City, MAD proposals prompt questions, suspicion

By John Peters

April 2, 2014

Big changes seem to be afoot in downtown Mount Airy.

First, after meeting multiple times in closed-door sessions to discuss the idea, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners went public last month with its consideration of creating a Redevelopment Commission.

Now it appears that the city is considering a Mount Airy Downtown Inc. request for a rather sizable expansion of its Municipal Service District (MSD), which could result in higher taxes for a number of downtown property owners.

The Redevelopment Commission, thanks to state law requirements that force local governments to hold public hearings on such matters before taking action, has been widely debated by city residents, a majority of whom seem to be against the idea.

There are some potential positives which can come from such a commission. It could lead to federal grant money for downtown rehabilitation which might not be available without the formation and existence of such a local body. There is a history, too, of such commissions being important parts of revitalization efforts in various communities across the nation.

The downside of what a commission can do, however, has local residents a little jittery. First and foremost, such a commission can declare a property or area blighted, and while that might qualify the area for some federal funding, it also means the commission can use the process of eminent domain to seize the property.

It’s also somewhat disconcerting to note the body is appointed by the board of commissioners, thus it becomes a quasi-governing agency with the ability to take property, to issue loans, and to spend taxpayer money, yet it is not directly responsible to voters.

It is likewise worth questioning the formation of an agency like this when much of the discussion regarding its formation occurred among city officials behind closed doors and those discussions became public only after the city was required to place public legal advertising notices in The Mount Airy News informing the community a public hearing on the proposal would be conducted.

Now comes word the commissioners are considering expanding the MSD, ostensibly at the request of Mount Airy Downtown, to develop more of Mount Airy’s downtown area. Of course, with such expansion comes extra taxation for those properties to be taken in. For the present fiscal year, property owners within the MSD pay an extra 21 cents per $100 of assessed value.

There are positives to the MSD. Many common-area improvements have occurred over the years along Main Street with funding from this organization, improvements that have enhanced downtown and made it more inviting to visitors and local residents alike.

If done with the support of affected property owners, expanding the MSD might not be a bad idea, one that could allow the city to build upon its already successful tourism and downtown business development efforts.

Still, there’s something about this proposal that doesn’t quite meet the eye test — you know the one that says it sounds great, but something looks askance.

Among the specific questions we have would be:

- Why are clearly non-retail businesses being included in the MSD expansion, when the district is supposed to be made up for commercial, primarily retail, establishments? We’re not certain that a bank, investment house, or empty factory building fit that definition.

- Why is any organization in the city, especially one that has at least some semi-governmental characteristics, asking for any action that would increase the tax burden on city residents or businesses, when the city is sitting on a budget surplus large enough to fund the city’s entire general fund for a year.

- Is it simply a coincidence that the city is considering forming a body, the redevelopment commission, that could have sweeping powers to bring about change in designated blighted areas — even if that change is against the wishes of property owners — at the same time Mount Airy Downtown city is asking to expand the MSD?

On the former issue, the formation of the redevelopment commission, we would hope the city board would vote against that move. Or, at the least, if the board is bound and determined to create a redevelopment commission, that the board members appoint themselves to it — every last member of the town board — so that there would be some voter recourse available if needed.

On the latter issue, that of expanding the MSD, we hope the board requires an overwhelmingly compelling reason from Mount Airy Downtown Inc. before granting such a request, and then only after surveying the affected property owners to see if they support such a move.

Even better, maybe if Mount Airy Downtown can show a definite need for certain improvements to the area around downtown, at least within the proposed MSD expansion, some of that excess city fund balance could be used rather than imposing news taxes on some businesses.