool Cities initiative with the Riverside Arts Center, an elevator is planned to be built between the RAC and the DTE building. In order to fund this, the DDA is petitioning the State to transfer $336K in MEDC grant monies from the Water Street Project to the RAC project. You heard me. The Water Street Project is so important to the revitalization of our community that we are going to steal its funding for other pet projects. The unfortunate thing about that question is that it seemed to go over everyone’s head.
Mr. Pierce also asked an important question about Water Street and the taxes DDAs can levy. When DDAs levy taxes they are traditionally only taxing business owners who own their buildings or simply the building owners if they happen to only rent out their spaces. The thought is that it’s the price a business owner pays to help with economic growth. It makes a ton of sense if you can actually measure that growth, but I digress. In 2000, the Downtown DDA was expanded to include Water Street. This made sense because the DDA could now leverage that property to find grants to finance elevators elsewhere in town. The problem is Water Street is mostly residential. Mr. Pierce astutely pointed out that if you buy a townhouse or condominium in Water Street, not only will you be subjected to the highest property taxes in all of Washtenaw County, but you will have to pay an additional 2 mills on top of that to finance elevators and the like. WHAT?!?! That’s right.
As you can imagine, there was discussion about disbanding DDAs, but Ms. Goulet had answers to those questions too. You just can’t disband a DDA. You can only do that if you can prove everything you set out to do has been completed. That’s a legal nightmare. More importantly though is that you would have to pay off all of the bond debt prior to disbanding them. The City is in no position to spend more than $1M in order to get rid of these mechanisms for growth. The City could chose not to fund them instead. This would save about $150K a year. Ms. Goulet failed to mention what the savings in her salary might be, but you’d really only need that figure if you were trying to figure out your return on investment, and who cares about that?
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