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Hamilton Crossings TIF committee may not operate in public

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 21 2012 05:35:17 AM CST
Updated On: Nov 21 2012 05:36:36 AM CST
Lehigh County Commissioners

Lehigh County Commissioners

The proposed Hamilton Crossings shopping center project in Lower Macungie Township, which will have Costco and Target as its anchor stores, took a small step forward Tuesday night -- but not without some debate.

Two Lehigh County commissioners were appointed to a “tax increment financing” (TIF) committee that will investigate whether a portion of increased local property taxes generated by that shopping center should be used to help pay for it.

At least a couple of county commissioners thought that new committee should conduct its business in public, but that may not happen.

On Tuesday, county commissioners Percy Dougherty and Vic Mazziotti were approved by their colleagues to serve on the TIF committee. Cindy Feinberg, the county’s director of community and economic development, also will be on it.

The county was the last of three local “taxing bodies” to appoint members to the Hamilton Crossings TIF committee. Feinberg said the committee is now complete and can go to work.

Lower Macungie Township commissioners previously approved township manager Bruce Fosselman and Commissioner James Lancsek to serve on the committee.

And the East Penn School Board appointed Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger and board member Ken Bacher to it, with board member Francee Fuller named as an alternate.

Hamilton Crossings is proposed on a 63-acre site located along both sides of Krocks Road between the Route 222 bypass and Hamilton Boulevard. The project is still about a year away from getting final approval from Lower Macungie officials.

Tax increment financing allows a portion of increased local property taxes collected on a developed property to be diverted for up to 20 years to help pay for the project’s public infrastructure improvements and other costs.

In the case of Hamilton Crossings, property tax revenue diverted by TIF would help pay for infrastructure as well as remediation of mine wash from iron ore mining once done on the site.

Even before the debts are paid off for those improvements, the three local taxing bodies will collect much more money in taxes from the new shopping center than they will collect if the property remains undeveloped, argue the developers. Those developers also maintain they won’t be able to build Hamilton Crossings without TIF.

After working for several months, the TIF committee will recommend whether tax increment financing is appropriate for Hamilton Crossings and, if so, how much property tax should be diverted by the school district, township and county. But the three taxing bodies will make the final decisions on whether they want to participate and how much Hamilton Crossings tax revenue they want to contribute.

County commissioner Michael Schware said TIF committee meetings should be open to the public and the news media.

Immediately after commissioners voted to appoint Dougherty and Mazziotti to the committee, Schware suggested deferring that action until commissioners could be assured the meetings will be public, so residents “can understand what’s going on and have input.”

The county has a legal obligation under state law to designate one or more people to a TIF committee “without qualification,” responded John Lushis, Jr., solicitor to the Lehigh County Industrial Development Authority, which will be a “conduit” for any tax increment financing authorized for the Hamilton Crossings project.

Lushis told Schware the county would be in violation of the state’s TIF act if it did not appoint anyone to the committee.

Commissioner Scott Ott shared Schware’s concern and asked if a state law prohibits the public from attending TIF committee meetings.

TIF committee meetings could be public, but “under state law, based on everything I’ve researched, they do not have to be,” said Lushis. “The TIF committee, once formed, can decide whether or not it wants the meetings to be public.”

Lushis said the possibility exists that representatives from East Penn School District and Lower Macungie Township “do not want TIF committee meetings to be public.”

“If they are public, it will make the process more cumbersome,” predicted Lushis. “My own personal view is that it will bog down the process tremendously.”

He said the meetings would have to be advertised and the media could attend them. “There could be distractions from the work at hand,” said Lushis. “You may handcuff the committee members because they’re going to be assembling a TIF plan with the press conceivably scrutinizing every aspect of it. The fewer outside distractions, the better it will be for everyone.”

Ott said he was not suggesting TIF committee meetings be open for public statements and questions, but “kind of like Congress is, where people can come in and watch.”

“Then you’re making it a public meeting, it has to be advertised and anybody can come,” said Lushis.

Said Ott: “I’m not opposed to anybody coming.”

Added Schware: “The public should have an opportunity to at least view that process as it goes along and know exactly what is happening there.”

Lushis stressed that, when the committee’s work is done, the county, township and school district will act in public to decide if they want to “opt into the TIF or opt out.”

In Washington County, the court ruled against a citizen who maintained TIF committee meetings should be open under the Sunhine Act, said Joseph Logan of Mullin & Lonergan Associates, who was introduced by Lushis as one of the state’s foremost authorities on TIF. Logan indicated he’s been involved in more than 20 TIF projects across the state and none had public committee meetings. “There is no requirement in the Sunshine Act for a TIF committee.”

Lushis said having public meetings public would work against the objective of completing the committee’s work in a timely manner. No one offered commissioners a timetable, but Feinberg later said: “My guess is three to six months.”

Lushis said developing a TIF plan involves very tedious financial work. He said outside professional consultants do much of the work to develop such a plan. The developers also will work closely with the committee.