Does Scott County Referendum Risk Too Much? Print
Commentary/Politics - Editorials
Tuesday, 14 August 2001 18:00
In the larger scheme of things, citizens organizing to try an defeat a $5 million bond issuance that will increase property taxes on the average of between $3 and $5 per year per home seems a bit premature. The $5 million represents the county’s contribution to a revolutionizing revitalization project in downtown Davenport that includes amenities and business components designed to bring high-paying jobs, along with an increased tax base that will help fix streets and sewers.

But more importantly, where were these same citizens when the council agreed to tax increment financing (TIF) for Sentry Insurance, which cost taxpayers more because it directly impacts funds available for street and sewer repairs. Not a word from many of these citizens then, and most certainly silence from mayoral candidate John Waddell, who also lobbied hard for the Super Wal-Mart center, and a different kind of tax provision known as a SSMID that was a complete dereliction of stewardship by our city leaders.

Waddell’s political manipulation of this issue is galling, especially considering that Waddell claims to be a friend of development. Judging from Mr. Waddell’s recent support of development issues in Davenport, this support appears to pertain only to big-box development in the form of sprawl. Never mind that the county taxpayers’ contribution of $5 million to this $113.5 million downtown development is only 4% of the entire project. It is the largest leveraged capital improvement campaign to grace this city in decades, and it couldn’t come at a more necessary time. Davenport is well behind the development curve when compared with the rest of the Quad Cities, and it was time to step up—and we did so in an exemplary way.

With that said, I believe that citizens have a right to vote on matters of taxation. And I honestly admire the grassroots efforts that citizens are engaging in to have a voice. They are more concerned with the process and the lack of public debate about the project than with the actual dollar amount of the bonds. Their response in the form of a petition drive is a reasonable one for most circumstances because if a project has merit, the public grasps it with little trouble. But the risks of a failed referendum and the potential loss to our community far outweighs the benefits in this case because if a referendum fails, it will reflect the wishes of a minority, not a majority of voters.

Unfortunately, our city leaders have done a dismal job in building community consensus about the River Renaissance project by not educating the public, neglecting to launch a significant awareness campaign early on, and excluding the public from any open debate. They hoard most of the information, don’t allow any but their inner circle to participate, and then expect blind cooperation from the public. This petition for a referendum is a glaring example of the exclusionary nature of the folks behind the project.

But the truth is that all Quad Cities residents should be embracing this project, celebrating it as a phenomenal achievement for our community. The possibilities are tremendous. And a genuine opportunity exists for the collective talent so prevalent throughout the Quad Cities to contribute to the process to make this the flagship development of Iowa, with community buy-in based on informed support.

Unfortunately, we currently have a plethora of misinformation abounding, resulting in a petition that has real legs, but is more political then factual. It is a sad testimony to the divisiveness that clouds so much of the good that is occurring. Our city leaders need to pull their heads out. Their disregard for the taxpayers’ stake in all this may end up hanging them this time. But the punishment would be far worse than the crime in this instance.

It needs to be emphasized that the Vision Iowa Program (VIP) insisted that Scott County get involved with a portion of the funding. They suggested $10 million, but the county was only willing to do half. Without Scott County’s involvement, the $20 million from the state is in serious jeopardy. All of the other cities that submitted similar applications for VIP funding had the financial support of their respective counties to a much larger degree than Scott County. So in that respect, Scott County is being as conservative as possible, but contributing enough to satisfy the VIP requirement.

But Scott County taxpayers need to fully understand that if this petition drive is successful, and the referendum is placed on the ballot, and if the referendum fails to pass because the public votes the $5 million bond down in November, we would lose the $20 million VIP grant, scrapping much of what is planned for the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown. This would position us as the economic fools of the Midwest.

The $5 million would not otherwise pay for streets and sewers in Davenport. That is the responsibility of city funds, not county funds. So to argue that the money can be better spent on streets and sewers is not a legitimate one. What is legitimate is that by rebuilding our downtown and attracting more private investment, we will increase the property tax base, which does contribute directly to the city funds that pay for street and sewer repair.

Maybe it would make citizens more comfortable if they knew that even the grantor of the VIP funds is aware of the questionable nature of some of the River Renaissance development, such as an ag-tech venture capital center and its relationship to real estate developers Kaizen Corporation, whose principles, also chair DavenportOne’s economic and community development division, and who just happen to be in line for that portion of the funding ($6 million) through the DavenportOne Foundation.

To ensure that money is properly spent, Vision Iowa staff is the process of crafting oversight rules governing measurables, accountability, and consequences should funding be mishandled in anyway (see feature story on page 6). There will be intense state-level scrutiny of all expenditures.

Scott County residents need to weigh the risks of a referendum failing against the benefits of allowing the $5 million bond issuance to occur without it. If getting city leaders’ attention is the goal of the organizers of this petition, then be assured the mission has been accomplished. Before turning in the required petition, take this opportunity to insist on accountability; invite city leaders to speak to your concerns via city channel 13. Demand that the City Council and the Scott County Board of Supervisors provide a presentation on the overall project, including its individual components and funding structure that explains the various private and public contributions. Request a cost/benefit analysis that also explains the cost of not doing the project. Before we risk the entire project and lose it forever, let’s get informed by educating ourselves so that we aren’t doing irreparable damage to our future.