Parking may top wish list after court decision on TIF plan
Post Independent Staff
Building a parking structure may soon become a top priority for spending downtown development funds, after the city of Glenwood Springs recently won a final legal victory over Garfield County and Colorado Mountain College.
The Colorado Supreme Court last week refused to hear the county and college’s appeal of lower court decisions upholding the city’s plan to use tax increment financing to pay for downtown improvements. The decision clears the way for the city’s Downtown Development Authority to come up with a list of projects to recommend to City Council for approval.
City officials expect a parking structure to be high on that list.
“I think we owe people downtown some relief on what their number one concern has been for a number of years, which is parking,” Mayor Larry Emery said. “That would be my preference. Obviously council needs to make a decision on that, and we need to consider what the DDA recommends.”
Fellow council member Chris McGovern, a former downtown business owner, said parking and a performing arts theater may be two of the top items the city will be considering after last week’s court action. She said the city is lacking in short-term and day-long parking downtown.
Emery noted that the city has drafted plans for a possible parking structure on city land next to the new downtown fire station on Cooper Avenue. But those plans have been held up for years while the county and CMC challenged the so-called TIF funding plans. The legal challenge frustrated city officials.
“Everything was just kind of put on the shelf during the time the TIF was in the process of undergoing the review,” McGovern said. “… I’m very sorry that the city and the county and CMC were in the judicial process. I think that’s not a healthy scenario for a community. But it’s past us.”
Said Emery, “The entire city of Glenwood Springs is all part of Garfield County. CMC is right downtown; they have the same kind of parking problems we do.”
“… Our own county was suing us to prevent us from providing improvements. … I’m just happy it’s over. I’m glad we can move forward,” Emery said.
Under the TIF plan, the city decided to collect all new tax revenues created by growth in the tax base in the downtown district over 25 years, and use the money for downtown improvements. State law allows TIF funding, but CMC and the county contend the city violated the law. They sued in 2002, arguing that the financing plan would deprive them of nearly $4 million in tax revenues.
In 2003, Thomas Ossola, then a district court judge, issued a summary judgment in favor of the city, finding that CMC and the county had no legal standing in the case. Earlier this year, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld Ossola’s ruling.
Emery expressed frustration over how much the taxing entities have racked up in costs associated with the case. Although city attorney Karl Hanlon worked on the case, the city also had spent nearly $70,000 on outside attorney fees as of earlier this year.
County attorney Don DeFord represented the county, but CMC hired legal counsel. CMC president Bob Spuhler estimated the college may have spent $100,000 on legal and staff costs associated with the case.
He defended the college and county’s challenge of the TIF plan.
“The whole emphasis of this was, we felt that the TIF rules and regulations weren’t being followed by the city,” Spuhler said.
The college objects to the possibility that the district eventually could include the massive Glenwood Meadows commercial and residential development, depriving the college of the project’s tax revenues over the life of the TIF plan. Yet Glenwood Meadows will put more financial stress on the college by creating more demand for the college’s training programs, Spuhler said.
The college also believes the law requires TIF funding to pay for specific projects to increase assessed valuation in a blighted area. Yet the city has begun collecting funds without approving projects, Spuhler said.
He said the point of a TIF program is that property values wouldn’t increase if not for the investments funded by it. But in Glenwood’s case, property values already are increasing. He said he’d be more comfortable with a TIF plan that lets the city divert only revenues that exceed those resulting from existing property value growth, because the excess revenues would be generated by downtown development investments funded by TIF.
Spuhler said the college shared its concerns early on with the city, but the city decided to move quickly to create the TIF program so it could establish a base year for measuring tax valuation growth before some major developments were completed.
He said the city and college were working on an agreement to settle the court case at one point, but Ossola’s quick ruling ended the possibility of a deal occurring and CMC’s only recourse was to appeal. CMC fought the case partly out of concern that other communities within the district may pursue TIF funding as well.
David Hauter, who served on a task force that planned the DDA, said he thinks CMC and the county will benefit from the downtown improvements that will be funded.
The city already has collected several hundred thousand dollars in TIF funds. That money has been unavailable for use pending the outcome of the lawsuit, but has been collecting interest.
However, voters in the DDA district could be asked a year from now to approve issuing bonds based on future TIF income so the district can pursue major projects. Two of those voters would be CMC and the county ” both members of the district.
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Glenwood Springs Police Chief Joseph Deras lamented his department’s inability to maintain a constant presence downtown during a virtual public forum Monday night.