It's hard to trust fiscally suspect city with TIFs

NOT ONLY IS Columbia rushing headlong to create two ill-timed special tax districts that would siphon off money for needed services, including schools and fire and police personnel, but to make matters worse all three local elected bodies involved have inappropriately discussed the matter in secret.

Although taxpayers deserve better, it's evident city leaders, who managed Columbia into an inexcusable fiscal mess over the past several years, aren't operating in the real world. Why else would they attempt to divert tax dollars for special projects in the midst of a recession and at a time when services have been cut - and could be cut even more - due to dwindling revenue and poor stewardship? It's hard to imagine that Richland County and Richland District 1, which were forced to trim their budgets because of state cuts, would desire to participate in this unwise endeavor.

That's particularly true in the case of the school district. While it's not prudent for Richland County to forgo tax dollars, at least it would be acting in its natural capacity as a local government with the authority and responsibility to provide infrastructure and improvements to areas in its jurisdiction. But it's not the school district's job to build or fund parks, roads or other amenities to spur development. The school district, which has lost teachers and programs due to budget cuts, should concentrate on its mission of educating children.

The district needs its limited funding - present and future. But under the city's proposal, Richland 1 would provide 57 percent of revenues for the projects, while the city would pitch in 21 percent and the county, 17 percent. That's too big a burden for the district, which should keep the children out of this bad deal.

Frankly, it's too big a burden for city and county taxpayers as well. Capturing all new commercial taxes in the proposed districts until 2034 doesn't directly cause a general tax increase. But when these tax increment financing districts take money away from local governments, they shift a disproportionate burden for paying for city, county and school services to property owners outside the district.

The city is proposing a district in North Columbia that would generate $40 million over 25 years. The other district, projected to collect $154 million, would benefit Innovista, the University of South Carolina's research campus. Money from the Innovista district would fund seven specific projects, including a $51 million waterfront park, along the riverfront.

Not only are taxpayers being asked to take on more burden, but they would have to do so without a full public vetting. While there has been some open discussion, the three elected bodies also have held closed-door meetings on the issue. Why? The Freedom of Information Act prohibits closed meetings except in specific cases dealing with personnel or contractual or legal matters. When governmental bodies twist the "contracts" exemption to hide what are in fact debates about the division of tax dollars, our system of open government and accountability breaks down.

City officials argue that they need to close the public out of their discussions about north Columbia because property values could skyrocket if they revealed specifics. But it's hard to tell whether the cloak of secrecy is to control land costs or to control the debate.

The city hasn't even shared details with the county and school district leaders whom they want to pick up most of the tab. Despite the many fiscal transgressions that put the city in a financial hole it's struggling to get out of, city leaders are essentially saying to taxpayers, the county and the school district, "Trust us."

Even if it made sense to proceed with these tax dollar-diversion districts right now, the correct answer to that request is a resounding "No."