In the past several months, petitions from two separate developers (THF Realty-Wal-Mart, and Jersey Ridge Partners-Steve Schalk and associates) for rezoning of nearly 300 acres north of 53rd Street, between Elmore and Eastern avenues, have passed through Planning & Zoning without most of the crucial questions being answered. Questions such as: What is the economic impact of the commercial developments proposed, such as Super Wal-Mart and Home Depot? How are we going to provide city services to a residential area with over 110 new residential units? Where are the buyers for these units coming from when we have virtually no population growth? Where will the personnel come from to fill jobs created by new development if there are no new people, especially when Davenport realized a 6 percent decline in retail jobs in 2000? If Super Target is already experiencing less-than-projected sales for their large retail grocery operation, how will adding another super grocery impact this and other nearby groceries? What is the actual net gain in tax base? Is it possible we could be over-saturating retail development in Davenport?
It is important to note that THF Realty's astronomical projections of a $28 million increase in sales tax is deceptive because it includes retail that is already developed, such as American, Super Target, Staples, Best Buy, and Pheasant Creek. The real increase, which should be strictly limited to new retail development north of 53rd Street at Elmore Avenue, is really only about $11.5 million, less than half of what's been projected. This includes subtracting both the loss of sales tax from the abandoned Wal-Mart store at Elmore Avenue and Kimberly Road, as well as the $14.5 million generated from existing retail south of 53rd Street. Talk about fuzzy numbers. An Iowa economic impact study shows that in nine counties Iowa alone, 84% of the sales at Wal-Mart came from existing businesses. The manager of Davenport's Wal-Mart admitted that if the new store is built, he expects to take at least 20% of Moline's Wal-Mart business.
Another important distinction that isn't being addressed is how Iowa distributes the sales taxes it collects back to the counties' individual cities. Each retailer within a county pays the sales taxes it collects to the State. The state distributes what it collects from each county among the counties' cities based on the population count. In other words, it doesn't matter where in the county the retailers are located because Davenport will only get 98,000 (current population of Davenport, except we are operating on the 1990 census which puts us at 95,000) times whatever ratio exists to spread the sales tax around. So if Super Wal-Mart locates in Bettendorf, Eldridge or some other city within Scott County that collects sales tax, we will still get the same share of sales tax. Scare tactics that claim we will somehow lose out or that the school district won't get its share are false. Alderman Sherwood works for the Davenport School District, so perhaps he should consider abstaining from voting if his boss is pressuring him to vote in favor of the project because it potentially affects school funding.
The project's projection of $58 million in property improvements generating $853,000 in property taxes once all the development is completed needs to be examined in net terms. There is no question that the increased taxes are nothing to stick our noses up at, and the city could really use the money. But what are the true net gains? What property taxes are lost when stores go dark because they cannot compete against the retail king? If we gain in property taxes, but lose in sales taxes because a number of businesses closed as a result, what is the net return? If Wal-Mart employs 50 more people, but stores that close their doors let 150 workers go, where is the economic gain in that? These are all fair questions and should be resolved before proceeding. There is enough empirical data available to do viable predicting of these outcomes.
We should give Alderman Wayne Hean a real show of support on this subject. At a minimum, he has put in countless hours researching the information presented, as well as the pros and cons of the proposed relocation of Wal-Mart via analyzing local and statewide financial data, and investigating how such development has impacted Iowa and communities across America. He is to be credited with asking the crucial questions that should have been addressed by both the Planning & Zoning staff and Commission members.
Donna Bushek, chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission, when asked why she favored the 110-plus residential development proposed by Jersey Farm Partners, claimed that she supported it because there was an exodus of residents from out of Davenport into other QC communities. I asked her what evidence she had to support this claim and she said she would gladly provide such evidence. Two weeks later, she informed me she was not able to obtain such documentation. I then asked her if she had ever actually seen such evidence, and she admitted she had not, that she was "told" there was an exodus of residents. When pressed for who told her such information, she declined to answer. This is but one example of the kind of research and consideration, or lack thereof, of facts that go into these critically important, community-altering decisions. This negligence cannot be allowed to continue. If there is an exodus, why can't it be proven satisfactorily? If we have a housing shortage in particular price ranges, demonstrate it empirically. This is not unreasonable protocol. In fact, it represents sound business practices of the private sector, why not the public sector as well?
One issue of great concern to the public relative to both the THF and Jersey Partners projects is traffic congestion because the 300 acres under petitions for various rezoning for future development would all funnel onto 53rd Street. THF did their own traffic study for the $3.8 million in proposed street improvements for their development at Elmore Avenue. (Critics of the project have suggested that it would be more prudent to generate an independent traffic study so that the fox isn't watching the hen house, so to speak.) THF's traffic expert gave a report at last week's Community Development meeting that stated the $3.8 million worth of improvements would leave traffic at a "C to D level" once the new development was in place, meaning it would be improved only enough to absorb the new development leaving traffic in approximately the same condition it is now?even while THF claimed that the new Super Wal-Mart would bring "additional regional" shoppers to the area. It was not clear whether these additional regional consumers had been considered in the equation. The traffic expert went on to explain that, in reality, if THF only did the street improvements [they are required to do by law, according to their purchase contract] for the old Davies property south of 53rd Street, but did not put in the proposed improvements at the north Elmore location, then the traffic situation would actually be made worse. That's comforting.
Another important point to consider is that, with THF's current zoning as a Planned Development District (PDD) that does not allow for retail development, if an office tower were to locate at this site, there would be no requirement upon the developers to do anything to improve the intersection or relieve the traffic situation. This should be a wake-up call to city planners and lawmakers to revise ordinances to require adequate public facilities and infrastructure before development can occur. THF is being credited with making improvements as a quid pro quo for the rezoning variance that would allow them to locate there. But they are only improving the intersection to the point that it makes their own development more accessible.
Many cities require that the developer provide comprehensive economic impact studies before they are approved. In other words, it is incumbent upon developers to prove their projects are meritorious and sustainable. This is not only a reasonable policy, but one that makes sense and provides for sound planning. If Wal-Mart can prove it complies with city goals and stable land use practices, that their presence makes economic sense and does not detract from the economic health of our community, then bring it on. In fact, in many communities across America, Wal-Mart has actually contributed to the community for the privilege of locating there. Here in the Quad Cities, our city leaders believe we need to provide incentives for their presence. The City of Moline actually allowed Wal-Mart to utilize TIF, with promises from Wal-Mart for landscaping and ascethetic improvements that never occurred. Moline officials have stated publicly that they intend to avoid future developments like Wal-Mart with respect to appearances. (Moline does agree that the sales tax base has been good for the city.) In Davenport, we are considering the creation of two SSMIDs for THF's benefit, so they can repay themselves for street improvements that would have to be made anyway. The city is also proposing to purchase their old building if it hasn't sold after two years and market it for them. We simply can't bend over any more than this.
Citizen Karl Rhomberg said it best during this week's Committee of the Whole meeting: the council isn't asking for enough. Locating at the Elmore/I-74 exchange is a huge privilege and would be an ideal location for any retailer. So let THF pay for that privilege beyond improving the entrance to their own developments. If we want living wages, then require that anyone who develops that land must pay living wages of a minimum of $10 per hour, with benefits. In addition, ask Wal-Mart for contributions to our local organizations and projects, like they did in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont. In Lancaster, PA, the developer offered $5 million in incentives to the city, which included $1 million toward the development of an industrial center, $750,000 to the local economic development office, and $1 million for the school district. In Quincy, MA, the Wal-Mart developer gave $150,000 to the area business development organization to advertise and promote their downtown shopping district, and an additional $100,000 toward an office building in their downtown. While most of these incentives didn't persuade opponents in those communities, they illustrate that it is the deal you make going in that counts.
22 Years of Service Ignored
The most perfect example of how brutally out-of-control the City of Davenport has become is the recent termination of 22-year-veteran city attorney Mike Meloy. In a recent example of questionable journalism in the Dispatch/Argus, the reporter interviewed Alderman Ed Brown (7th Ward) regarding the possible termination of Meloy. Brown was quoted saying that he believed Meloy was a problem within the legal department, and that the majority of the council favored the action. No context was given as to who constituted the "majority of councilmen," what the problems in the legal department were relative to Meloy, with the exception of Brown's assertion that Meloy "should have discovered a discrepancy in the law regarding zonings," which is a completely inaccurate and improper allegation on Brown's part. Furthermore, there was no evidence shown to substantiate such wrongful claims.
When I spoke to Alderman Brown regarding the story, I asked him with whom he had actual discussions on the specific subject of firing Meloy. He responded that he had only spoken with Aldermen Sherwood and Moritz on the subject, and that Alderman Sherwood was spearheading the effort to release Meloy. Hardly a majority. I proceeded to ask Alderman Brown what problems in the legal department he was referring to. He made reference to his dissatisfaction with Meloy's recommendation to go to court against the Davenport School District over the demolition of the Sugar Bowl. I asked him how he could possibly hold that against Meloy when it was the council that voted 6-4 in favor of pursuing the action in court. Was Mr. Meloy to ignore the council's specific directive? Brown agreed Meloy was not in a position to do that, but remained "convinced" that Meloy was a troublemaker. I pressed and asked him to please be specific, and he finally admitted that all his "convictions were based on hearsay and rumors. I have no evidence or documentation to support any of this." In other words, don't confuse Alderman Brown with the facts because his mind's made up. This thinking was clearly demonstrated by his complete willingness to terminate a man after 22 years with the city based on what he openly admits were rumors and unsubstantiated information. Few things are more heinous than this. Alderman Brown claims to have "background information" to which he was privy, but he was unwilling to share it. Perhaps the claims brought forth by citizens that Alderman Brown has a conflict of interest because his son-in-law works as a planner for the city has more merit than first perceived. While this is absolutely no reflection on Brown's relative, if insider information is causing the ruination of lives as reflected in the termination of city attorney Meloy, then such relationships should be more closely examined when candidates come forward for possible election.
The controversy surrounding Meloy's dismissal must be investigated, such as Alderman Moritz's vendetta against Meloy for doing his job in representing the Historic Preservation Commission on behalf of the city, then later the city itself, against the Davenport School District's unscrupulous act of demolishing a building it had arguably agreed to preserve. She was in the process of negotiating with the School District to have Roosevelt School deeded to the city for a community center in her ward. Never mind that she got Roosevelt and the community center anyway, that one issue clearly had no impact upon the other. Then there is the conjecture that Alderman Sherwood started on a path against Mr. Meloy because Meloy tried to hold developers such as THF to their contractual obligations for infrastructure improvements, which they were neglecting until they could strike a better deal with the city, such as a SSMID arrangement to pay for the improvements. Finally, there is the "rumor" that city attorney John Martin, who is also the legal department's head and the one who actually terminated Meloy via a letter rather than in person, did so as part of a deal to keep his own job (with sanctions) to somehow appease Aldermen Sherwood and Moritz, who previously bypassed all protocol in making the deal with Martin by not accepting his resignation when he proffered it and dictating conditions without due process that would allow for the consent or dissent of the other aldermen.
A glaring lack of "process" prevails throughout all these travesties. Consider that the Davenport city council gave a sweetheart severance package to the previous civil rights director, who let over 135 cases languish in her office. They also gave nearly $100,000 to ex-city administrator Jim Pierce to leave quietly, whose performance was synonymous with incompetency. And now this same council is allowing city attorney John Martin to keep his job after several occasions of questionable conduct, including an admonishment by the state. He keeps his job regardless, with no demotion or cut in pay. But Mike Meloy, who served faithfully for 22 years without a single instance of disciplinary action, no loss of pay, no suspension, not even a written reprimand to his knowledge, and was rewarded for performance with a $1000 bonus the past two years in a row, wasn't even given the consideration of a phone call by Mr. Martin to inform him that he had been terminated.
There are countless examples of tolerating unacceptable performance and unprofessional behavior by city employees, which should initiate a process by which the employee is informed of his/her wrongdoing and given the opportunity to correct the problems based on reviews and evaluations over time. Where was this professional process afforded so many others at city hall? The public demands answers to these questions. This was clearly politically motivated, and it will not be tolerated. Acting administrator Kent Kolway, who has always represented the city honorably, assures that he reviewed the information and believes this is the right action. Unfortunately, it is the information he reviewed that is thoroughly suspect. Alderman Brown admits there were only three aldermen involved in pursuing this course of action against Meloy, including himself, and that his "convictions" were based on pure rumor and hearsay, and that Meloy's release was spearheaded by Aldermen Sherwood and Moritz.
To claim that this termination was not political in nature is absurd. I am an employer and there is no way that I could, or would, terminate an employee, cause or no cause, without some kind of process. Short of an illegal act or violence in the workplace, employees have a right to due process, which consists of warnings, discussions, an opportunity to right behavior or actions that are inappropriate or undesirable in the workplace, especially after 22 years of service! Mike Meloy has a wife and three children. Our elected and appointed officials have no right to manipulate people's lives because of politically motivated vindictivness. The public demands that the "cause" for which Meloy was let go had better reflect worse than any of the other behaviors of city employees who have been afforded much more decent and respectful treatment for far worse conduct.