May 25, 2004 > Editorial: Don't Waste Our Redevelopment Dollars
Editorial: Don't Waste Our Redevelopment Dollars
It is enticing to dip into another cupboard when yours is bare. This appears to be the inclination of cities as they desperately search for ways to balance budgets or feed a hungry state government. It may be the only solution in the short run, but leads to questions of propriety and intent. Legal arguments often revolve around the letter of the law and yet intent can be a strong argument as well.
An examination of intent when looking at why Redevelopment Agencies are formed comes down to a basic rationale. Certain taxing agencies are willing to give up part of their income to fund a separate entity that will work towards the eradication of blight in depressed areas. The idea is that this money will be used for the common good and allow a subsidy where needed to attract activity that will lift economic conditions. The argument is that without this helping hand, these areas will continue to foster depressed conditions which are not only detrimental economically, but raise safety issues as well.
Unfortunately, when Redevelopment Agencies are formed, the same people who control city coffers are also in charge of Redevelopment coffers as well. This is similar to the fox guarding the henhouse. If the fox is well fed and content, the chickens can rest easy. However, a hungry fox is not the best guardian of a rich source of food. It becomes almost irresistible to restrain from an occasional foray into the henhouse and snatch a morsel or two. The only restraint on the fox is the owner of the henhouse. Unfortunately, sometimes the owner wakes up only after the hens are all gone.
When comparing this poor parable to our cities, it is easy to understand how we, the citizens and owners of the farm, must be vigilant about redevelopment funds. These are not designed to be perpetual sources of revenue and the idea is to minimize staff functions and maximize change. This change needs to be concrete and lasting. While there are some staff functions necessary to facilitate change, activities that simply continue a process without goal or self-sustaining function are counterproductive.
In Fremont, the Centerville Unified Site is about to enter a critical phase. Redevelopment staff and the Board (read as City Council) needs to be sure of what it wants to accomplish before approving plans that lead do not address the goals of redevelopment. The idea is to be sure of what will be built and who is being trusted to do it. Councilmembers should think carefully about prior promises and what will result from their vote. Present plans call for small live/work units (for what businesses?), poorly designed parking, a nonfunctional "great room" and reduced retail space based on a flawed market study - a recipe for disaster. How about looking at the space as a primary retail area with an international marketplace composed of small businesses? Why not use redevelopment dollars to subsidize small businesses who want to invest in the site and need a helping hand to do it. A low price for the land can be passed on by the developer to businesses willing to energize the development. A healthy mix of business, rather than a single type will attract people throughout the day and evening. Why not ask Fremont merchants who have been successful in various parts of the city and know conditions in our area to expand to this new center?
Fremont also plans to use Redevelopment Funds to feed the state coffers. The state knows that many cities are unable to take more theft of their income and has allowed a different theft at the city level. Redevelopment is now being siphoned off for purposes that go far beyond the rules - but who makes the rules?
Union City has allowed Redevelopment funds to pay some salaries of General Fund folks. The argument is that these people perform valuable functions for the agency. This is true and any costs associated with the agency functions should be paid by the agency. However, the line is fine between redevelopment and city, so close attention by citizen oversight is critical. Again, when the dust settles, will our citizens be able to look at solid results and increased economic vigor or wonder where all the money has gone?