During discussion at Parkville meeting
In a heated exchange during last week’s Parkville Board of Aldermen meeting, one elected official responded angrily to a citizen complaint.
“What is it you’re trying to say and why don’t you just come out and say it?” Alderman Marc Sportsman asked Elaine Kellerman, who spoke at the meeting in response to an agenda item. She said, “Parkville residents have no say in what downtown is going to be.”
Kellerman further complained that a Community Improvement District, charged with creating a redevelopment plan supported by public tax money, does not include taxpayers who don’t own businesses and instead is stacked with a city official, the developer (Brian Mertz, who is charged with overseeing the construction of the massive Creekside project) and other business owners.
Sportsman said, “.for you to sit here tonight and imply all eight of us are collectively supporting Mr. Mertz for one reason or another is offensive.and wrong.”
Further, Sportsman explained that it is appropriate that downtown business owners make up the board since they are the ones with the biggest burden and he had a ready suggestion for how Kellerman can have a say in downtown development: “.buy a building downtown,” he said.
In an email to The Landmark after the meeting, Kellerman said his suggestion translates to “.if you don’t own a building downtown, keep your mouth shut” and that Sportsman and a few other aldermen who voiced support for Sportsman’s stance “resent being questioned.” Her email continued, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for an alderman to bark at a citizen.”
Kellerman said being a taxpayer should be enough to give her a voice. Her comments are the latest in a string of complaints by some Parkville area residents that city officials are pandering to Mertz, who leads the effort to build the more than 350-acre project under construction at Interstate 435 and Missouri 45 in Parkville. Mertz also owns three downtown buildings and at the Jan. 19 meeting members unanimously approved a state grant to remodel one building under Chapter 353 Tax Abatement. The grant acts as an incentive to spur development in “blighted” Missouri cities.
Mayor Nan Johnston explained it is important for taxpayers to remember that the 90 percent tax deferment applies only to building improvements and, in this case is limited to a period of up to 12 years.
Patricia Jensen, who represents Mertz as his legal counsel, also spoke at the meeting and said her client “has a particular interest in saving historic developments” and “nothing Mr. Mertz is doing is harming downtown Parkville. It’s helping downtown.”
During the Creekside debates, it was revealed that Jensen was among the largest cash contributors to Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston’s 2016 re-election campaign, something that the mayor failed to disclose during the public hearings.
Jensen also represented Mertz during his bid to receive millions in taxpayer incentives for his Creekside development, which include the redirection of over $53 million dollars in future funding for schools and public safety to Mertz’s development efforts.
Alderman Phil Wassmer said the 353 program is not subjective but has very defined criteria.
“It either meets the criteria or it doesn’t,” Wassmer said.
However, Mertz was recently granted tax incentives for property that did not meet the city’s original 353 criteria. Instead, Mertz’s tax incentives were approved through the use of “emergency powers” by Mayor Nan Johnston in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Alderman Greg Plumb said cities have “very little discretion” and to not grant a qualified applicant “is actually to violate the law.”
The latest incentives follow more than $350 million, approved by the board, in other various tax incentives to Mertz for the Creekside development. The litany of alphabet soup-style incentives includes Neighborhood Improvement Districts, (also known as NIDs), Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) and Transportation Development Districts (TDDs).
At the meeting, Kellerman reminded the aldermen that Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway has warned municipalities about offering too many tax incentives to developers. The auditor especially is critical of TIFs in which cities use property, sales, earnings, and payroll taxes to reimburse developers. Galloway also has found that the state legislature lacks a way to account for the overall impacts of the hundreds of tax breaks Missouri governments grant in the form of incentives. In addition, if buildings in Creekside fail to sell, taxpayers are on the hook for paying taxes on the buildings.
Kellerman said the fact that members vote unanimously on Mertz development issues, with little to no discussion, provides proof of the board’s ready approval. Jason Maki and others who belong to a group known as Citizens for a Better Parkville, have accused the board of holding closed meetings about Creekside, only bringing the issue to the public after the details were decided in private.
“It seems like he (Mertz) is being offered the keys to the city,” Kellerman said in an emailed statement to The Landmark after the meeting.
Brett Krause, a Parkville resident who watched the online meeting Tuesday, live chatted during the meeting that since taxpayer money is at stake, residents “should have a bigger voice.” He wrote, “Brian Mertz may have invested dollars, but he is also using taxpayer money therefore more oversight is needed.”
In addition, Krause said during a telephone interview after the meeting that he wonders if downtown should be designated “blighted,” a distinction required for 353 tax abatement. City officials agreed during the meeting that because some downtown buildings in question were in danger of collapsing, they classify as “blighted.”
Krause said officials’ reaction to Kellerman’s concerns are very telling. “From my perspective, it sure looks like they have the attitude they can ignore what the taxpayers want,” he said.
He added that some comments seemed arrogant and condescending and said, “They hold all the cards and can do whatever they want.”