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Developing divide

December 2, 2018

STAMFORD — A recent inquiry into the decade-old Harbor Point Infrastructure Improvement District in the city’s South End marks a brewing tiff over early plans for a new TIF — so-called “tax, increment financing” districts the city uses to spur development.

The developer charged with building up the Harbor Point district is pining for a new one and has so far had rapid success in the effort. But the next major hurdle will be garnering approvals from the very board whose committee is holding hearings on the old one, the Board of Representatives, which appears to be sprouting an anti-TIF contingent.

“What are the costs of having these additional residents residents in the city? That is something that is not been sufficiently answered,” said city Rep. Megan Cottrell, D-4, at the most recent meeting on the topic.

Some representatives’ dislike of the district and weariness of approving a new one became clear within minutes of sitting down for that Land Use Committee meeting. From the start, attendees earned a decorum reminder from the committee’s co-chair.

“I understand there are some high emotions,” said co-chair Charles Pia. “But what I’m going to ask from both sides is that if we ask a question and somebody is responding that we actually let them respond.”

The reminder came soon after Cottrell, who has led the charge for more information about the city’s dealings with Harbor Point BLT, scolded Director of Administration Mike Handler and other officials for taking two months to get her public documents she assumed would be easily accessible.

“It shouldn’t be that hard to get this information,” she said. “My first concern was actually the lack of information.”

At issue is a perceived lack of transparency.

The Harbor Point district, which is enabled by both state law and city agreements, is run by BLT because it owns nearly all property within it. Different documents and agreements call for different things, and Cottrell and other city representatives found it difficult to find so-called “deliverables” such as quarterly progress reports that one agreement said should be on file with the Board of Representatives, they said.

Further exacerbating discord, some city officials earlier told city representatives that they didn’t know where the files are or if they were still being submitted.

Recently, BLT sent what city Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8 , called a “document dump,” that had representatives parsing through complex accounting.

“We sent you everything we sent the city directly,” said BLT Chief Operating Officer Ted Ferrarone.

Handler, attempted to move past the board’s problems with obtaining documentation. Instead he focused on the complicated financing structure — tax increment financing, or TIF — and how it has helped the city.

But Handler did say the city would prefer a developer take on the work without city help.

“One of the tools that you use for a TIF district is a ‘But-for’ test,” Handler said. “‘But for’ this financing mechanism, this work would never have gotten done in the South End.”

Further, Handler said that residents and city representatives don’t give the city enough credit for the all benefit development brings — although new revenue streams are eaten up by funding long-term liabilities that went underfunded for decades.

“Here we are talking about Mill River and Harbor Point as if they’re failures,” Handler said. “Anywhere outside of this board, they are viewed as enormous successes to be replicated at any opportunity people have.”

The inquiry into reporting requirements will be ongoing — the issue was held for future meetings — though it is unclear how much more the board will learn about its previous agreements with BLT.

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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