Former Smith County commissioner speaks out against revenue plan

Published on Tuesday, 10 December 2013 23:18 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL

Resident Sharon Emmert knows about diverting or forgoing property tax revenues. She supported tax abatements as a Smith County commissioner to lure employers. But the latest revenue tool proposed to Smith County commissioners, a Transportation Reinvestment Zone, has her concerned and asking questions.

Mrs. Emmert was among about 30 residents who attended a public meeting Tuesday evening at the county’s R.B. Hubbard Center downtown about the zone.

Under the plan, revenues would be collected for 25 years on new construction within 1 mile on either side of the center of the two-lane Toll 49, rather than go into the Smith County general fund.

The zone would not raise taxes but rather funnel revenues created by new construction and increased property valuations within the corridor to the county. The corridor would be about 2 miles wide, 1 mile from the center stripe in each direction, around Toll 49.

Under the early proposal being considered by commissioners, half the tax revenue would go to Smith County for county road maintenance and improvements, while the other half would go to the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority to expedite completion of future expansions of Toll 49. Toll 49 is managed and bonded by the mobility authority.

The zone would generate an estimated $31 million to $41 million in revenue during its 25-year lifespan, based on the county’s current tax rate. Officials said the estimates are conservative because they do not include an estimated $100 million investment within an 80-acre south Broadway Avenue development within the zone.

Proponents said the investment zone would help speed up completion of Toll 49, which they believe will relieve traffic congestion in surrounding communities and generate commercial and residential growth. They believe tax diversions now would increase valuations, usher development and return the investment decades into the future.

But Mrs. Emmert wonders why the court doesn’t designate 100 percent of the funding created within the same corridor to county infrastructure, rather than create the zone and see 50 percent of it go to fund extension and expansion of Toll 49.

“We do not need to siphon money away from the county when county roads are in the condition they are in,” she said. “I would like to see 100 percent of that growth go to Road and Bridge, considering the present conditions of roads in this county.”

Others in opposition view the zone as allowing the state to duck its obligation to fund road construction and maintenance sufficiently. They say the reinvestment zone taps local taxpayers to fund a toll road, and that depending on commercialization of the corridor is a gamble that could lead to higher taxes in the future.

Bill Wallace, a member of the chamber of commerce and former commissioner, called the zone a “win-win” proposal the court should approve. He said expediting the completion of the toll road generates development opportunity, which increases the county’s tax base.

Wallace said completing the road sooner than later will save taxpayers millions of dollars because prolonging adds to costs while the need for more road capacity continues to grow.

“It’s very obvious growth will follow (Toll) 49,” he said. “The longer it takes the more we lose.”

Tom Mullins, president and CEO of the Tyler Economic Development Council, said other tools designed to divert property tax revenue to infrastructure projects, including a Tax Increment Financing zone in Lindale, which helped develop the infrastructure needed to bring the Target Distribution Center, have been successes.

“Some people like growth. Some people don’t,” he said. “But we’d rather be dealing with growth than missing opportunities and experiencing a decline.”

Hideaway resident Dardine Roedel said Toll 49 and county roads should be financed on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.

But officials estimate it would take about a decade before the NETRMA would be in a position to borrow funding to move Toll 49 forward.

Kate Lindekugel, of Tyler, supports Toll 49 and said the zone and paying through debt is similar to a home mortgage. She said Smith County has to put “skin in the game” to move the project up instead of waiting for the state, which prioritizes most of its road funding to metropolitan areas.

“If I paid cash for my house, I would have to live in my car for years before I had the money to pay for it,” she said. “To buy a house now, I have to put in something to get the rest and a good rate. It’s the same thing but on a very expensive house.”

Officials will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at the First Baptist Church Whitehouse, 801 E. Main St. in Whitehouse and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lindale City Council meeting at Lindale City Hall, 105 Ballard Drive.

A public hearing about finalization of the corridor for the Lindale Relief route is scheduled for Jan. 9 in Lindale. Expected right-of-way acquisitions would affect landowners along the chosen route.