Cen­tre­ville res­i­dent frus­trated at lack of tax money records

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY GE­ORGE PAWLACZYK [email protected]

The state lost the pa­per­work, but no­body re­al­ized what this ac­tu­ally meant un­til Amos Green of Cen­tre­ville came along.

Green, a busi­ness­man, wanted to know how elected offi- cials in his town spent prop­erty tax money un­der the tax in­cre­ment fund­ing or TIF, pro­gram. This money is in­tended to in­crease the over­all tax base by tem­po­rar­ily de­fer­ring or re­bat­ing prop­erty taxes to spur new de­vel­op­ment.

But Cen­tre­ville wouldn’t tell him any­thing about who got TIF grants, Green said. They ig­nored his Free­dom of In- for­ma­tion re­quest, even af­ter the of­fice of the state At­tor­ney Gen­eral sent a let­ter to Mayor Mark Jack­son and other city of­fi­cials stat­ing they must pro­vide the data.

Green, 61, who owns a con­sult­ing com­pany, got on his com­puter and learned that mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties must file an­nual TIF re­ports with the state comptroller’s of­fice. When he checked for Cen­tre­ville, he found that for the last 18 years, the city has failed to file an an­nual TIF re­port.

Fail­ure to file is sup­posed to lead to a hefty fine. There were none.

Green wanted to know why the city hadn’t been fined and was told in an email from Adam Al­stott, the deputy gen­eral coun­sel for the comptroller’s of­fice, “Our pol­icy has been to send out fines no­ti­fi­ca­tions af­ter the govern­ment re­ports are re­ceived (late). City of Cen­tre­ville has not sub-

mit­ted their TIF re­ports, so they have not yet been sent a fine no­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

At his home in Golden Gar­den, a Cen­tre­ville neigh­bor­hood, Green laughed and asked, “Why would they file re­ports if they knew they would be fined? Bet­ter to just leave it be.”

But an in­quiry by the News-Demo­crat into Cen­tre­ville’s fail­ure to file an­nual TIF re­ports turned up a statewide prob­lem — that many com­mu­ni­ties’ re­ports were ei­ther miss­ing or never filed at all, ac­cord­ing to comptroller’s spokes­woman Jamie Dunn.

Since Tues­day, em­ploy­ees in the comptroller’s of­fice have been go­ing through a process to de­ter­mine which cities have been fil­ing their TIF re­ports and which have not.

The prob­lem, said

Dunn, is that when a search in some cases was made, “Doc­u­men­ta­tion was not around. It was miss­ing.”

The comptroller’s of­fice still doesn’t know the ex­tent of the miss­ing re­ports.

TIF has long been crit­i­cized as a way for politi­cians to give money to their friends and po­lit­i­cal cronies. The re­port­ing law was en­acted so that tax­pay­ers and tax­ing districts know where the funds are go­ing.

Dunn said the goal of the comptroller’s of­fice is to get lo­cal TIF com­mu­ni­ties into com­pli­ance with the re­port­ing reg­u­la­tions and not nec­es­sar­ily to levy fines, al­though that is part of the law.

Be­cause Dunn was com­ment­ing af­ter only a few days had elapsed since the BND’s in­quiry, com­ing up with a list of other com­mu­ni­ties that have failed to file the an­nual re­ports was not pos­si­ble. But she said the prob­lem was “over­all” and Cen­tre­ville was un­doubt­edly not the only com­mu­nity that failed to file.

Dunn said that when the cur­rent state comptroller, Su­san Men­doza, took of­fice in De­cem­ber 2016, they didn’t re­al­ize that cities weren’t fil­ing their TIF re­ports, or that some re­ports were miss­ing. “We need to get our ducks in a row and move ahead,” she said.

Green was the re­cip­i­ent of a Cen­tre­ville TIF re­bate of 75 per­cent of his prop­erty taxes on the $100,000 house he built in 2014. Un­der TIF laws, the grants are good for the life of the TIF, which is typ­i­cally 17 years. He be­came con­cerned when, ac­cord­ing to his cal­cu­la­tions, he was be­ing shorted about $3,000.

The city’s fail­ure to re­spond to his FOIA re­quest for fi­nan­cial data was dis­turb­ing, Green said.

Jack­son, the mayor, did not re­spond to re­quests from the BND for com­ment. Dur­ing the day he works full-time as a U.S. mail car­rier in St. Louis.

It’s not known how much TIF money Cen­tre­ville — which USA To­day listed as the poor­est com­mu­nity in the coun­try — takes in or distributes.

“How is any cit­i­zen go­ing to find out who got paid what?” said Green. “Of­fi­cials could be putting money in their pock­ets and who would know?”

A three-page Oct. 22 let­ter from the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice stated that, “It is a fun­da­men­tal obli­ga­tion of govern­ment to op­er­ate openly and pro­vide pub­lic records as ex­pe­di­ently and ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble in com­pli­ance” with state open records laws.

The let­ter stated that not only did Cen­tre­ville govern­ment lead­ers fail to re­spond to Green, but they also failed to make any re­sponse to the state when or­dered to pro­vide the re­quested fi­nan­cial data.

In­stead, the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice closed the case, leav­ing Green to hire a lawyer to file a mo­tion in St. Clair County Cir­cuit Court to or­der the city to com­ply and turn over the in­for­ma­tion.

“That would cost thou­sands and take months even if I could find a lawyer who would take the case,” Green said.

He did get some re­sponse from the city. It was in the form of a trea­surer’s re­port from the

July 2017 Fi­nance Com­mit­tee meet­ing.

The re­port listed checks paid by the city to var­i­ous ven­dors and in­di­vid­u­als by date, amount and check num­ber, but left out a cru­cial bit of in­for­ma­tion — the name of the per­son get­ting the pay­ment.

JOSEPH BUSTOS jbus­[email protected]

Amos Green, who lives in the Golden Gar­den neigh­bor­hood in Cen­tre­ville, has been try­ing to find out who re­ceives tax in­cre­ment fund­ing (TIF) grants in Cen­tre­ville. When he checked with state of­fi­cials, he learned Cen­tre­ville hadn’t filed an an­nual TIF re­port for the last 18 years.

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