A Mistake Was Made On The Choo Choo PILOT - And Response

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In many governmental decisions, there are very valid arguments on both sides of an issue, creating shades of gray to the ones voting. If I thought there were any shades of gray on the Choo Choo tax break, I would not be writing this letter. However, there are no shades of gray with this one. It is clearly black and white. 

PILOTS or tax breaks are necessary and make sense in isolated select circumstances, but must be well thought out, planned, meticulously overseen and very limited to ensure the taxpayer is benefiting the most and to also insure these tax breaks don't get out of control. Every PILOT given is less tax dollars collected, which equates to not having enough money to do certain projects across all of Hamilton County. These projects then get prioritized and move up and down on the priority list based on immediate need. In all cases, collecting less tax dollars financially hurts the poor and the people on fixed incomes the most.  

For example, giving a PILOT, thus collecting less tax dollars, might create a situation where a pot hole is not repaired timely, as it was moved down on a priority list. A poor or fixed income person hits the pot hole, damages their car and is forced to pay for the repair that the PILOT indirectly created. The poor person doesn’t have the discretionary money readily available for the repair that a person with more means may have and they end up making severe sacrifices to repair their car. I can cite many more numerous different examples of these types of things across Chattanooga, but hopefully you get my drift. Even worse, if there is not enough money to cover the high priority projects, the taxes we pay will be increased either directly with a tax increase or indirectly through increased property appraisals or both. Again, financially hurting the poor and fixed income families the most.  

Therefore, giving PILOTS must be very very carefully thought out and taken very seriously, to ensure that the most financially vulnerable are not being taken advantage of. Examples of where PILOTS make sense are 1)  A significant number of jobs will be created with the PILOT 2) A location where very old structures, in strategic parts of the city, are too cost prohibitive for any developer to be financially successful renovating or rebuilding them. A PILOT to help defray the cost may be a good idea 3) Situations that I am unaware of at this time that would make a huge difference to our community. 

In my opinion, the Choo Choo PILOT that was passed by the city and county was very irresponsible by all that voted yes and it stinks to high heaven. I am incensed by it, as should all taxpayers in Hamilton County. Here is why. 

The Choo Choo renovation was going to occur whether they received a PILOT or not. 

The cost of renovation does not prevent the project from being financially successful. 

The PILOT only increases the developers bottom line, at the expense of the poor and those on fixed income. 

No additional jobs are created because of this project. As a matter of fact, this project decreases the number of jobs, as there are not near the number of jobs needed to run an apartment complex as a hotel. 

There are locations within a mile or two of the Choo Choo that are way more truly deserving of a PILOT. 

Well, why did the Choo Choo PILOT pass so easily in the city and 6-3 in the county? It seems obvious to me. An ex mayor was the developer and he had many friends who were on the city and county voting boards. These people placed friendship ahead of their constituencies who entrusted them with their vote. If the developer had not been an ex mayor, I seriously doubt it would have passed. I have spoken with numerous business men and women, old, young, and in-between across Hamilton County and no one was in favor of this. I have yet to have one person, including commissioners who voted yes, tell me why it was so important that the Choo Choo receive this PILOT.  

It breaks my heart to see the poor, veterans, and seniors hurt by a project that truly doesn’t need a tax break. I have chosen to stand up for the little guy, as most of the elected officials seem to value friendships more than doing what is right by their constituents. They voted for the individual behind the project, rather than the merits of the project itself. I’m particularly disappointed in Commissioners Mackey and Beck, as these men represent two of the poorest districts in Hamilton County. If both vote no, it stops the PILOT.  Many days before the vote, I communicated with both commissioners about protecting their constituencies and how a yes vote financially hurts the people they represent the most. Amazingly, both  of them voted yes and chose to throw their constituencies under the bus. And for the record, I gave $500 to Commissioner Mackey’s re-election campaign.  

This is not about the ex mayor. This is about right and wrong. And asking, is this project deserving of a tax break? Then weighing the necessity and greater good of this project verses those that get hurt the most by granting it. Pure and simple, this project does not do anything extraordinaire for Hamilton County to warrant a tax break. There are a number of possible projects within a few miles of the Choo Choo that are very deserving of a PILOT and really would significantly enhance the downtown area. If the ex mayor’s company were involved with any of those, I’m sure there would not be this public outcry because the project would truly warrant the associated tax break.

People make mistakes. There was a mistake made here, more than likely, starting with River City and its selection of the location of this PILOT. Honorable and responsible people and companies take ownership of mistakes and show who they really are by correcting them.  Choo Choo and/or River City can do the right thing and reject this PILOT or they can choose to pad their bottom line and financially hurt the little guy in the process.   

A very concerned lifetime resident of Hamilton County, 
Dr. Keith Dressler 

* * * 

Thank you, Dr. Dressler, for your letter concerning the Choo Choo PILOT; you hit the mark with your comments and concerns.  With further investigation you will find that the "residential project" for the Choo Choo has been in the works for quite some time, definitely longer than the Downtown Housing PILOT program reenactment.  I concur that the project would have proceeded whether or not a PILOT agreement had been granted.   

Your letter should be a "wake up" call to the taxpayers of Hamilton County.  We taxpayers should not stand for the "good ole boy" politics of the past.  We should all voice our outrage to our elected officials as you have.  We should all stand for those that are underserved in our community.   

I, for one, would like to see an online petition effort requesting/demanding the Choo Choo PILOT not be implemented.  I'm sure there would be an overwhelming amount of signatures to support the request.  It would not be a message against the Choo Choo, it would be a message that the taxpayers of Chattanooga not only expect, but demand better representation from their elected leaders - those who should be genuine stewards of our tax dollars.  To quote Helen Burns Sharp - "who's looking out for the taxpayer?" 

Alex McGee


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