The hid­den life of spe­cial districts

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Robert Grey Guest Com­men­tary

Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties cre­ate spe­cial districts as quasi-gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties for a va­ri­ety of pur­poses — and there are a lot of them.

In the grand scheme of life, who cares about an ex­tra $20 or $30 of taxes col­lected by an­other tax­ing author­ity? I do and you should.

Lo­cal main­te­nance districts (LMD) are cre­ated to op­er­ate, main­tain, re­pair and re­place streetscape im­prove­ments. Lo­cal im­prove­ment districts (LID) are cre­ated to con­struct neigh­bor­hood im­prove­ments. Busi­ness im­prove­ment districts (BID) pro­vide ser­vices unique to the com­mer­cial na­ture of districts.

Once these districts are cre­ated, the city has very lit­tle to do with the day-to-day oper­a­tion. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dis­trict shifts to an ap­pointed board of di­rec­tors who con­trols the tax rev­enue and the on­go­ing oper­a­tion. Some of these districts con­tinue to ex­ist long after their pe­riod of use­ful­ness or could ben­e­fit from hav­ing more eyes on them.

Are spe­cial districts re­ally hid­den? Not if you look for them. They are out in the open and listed in the de­tail of your prop­erty tax state­ment. You prob­a­bly re­ceive a pub­lic no­tice in the mail of a bud­get meet­ing. How­ever, they might as well be hid­den, be­cause most peo­ple pay no at­ten­tion to them. Why? The spe­cial dis­trict tax as­sess­ment does not rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of the to­tal prop­erty tax bill.

In my own Union Sta­tion neigh­bor­hood, I dis­cov­ered the Del­gany Street Lo­cal Main­te­nance Dis­trict, and the Cherry Creek Subarea Busi­ness Im­prove­ment Dis­trict. The in­fra­struc­ture in my neigh­bor­hood was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. The trees and side­walks needed at­ten­tion. I won­dered if either of these en­ti­ties had any work plan or funds to ad­dress some of these is­sues. I dis­cov­ered the an­swer was “Yes!”

Who de­cides how much money to col­lect from tax­pay­ers? How is the money spent? Who de­cides what projects have pri­or­ity? Each dis­trict has a board of di­rec­tors ap­pointed by the Den­ver mayor em­pow­ered to make all those de­ci­sions. In my case, both boards cu­ri­ously were made up of the same peo­ple who had served on these boards for decades. Dig­ging deeper, I dis­cov­ered that both boards had va­can­cies, so I ap­plied and was ap­pointed by the mayor. As a money man­ager, fidu­ciary and trea­surer of our Mas­ter Home­own­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, I just wanted some­one to “show me the money.” Here is what I learned:

Be­tween the two districts, more than $35,000 in tax rev­enue was bud­geted for 2017.

The BID had le­gal over­head ex­penses of $3,500 per year on $15,000 of rev­enue and had suspended its “work plan” for mul­ti­ple years due to con­struc­tion in the neigh­bor­hood.

The bud­geted line items for the LMD had very lit­tle to do with ac­tual ex­penses of prior years.

The LMD had no con­flict-of-in­ter­est policy re­gard­ing pay­ments made to di­rec­tors or their busi­nesses.

The districts were not co­or­di­nat­ing or com­mu­ni­cat­ing with an over­lap­ping HOA Mas­ter As­so­ci­a­tion on in­fra­struc­ture is­sues.

There was only one sched­uled meet­ing per year and it was held out­side the dis­trict bound­aries.

Be­tween the two districts there was $100,000 avail­able for oper­a­tion, main­te­nance and cap­i­tal im­prove­ments.

The LMD paid for wa­ter­ing of planters that were not within the dis­trict — whoops!

My pur­pose in shar­ing this in­for­ma­tion is not to ques­tion the value of spe­cial districts or to di­min­ish the thank­less job of serv­ing as a board mem­ber, but rather to cre­ate a call to ac­tion for the tax­pay­ers to get in­volved in their spe­cial districts.

In my case, my LMD re­placed de­mol­ished curb­ing, re­paired ag­ing benches, ar­ranged reg­u­lar trash re­moval, con­tracted ar­bor main­te­nance, co­or­di­nated over­lap­ping districts, re­cruited a new board mem­ber, re­lo­cated the an­nual meet­ing to the neigh­bor­hood, and en­gaged the tax­pay­ing res­i­dents. The BID has a work plan to main­tain and man­age the 15th Street streetscape from We­watta to Lit­tle Raven and is also con­sid­er­ing a spe­cial project to cre­ate his­tor­i­cal mark­ers that doc­u­ment key lo­ca­tions of past sig­nif­i­cance. The hid­den life of districts has be­come a hid­den gem.

Robert Grey is a mem­ber of two spe­cial dis­trict boards, a com­mu­nity ac­tivist, and a res­i­dent of Den­ver’s Union Sta­tion neigh­bor­hood.

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