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Wait a minute

On Friday, the Marathon County Executive Committee will discuss whether to recommend administrator Lance Leonhard sign a letter stating county support for a proposed Wausau City Center mall redevelopment project.

We think there is plenty to talk about here.

According to City of Wausau documents, the current proposal calls for donation of $3.9 million from Tax Incremental District (TID) No. 7 (Menard’s, Ear Nose and Throat and Allergy Associates, Surgical Associates Clinic and Kwik Trip) to fund the first phase of the project, which includes demolition of the 1983-vintage mall, except for the Hom furniture store and two city parking ramps. With the leveled space, a local development group, Wausau Opportunity Zone, hopes to build apartments, commercial space, a farmer’s market and a large, arching public pedestrian boulevard. The plan calls for a Joint Review Board, where the county has a vote, to agree to delay by two years the time when TID No. 7 would end and its businesses would start paying taxes to the city, county, K-12 and tech schools, not a TIF development fund.

The city claims all these taxing jurisdictions will benefit from the TID-to-TID donation. The mall property’s taxable value has slipped from $41 to $15 million over the past decade, the city notes, and millions in new construction will restore the city’s tax base, spurring other economic development and resulting tax revenues.

We say not so fast. We have concerns.

The first is who gets helped here. We want regular taxpayers to benefit, not just the “overlying taxing jurisdictions.” Local governments paid nothing for TID No. 7. Local taxpayers did. They paid higher school, county and tech school taxes because the businesses in TID No. 7 didn’t. Taxpayers were promised a payback. Now, the city wants to delay that by two years. We think the Executive Committee, in its due diligence, should demand an analysis where taxpayers, not just local governments, will financially benefit from the mall redevelopment project. And not just City of Wausau taxpayers. We are talking about taxpayers across the county. County residents paid extra taxes to fund the TID that created the Wausau Center Mall in the first place. Now, the city wants taxpayers to reduce to rubble what taxpayers helped build. There needs to be an accounting.

We understand very well that the county will be able to use a mall redevelopment project as “net new construction” that will allow supervisors under levy limits to raise taxes. We call on the Executive Committee, however, to first protect the interests of taxpayers.

A second concern is how sketchy the mall redevelopment project seems to be. A city analysis says that it is not enough for the development project to receive the normal benefits of TIF, but a donation from TID No. 7 is imperative. “The accumulated... deficits during the redevelopment period would be unmanageable and unaffordable to the city,” the analysis reads. The city further notes that TIF collections will be “insufficient to pay for the project costs related to the demolition of the Wausau Center and anchor stores and the construction of streets and utilities within the site.” Such grim realities might mean to some the project shouldn’t go forward. To city economic development staff, however, these difficulties make the TID No. 7 donation needed and legal.

It is not our place to tell the City of Wausau what to do or whether the mall redevelopment plan is good or bad. It is our responsibility, however, to remind the Executive Committee of the county board that we, as taxpayers, rely on them to protect our financial interest and that there should be a robust discussion of the mall redevelopment project, not just an automatic “prodevelopment” rubber stamp approval.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review