Morgan County’s tale of two cities—Morgan and Mountain Green—just got a little more interesting.
When Barber Brothers Ford considered a new location for its $5.5 million dealership in 1998, both Ford and then-owner John Barber’s first choice was Mountain Green. What kept the car dealership in Morgan City—where it had been since 1981—was tax incentives offered by the city’s redevelopment agency. In keeping the dealership in the city, the city also kept a third of their budget as well, Barber said.
And Barber, now a Morgan County Councilman, doesn’t want Mountain Green to lose out again. That is why he convinced his fellow council members Feb. 21 to form a county redevelopment agency (RDA).
While Councilmembers Ned Mecham and Robert Kilmer voted against the creation of the Morgan County Redevelopment Agency, the motion to create it passed with five other votes.
“It is a tool in your toolbox. If a development came to you and wanted to engage you in any type of tax increment financing, or wanting any help from the county, there is nothing you can do for them” without an RDA, said Marlin Eldred, the county’s former economic development director now acting as consultant. “The bottom line is it gives you complete autonomy, the opportunity to look and projects and move forward if you want to.
County Attorney Jann Farris questioned the move, partly because of the county’s past history with its RDA.
“There used to be (an RDA) in the county quite a long time ago. Due to improprieties, it was done away with,” Eldred said. “Garth Day basically abused the RDA to embezzle the money out of the county.” Former Council Administrator Garth Day used the RDA as one tool to misappropriate approximately $1 million in county funds from 2008 to 2010.
“If you don’t have a project on the horizon, why form the shell?,” Farris asked. “The RDA makes no money. Why form something you can’t put funding in and you can’t hire an attorney for?”
But Barber and Council Chairwoman Tina Cannon quickly pointed out that the county does, in fact, have a project on the very near horizon: the Mountain Green City Center. Rumors surrounding developer Duane Johnson’s development agreement near the base of Trappers Loop have included a grocery store and multifamily residential units.
“They are going to come after you for some tax increment,” Barber told the council Feb. 21. “We need to talk intelligently and give the economic development department another arrow in their quiver.”
Farris pointed out that only a few of the seven county council members definitively knew of impending development plans for Mountain Green’s city center before Feb. 21.
“Most likely you will have a project in three to six months,” Eldred said. “What message do you send if you hold off on this now?”
“We need to be able to react to this specific developer for a specific project,” Barber said. “It is much easier if we have an existing RDA. It shows the developer you are serious and allows the process to go a lot quicker.”
Based on the number of development inquiries both Eldred and new Economic Development Director Steve Lyon have had, creating the RDA now is a good move, Eldred said.
“If you create (the RDA) and it sits and does nothing for years on end, there is no use,” Eldred said. “But there have been enough inquiries, we felt it was time to pull the trigger to get it created.”
“We are asking because it is going somewhere,” Cannon said.
“I have talked about the Mountain Green City Center in council business for two years,” Barber noted. “We have two or three developers that are getting down to the final nitty gritty. We need to go in and talk to them and say we have an RDA set up.”
Eldred said that setting up a county RDA does not obligate the county to anything, and allows the RDA board—in this case the seven members on the Morgan County Council—to consider projects on a case-by-case basis, “not carte blanch.” He said with recent policies, procedures and financial oversight instigated by Council Secretary Tauna MacPherson, the county shouldn’t have problems like they did with Garth Day almost a decade ago.
“You have policies and procedures that would prohibit what happened in the past to happen again,” Eldred said. “It was not because of the RDA that it happened.”
Eldred said that for the first community reinvestment in the RDA, the developer will pay the attorney fees and initial costs to planning a budget.
The county would have to approach the school board and any other taxing entity in the area of a proposed development to negotiate the details of any tax increment incentive. If the school board denies offering their portion for a tax incentive, the county can still structure a deal with their own portion of property taxes.
Morgan City has had an RDA for decades, and has used it to offer tax incentives to the Young car dealerships. The city is now attempting to use it to try to woo a hotel developer to their city.
“The city has a bird in the hat, or otherwise there is no reason to extend” their RDA, as noted on a recent Council of Governments agenda, Eldred said.
“All (tax increment financing) is, is icing on the cake, help to bridge that little gap,” Eldred said, noting that tax increment deals helped get Micron, Adobe and Outlets at Traverse Mountain to Lehi City, where he now works. “You don’t have to give 100 percent to each project. You have to leave meat on the bone for the county” to fund issues that come along with development, such as road repairs and maintenance.