On the eve of Tuesday’s city council elections, about 40 people gathered Monday evening in the municipal courtroom at the Highland County Justice Center for a second round of public meetings to discuss Downtown Redevelopment Districts and whether or not the City of Hillsboro should join the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District or continue utilizing its services on a contract basis.
Opinions were many and varied on both topics, and the discussion at times grew heated.
The audience members who spoke during a public hearing on DRDs seemed largely critical of redevelopment districts, an economic development tool recently created by the state legislature designed to redirect a portion of property tax revenue back into a designated 10-acre area where the dollars are generated by property improvements.
Council is considering two such districts, one in the uptown area and another surrounding the former Union Stockyards property and surrounding areas.
Highland County Auditor Bill Fawley was on hand for the meeting, and fielded a number of questions regarding property taxes and how they function in the district.
Fawley said that more substantial revenue from DRDs would come from properties that are built from the ground up, rather than improvements made to existing properties.
City Auditor Gary Lewis asked Mayor Drew Hastings a number of questions regarding Bell’s Opera House, which is owned by Hastings and would be a focus of the uptown DRD. Lewis questioned Hastings about divesting interest in the opera house. Hastings said he is following advice from Law Director Fred Beery.
A number of citizens voiced concerns about the possibility of “seed money,” or funds from a source other than property taxes, such as the city’s General Fund, being used to get the district fund started.
Hastings said property owners within the district can voluntarily contribute seed money to the district, but other than that, “there have been no discussions” regarding the matter.
Hastings said council establishing the districts and setting up an operating commmittee are the first steps in a more lengthy and fluid process, and the direction each DRD takes is determined later on.
Local resident Kay Barrera said a set of rules or bylaws for the DRD operating committee should be established before council votes on the matter. Barrera also said there’s no proof that redevelopment districts have worked in other communities, since the legislation is new, adding that the opera house shouldn’t be a focus of the district since it won’t draw people to Hillsboro, she said.
Another resident, Jon Polstra, said tax dollars should not be used to benefit individual properties, calling it less of a legal matter and more of a moral one.
Polstra said the DRD idea sounds like a “scheme,” and said the value of a community goes up if tax dollars are invested in schools, streets and other vital community elements rather than private properties.
Paul Crouch, who does not own property in the uptown area but lives on East Street in Hillsboro, said he believes DRDs are a good idea, since establishing them shows outside entities that the city is willing to make changes for development.
“You have nothing to lose with this proposal,” he said. “At least we can say we tried.”
Council members Tracy Aranyos and Ann Morris both expressed their support for the DRDs.
Later, during a special session of Hillsboro City Council, a number of people spoke out against the city joining the Paint Creek fire district, since doing so would result in a property tax increase to cover the expense.
As reported by The Times-Gazette, if the city joins Paint Creek, a 5.5-mill levy would be imposed to pay for its services, equating to about $152 annually per $100,000 valuation for residential properties and $192 annually per $100,000 valuation for commercial properties.
As he has in past meetings, resident Chris Matthews was outspoken against the city joining the fire district as a member, and requested the decision be put off until the city has a better understanding of the tax burden that would be placed on those with a fixed income, or until after new members are installed on city council following the election.
Council member Claudia Klein said she is on a fixed income, but supports the city joining the district so it has a vote on the Paint Creek board.
Barb Cole, who often attends public meetings, said a property tax increase for fire and EMS service would effectively be a “double tax,” since tax revenue already being collected from Hillsboro residents is being used by the city to pay for the district’s coverage.
“The only difference is we’re paying now… and we’re going to be asked to pay more for what we’re already getting,” she said.
One man said he already has to give financial help to his parents to help them pay their bills, and a property tax increase would push it too far.
Hillsboro Police Department Interim Chief Shawn Kelley said he supports any measure that will keep fire and EMS service available.
“My mother looked me in the eyes saying ‘I’m dying,’ … and those guys saved her numerous times,” he said. “I would give $150 every year for that.”
Fawley encouraged those concerned with the issue to call his office at 937-393-1915 to find what the exact impact of the levy would be on specific properties.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.