Taxpayer advocates speak out against Downs project, TIF talks continue

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SCARBOROUGH — A local taxpayer advocacy group is questioning the timeline, process and potential loss in taxes if a tax increment financing agreement is approved for the Scarborough Downs project.

As town officials move ahead with negotiations over development details, a closed-door meeting with councilors, a town attorney and town staff will take place on an undetermined day next week to discuss a proposed credit enhancement agreement, according to Town Manager Tom Hall. The session was postponed from Aug. 21 because more time was needed to go over information received the same day, Hall said.

SMARTaxes member Larry Hartwell contends the biggest decision the town will make is whether to approve what he calls “a multimillion giveaway to a developer.”

Hall said he understands the intense interest residents are taking in the proposed financial partnership with Scarborough Downs developers, but assured detractors that any proposal must benefit the town.

At last week’s workshop, developers said they will need to partner with the town through a TIF to complete their vision of community space and a “modern, active mixed-use” downtown area on about 40 acres at the core of the property.

With a TIF, property taxes paid by the developers might be returned to them to pay for project amenities, such as a community center, that would benefit the town. The tax money, however, can also sometimes be returned to businesses to help their bottom line.

When it is completed, the project will include $600 million in taxable value, according to project partner Rocco Risbara III, who spoke at a public forum Aug. 15. However, the specific amount to be returned to the project through the TIF district has not been finalized, Hall said.

The proposal includes having developers foot the entire $265 million bill for the infrastructure to initially develop the 300 acres marked for development, including roads and sewer to serve the entire build-out. 

SMARTtaxes – Scarborough Maine Advocates for Reasonable Taxes – has been critical of the proposal, saying it lacks detail and will negatively impact the town for generations. The group also claims a TIF will cost taxpayers about $150 million in lost taxes. According to Hartwell, the impact on taxes was included in a presentation from developers at the forum, but Hall said he can’t comment on a specific number as nothing has yet been negotiated.

Hartwell said the issue “has all the appearances of a done deal,” but should go to referendum in November for voter approval. His group also feels more public input is needed before a decision is reached. Hartwell said SMARTtaxes would like the council to slow down before making a decision, “given the enormity of the money involved and the changes to the town.”

Hartwell said although the town is not required to put the TIF vote to the public, expenditures of more than $400,000 are required to be put to referendum. If a new fire truck and the new public safety building need voter approval, Hartwell feels a project of this magnitude should receive the same scrutiny.

“People need to show up and speak up,” he said of the proposal.

He said funneling money back into the Crossroads project will ultimately take tax money away from funding town functions and the school district.

Hall said ensuring the council understands the proposal and impact enough to make a well-informed decision is challenging due to the project’s magnitude, and he “cannot fathom” ensuring the entire public is informed enough to cast a vote. The town manager said the council is authorized to make the decision on behalf of the residents, though the council could decide to send it to referendum.

The next workshop and public hearing on the proposal is slated for Sept. 5. Hall said the councilors are striving to meet that date, when the framework of the partnership would be unveiled, but said the timetable is getting tight.

The limited liability corporation was formed by Risbara and his brothers, William and Marc, of Risbara Bros. Construction Co., and Peter and Richard Michaud, formerly of Michaud Distributors. They purchased the property last January for $6.7 million.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka. 

The Scarborough Downs grand stand.

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