Planning board to consider expanded downtown TIF proposal

downtown

The proposal to expand the use of downtown tax increment financing funds for more types of projects is making its way through the formal city process.

During their May 25 meeting, the city planning board will be asked to consider an amendment to the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan, which was created as a result of the adoption of the Downtown Master Plan that “provides a blueprint for the revitalization and redevelopment of downtown and recommended the creation of an Urban Renewal District that utilizes tax increment financing to help fund public improvements called out within the Downtown Master Plan and the city’s growth policy,” according to the staff report.

As more projects are being developed downtown, several developers asked the city to consider the use of TIF funds to help offset their costs but so far, the city has not approved requests for items that staff and the city’s TIF outside counsel didn’t consider eligible under the city’s existing TIF program.

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Those developers argued that their requests were eligible items under the law, but city staff and the city’s TIF counsel have maintained that without modifying the TIF program as it’s approved by the City Commission, as required in the law, that allows the use of the TIF funds for those items, they remain ineligible.

The proposed expansion for the use of downtown TIF funds, which are specifically regulated by state law, was drafted and presented by Kellie Pierce of the Downtown Great Falls Association and Joan Redeen of the Business Improvement District, with assistance from Craig Raymond, city planning director and input from the city’s outside TIF counsel.

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Pierce and Redeen, with support from other downtown entities, are proposing to allow the use of downtown TIF funds for private commercial development for code compliance, facade improvements and crime prevention through environmental design projects.

They’ve presented the concept to commissioners in two work sessions and now the draft will be considered by the city planning board, which will vote to make a recommendation to the commission. The commission has the final authority.

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TIF districts create specific areas of targeted development or urban renewal where a base tax level is set and the tax increment on improvements within the district go into a special fund to be used for public improvements within that district. Great Falls currently has five TIF districts.

City considering proposal to expand downtown TIF program

The proposal from Redeen and Pierce would set aside up to $500,000 of TIF funds annually for eligible projects.

The proposed plan would create three new programs within the downtown TIF.

The Downtown Urban Renewal Area Façade Program would provide up to a $50,000 reimbursement per project for eligible façade renovation activities.

In February, Pierce cited the Mighty Mo Brew Pub, Central Avenue Meats and the upcoming Newberry event center as examples of façade projects that have improved the look of downtown and spurred other improvements.

In October, the City Commission amended the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to specifically mention the Civic Center façade project.

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“The Life Safety Code Compliance Program is designed to stimulate increased public safety and handicap accessibility improvement projects. Due to the historic nature of the downtown building inventory, many buildings are rife with building and fire code violations as well as features that impede the use and enjoyment of services and activities for those with physical and mobility impairments,” according to the staff report.

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The total reimbursement available for each requested project under the Life Safety Code Compliance Program is $25,000.

The Environmental Safety Program works toward the elimination of blight using the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and other safety and security design principles. The total reimbursement for each project is $5,000 such as exterior lighting and security cameras, which must be added to the Great Falls Police Department’s registry if they get the TIF funding.

As proposed, the program would have funding limits of $500,000 annually and each parcel would be limited to a total of $80,000 over 15 years of any combination of the categories of TIF funding.

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The remaining balance of annual TIF increment earned will either be used to cover bond debt payments, such as the roughly $440,000 annual debt service for the Civic Center façade project, or left in the account for use outside of the three new programs in the existing Downtown Urban Renewal Plan.

The current balance in the downtown TIF is about $2 million and the account will generate revenue annually.

With the changes, the City Commission will still have the flexibility to consider larger requests for “special and unique high impact projects” so long as there are sufficient TIF funds to do so, according to staff.

Projects within the program reimbursement limits will be processed by city planning staff and final funding decisions will be made by the city planning director under the proposed program.

Staff is recommending approval of the changes to the downtown TIF program.