City council members are divided on whether or not postponement of the University North Park tax apportionments was a good idea.
The council held its second public hearing Tuesday before postponing, on a vote of five to four, a package of items that would end the UNP Tax Increment Finance District apportionments. During the public hearing, and the public comment portion before the vote, residents made 32 trips to the podium to criticize the council’s decision.
Norman residents expressed frustration with the council’s lack of transparency, indecision, haphazard use of taxpayer dollars and delay of city projects during the city council meeting.
The council was set to decide the future of project plan amendments, additional amendments to cut out the cultural facility aspect, the master operating and development agreement and the audit that would put apportionment funds back into the general and capital fund.
The council will reconsider the future of the UNP TIF apportionments on Nov. 26.
“It’s a really complicated issue,” Stephen Tyler Holman, Ward 7 council member said in regards to the UNP TIF dealings. “We can go back and forth about who created it and why and why it wasn’t ended before and what other councils did or didn’t do, but we have a problem in front of us that we need to solve and we need to do it as soon as possible.”
Mayor Breea Clark and council members Alex Scott, Ward 8; Bill Scanlon, Ward 6; and Joe Carter, Ward 2 voted against the postponement Tuesday. They expressed concerns about an amendment they saw at the beginning of the meeting that would remove the cultural center/recreational facility funding authorization from the project plan.
New amendment impact:
Kate Bierman, Ward 1 council member, and Alison Petrone, Ward 3 council member, proposed a new amendment right before Tuesday’s council meeting. Some council members said they wished they had seen the language sooner, and Bierman said she did too, but city legal staff wanted to ensure it was consistent with Local Development Act requirements.
“That is the cleanest, simplest, least harmful way for the developers to close the TIF that provides us with the best legal argument should the developers still decide to proceed with litigations,” Bierman said.
It’s an option that the council didn’t consider in August 2018, she said, because it wouldn’t have actually closed the gap in the amount that the TIF has raised versus the amount of authorized project expenditures.
Petrone said the UNP TIF’s cultural facility has always been a city project.
“To now take the attitude that the developers have some sort of claim to it when it has never been part of any contractual obligation for the developers reliance is just off course,” Petrone said.
Norman Forward could be impacted by these amendments. Norman voters approved the temporary half-percent sales tax in 2015 to fund quality of life projects.
The recreation facility funding in the developer-negotiated project plan amendments includes money for the purchase of land for the Norman Forward Indoor Aquatic Center.
The developers, UNP LLC and UTC LLC, didn’t see the amendments until City Attorney Kathryn Walker sent it to the developers’ representatives Wednesday morning. Walker said she anticipates they will object to the proposal and anticipates litigation to be filed if the new amendment is approved.
Joe Carter, Ward 2 council member, said the postponement was disappointing and he doesn’t support the new amendment because it’s a gamble. This is a scary time for the city, he said.
“[Bierman and Petrone] are wanting to negotiate a new deal with the developers that could be a better deal, but it jeopardizes the funding for all of these projects that we have worked hard to budget for in the current years budget,” Carter said, referring to council items such as an ADA officer and forester.
Holman said he needs more clarification on the existing deal and proposed changes, which is why he supported the postponement. He has concerns about the new amendments and doesn’t know if he supports them. He’s also nervous about the impacts to the city’s budget and pending projects.
“We know we have two Norman Forward projects that we need a location for, and that are short on funding due to a decline in sales tax revenues,” Holman said.
He said having an existing funding source for those projects gives them the ability to fulfill promises to voters.
Bierman supported the postponement because she thinks the council has more options, and because she’s not willing to rush through giving away millions of dollars. Also, because the council is only held to a deadline that the budget predicts, she said they have ways to draw that deadline out if necessary.
“I certainly think that anything is better than the agreement as proposed,” Bierman said. “One of my biggest concerns about the amended and restated master and operating agreement that was presented to council [Tuesday] was the significant rights and responsibilities being given up by council and the rights of residents that we would also be giving away in all of this.”
Sereta Wilson, Ward 5 council member, motioned for the postponement Tuesday and said she fully supports her move even though it pushes all of their decision making to a tight timeline. She said the Bierman/Petrone amendment presents valid ways to give residents what they want.
Wilson said she has legitimate concerns with the city’s budget, and it’s important that the council makes the best decision. She added that all of the analysis paralysis is eroding public trust.
“I hate that we are in this position. I hate that people forget the some of the reasons of why we have to make the decisions that we do,” Wilson said. “It’s hardly ever what I envisioned or what I wanted to do. It’s a compromise. Everything we do is sort of a compromise and I think that’s how democracy works.”
She said she supports the Norman Forward projects going in the UNP area, but she wants to make sure the council isn’t giving away the farm in an effort to get something because they are tired of messing with it or fatigued with the conversation.
Frustration is what Bill Scanlon, Ward 6 council member, said he feels toward the postponement, because he’s not sure what the council gains or learns through the delay. He’s frustrated that this has festered for months and they are no closer to resolving it.
He said he would have voted against the Bierman/Petrone amendment Tuesday.
“It seems to center around this $5 million incentive and they seem to be saying we can’t give that away, but I don’t see it as a giveaway I see it as an opportunity that maybe realized…,” Scanlon said.
Alex Scott, Ward 8 council member, said she disagrees with the postponement. She doesn’t anticipate developers will go for the Bierman/Petrone amendment and is anticipating a threat of litigation.
“We have all been anticipating ending the TIF or not ending the TIF, and it just feels like we’re playing this game of tennis where you have members of the public telling us they are not going to vote for this or that if we don’t vote a certain way on this TIF deal,” Scott said.
Petrone said she was encouraged by the postponement, because it gives council members some time to think about other options that they have to end the UNP TIF increment.
“I’m hopeful that council members will use these two weeks to really delve into those amendments and learn about the history of the cultural facility fund, and the fact that it’s a city project and it has met its primary objective already,” Petrone said.
The council has been talking about ending the TIF for quite some time, Clark said, and she was excited to move forward and focus on other issues facing the community. She said she didn’t vote for the postponement, because the council has been talking about this for months, but she looks forward to continuing the conversation Nov. 26.
She said she hopes they can move forward, because the community needs them to.
Clark does not support the Bierman/Petrone amendments because it would restart the entire process of approving the amendments. However, she said if that’s what the super majority wants than that’s what they will do.
“Having been through that process as Mayor I know how long it takes and we only have 13 months left until the whole thing is funded, so I can’t help but wonder how much more staff time we want to spend on it because we do have other issues facing our community,” Clark said. “Not to mention we are assuming the other parties in this contract will negotiate and we have not confirmed that.”
Lee Hall, Ward 4 council member, did not return messages left Wednesday, Thursday or Friday for comment.
UNP TIF history
Due to a tight general fund and simmering political pressure the Norman City Council considered several options in August 2018 to end the University North Park Tax Increment Finance district apportionments, but after considering an end without negotiations with UNP LLC and University Town Center LLC, the developers sent a letter threatening litigation in February.
Developers, city staff and council negotiated project plan amendments and master operating and development agreements were drawn up to end the apportionment. Those project plan amendments would reduce funds for Legacy Park, the lifestyle center, cultural/recreation facility, economic development and additional costs while increasing funds for traffic and roadway improvements on Robinson Crossings, Tecumseh and Flood and Tecumseh and 24th, among others.
The fiscal 2020 budget, which started July 1, was created under the pretense that the UNP TIF would end around June 30. Every month the UNP TIF has cost the general and capital fund about $300,000, which has reached $1.1 million in apportionment and will continue to apportion $300,000 to the UNP TIF until the council’s decision.
By 2006 ordinance, 60% of sales tax collected by the businesses in UNP go to the TIF fund.
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