Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 5, 2013

Editorial: Taxpayers can't afford more brownfield welfare

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — When Michigan launched its brownfield redevelopment program in the late 1980s, it was an innovative way to rehabilitate contaminated sites.

The key, as the program was first conceived, was that it was reserved for so-called “orphan” sites which had no clear owner or the owner of record no longer existed. They were supposed to be sites with no future outside public dollars.

One of the first brownfield projects in the state was the old Ironworks property on the south side of the Boardman River near Cass Street in Traverse City, which eventually became River’s Edge. It spurred a major redevelopment and added millions to the city’s tax base.

For taxpayers, the investment was worth every dollar.

But the law has changed and a site no longer needs to be “orphaned” to qualify for public funding. The program has become essentially developer welfare. Traverse City has seen a number of sites owned by successful, existing businesses qualify for public money, essentially lining the pockets of developers at taxpayers’ expense.

The county’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has done it again. It recently granted more than $620,000 in tax reimbursements for two Eighth Street houses built in the 1890s.

The houses contain asbestos, lead paint, and coal dust, and some of the money would go to remove and dispose of those hazardous materials - just what brownfield programs were built to do.

Those costs would total $147,000; but other work now allowed by law includes reimbursement for site preparation and building demolition, plus site improvements, including sidewalks and utility connections.

That could have taken the total to nearly $900,000, but the Brownfield board reduced that to just over $625,000. Dr. Debra Graetz, who wants to bulldoze a house at East Eighth Street and Railroad Avenue for a physicians office, got $232,682. J. Socks Construction, which plans to spend $2.8 million to construct a three-story, 20,264-square-foot building on the northwest corner of Eighth and Cass, will get $395,000. Only $64,000 of that would be for asbestos, lead paint, and to remove coal contaminated soil.

Helping spur development is fine, but “helping” must be the operative term. Offering $147,000 in tax reimbursements to clean up asbestos is one thing; more than $625,000 is too much.

Some officials hope to spur similar work on dozens of older homes around town. While $300,000 or so per property would be too much, picking up the remediation tab would be a start taxpayers could afford.