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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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OP-ED: Commission Votes for Community Engagement in Taxpayer-Funded Redevelopment 

By Shelby County Commissioner Henri E. Brooks

A growing number of so-called “community re-development” projects are being paid for  with taxpayer dollars. 

These projects, generally led by private developers, are issued tax exempt bonds (or loans) by the city or county to pay for either the “removal of slum and  blighted conditions” and/or the development of affordable housing. 

Four things happen in  this process: 

      1. The developer gets a tax-free loan, courtesy of the city/county; 
      2. The  property taxes in the “development area” are frozen at current levels; 
      3. Current residents  are displaced; and 
      4. Once the redevelopment period is completed, any increase in  property values results in an increase in tax dollars.  

As development occurs, property values should rise, and the increase in tax revenue above the frozen level, known as the “tax increment,” is paid to the city/county  redevelopment agency or authority to pay off the bonds and to invest in further  development. This is called Tax-Increment Financing (TIFs)

The Reality 

Every time a city or county agency with TIF-granting powers creates a TIF, that is up to 30  years, taxes in that area are not going into the general fund to pay for things like parks,  schools, libraries or infrastructure. Instead, this increment is often left at the mercy of  developers and the developer-friendly agencies that administer these programs, and in  many cases, the allocated uses are vague.  

Additionally, though TN state law requires protections for low-income residents impacted  by the resulting residential or commercial development, when low-cost residential units  are demolished under the guise of slum clearance, they are generally not replaced with  more affordable housing units. Instead, middle- and upper-income housing is built in its  place; or more often, commercial and industrial development replaces what was once  residential. As a result, lower-income residents, who originally lived in the neighborhoods  and were relocated during demolition and construction, are unable to move back once the  redevelopment is complete.  

Often, developers are given lots of leeway in their development process. This was  happening continuously with little or nothing communities and residents could say or do. 

A New Day! 

As of May 6, in response to community outcry, the Shelby County Commission has voted  to approve and implement a set of guidelines and practices that ensures that a Culturally Competent Community Engagement process is an integral part of any TIF planning and  implementation throughout Memphis and Shelby County.

The process to increase community engagement began in 2023 with a contentious  Community Redevelopment Agency TIF-creation process in the Klondike neighborhood, where the developer was allowed to count meetings with CRA staff as “community  meetings.” 

In response to the community outcry, my office  launched an ad hoc committee to look into the community engagement processes of TIFs.  The Klondike-Smokey City TIF Ad Hoc Committee started its work last year, predominantly  made up of community engagement experts, including Klondike residents. Over the last  year, this group created a “Culturally Competent Community Engagement” (CCCE)  process as part of a broader Equitable Development framework that guided the policy and  process changes proposed by the committee. 

A commitment to proactive, consistent community engagement makes the framework a  living document. The CCCE framework has four pillars – Education, Planning, Approval,  and Implementation. Within each pillar are specific policies, consisting mostly of common  sense details residents living in or near a TIF deserve to know. Basic stuff like: 1) written  notice to all residents in a 0.5 mile radius of a TIF district or project before it can seek  taxpayer dollars; and 2) active community advisory boards. 

The Opposition 

Surprise! There is opposition to residents knowing and being involved in what happens in  their communities. Many TIF-granting agencies did not like this idea and pushed back hard  when the resolution came up for a vote in the Commission. Two quasi-government  agencies (EDGE and CRA) wrote letters to the Commission, bemoaning the “administrative  expenses” of the letter notices, which would be covered by the developer. The CRA even  said they may not have staff capacity to mail out the notices. A very peculiar claim for an  agency that supports multi-million-dollar developments and is staffed with some of the  smartest planning/project management minds in the city. Moreover, both EDGE and CRA  pushed back on giving voting powers to residents. EDGE said “a voice should not be a  vote.” The CRA more directly stated, “This takes the review / approval process from the  CRA Board.”Not understanding that the board would still get to review all projects that  meet the community’s standards.  

Call to Action 

Despite the pushback, the County Commission approved this resolution and the TIF game  in Shelby County has now changed forever. We are on the precipice of a new era of TIF  community engagement, but these agencies clearly won’t do this on their own. Like  always, the people will need to push them to follow these new rules and hold them  accountable if they do not. Luckily, the County Commissioners that voted to approve the  CCCE framework are holding town hall meetings with the community to discuss these  changes and how residents can get involved in making sure the policy is followed by TIF granting agencies. See dates, times, and locations of each town hall below. 

  • June 27th, 5:30 pm (To Be Announced)
  • June 29th, 11:00 am (To Be Announced)
  • July 18th, 5:30 pm: Commissioner Caswell – Embassy of Faith Church
  • July 20th, 11:00 am (To Be Announced)
  • July 25th, 5:30 pm: Commissioner Thornton & Commissioner Ford – Mt. Vernon Westwood Baptist Church
  • July 27th, 11:00 am (To Be Announced)
  • August 1, 5:30 pm: Commissioner Brooks and Commissioner Lowery – Pursuit of God Church

It is up to all of us to make sure Shelby County doesn’t just get sold to the highest bidder, but that we develop the city in a democratic and equitable way. This new resolution has the  opportunity to go a long way, but it will require good ole’ fashioned people power to make  sure this new process is followed. Grab your own chair and saddle up to the table. It’s time  to fight for our neighborhoods. It’s clear no one else will. 

Henri E. Brooks represents District 7 on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The views expressed here are her own.

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