COLUMN: City Council to take from schools to fund baseball stadium

In my last column, I wrote about how North Augusta's "Project Jackson" fails on so many levels, from city planning, to preserving the character of Brick Pond Park, to the degraded quality of life of the residents who will have to deal with the adverse social and community consequences of a 5,000 seat baseball stadium.

This time I would like to show you why "Project Jackson" fails - legally. In fact, the project is in such violation of the law, the citizens of North Augusta should ask every candidate for city council the following question: "Are you in favor of taking school tax money away from the schools under the pretext of eradicating blight in order to build a baseball stadium that has no economic impact on our city?" If their answer is some waffle about trying to accommodate the stadium with reducing the impact on local neighborhoods, blah, blah, blah. I suggest you vote for someone else.

First, a short primer on the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) law. The South Carolina legislature authorized cities to create special districts which are blighted or about to become blighted and draft a redevelopment plan to eradicate the blight, increase the tax base of the city and remove threats to the health, safety, morals and welfare of the public. (See SC code Title 31, Chapter 6). In 1996, North Augusta created a 457-acre TIF district which encompassed the Hammond's Ferry area, the River Club and downtown. The city declared the area blighted with a stated total land value of about $997,000 or $2,200 an acre. In 1997 the Aiken County School District sued the city, claiming among other things, that the area was not blighted. In 1999, the parties agreed to settle the matter, provided the city designated no more than five acres of commercial development in the TIF and permitted the school district to collect taxes on improved residential units.

Now comes the city council wanting to extend the TIF district another 30 years beyond its expiration in 2016 in order to build a baseball stadium and a parking garage between the 13th Street bridge and Hammond's Ferry. To do that, the city needs about $43 million. So they amend the TIF district period of existence for another 30 years so they can pay off the bonds that will be used to raise the $43 million. To do that, city council is asking you to suspend disbelief that there is blight in that area that needs a baseball stadium, er, excuse me, I mean, needs eradicating. City council members who voted for this needed to find one of the following conditions in that area of the TIF district: inadequate public or private investment, unmarketability of property, growth in crime, substandard housing causing an exodus of families and businesses.

The council must further find that one of those conditions "threatens the health, safety, morals and welfare of the public." Let's take this one at a time. Inadequate investment - the city sold the 26 acres to the Hammond's Ferry developer in 2007 for $437,000 or about $17,000 an acre. That's an increase of about 700 percent from 1996. Since 2007 the property value has increased another 6.7 percent, according to the Aiken County Assessor's office, and is now worth $460,000.

Unmarketability of property - well the developer bought it just five years ago, it has since gone up in value, and properties very near that location are not cheap. A river front lot in Hammond's Ferry or the River Club sells for about $300,000. The very existence of the 100-plus homes in Hammond's Ferry and the 80 homes in the River Club belie the claim that river front property just isn't marketable.

Growth in crime - I have lived here next to the "stadium" area for almost six years. I am aware of only one crime near there; it was a six-pack of Bud Light that someone threw on the ground near the entrance to the brick ponds. I guess if someone threw two six-packs, or a case of beer on the ground, the city could claim a growth in crime. As I think back now, one day I did see an alligator assault a turtle. Crime is basically nonexistent on the property in question.

And all of those conditions, which don't even remotely exist, must be threatening the health, safety, morals or welfare of the public. There maybe someone out there feeling threatened, I just haven't met them yet.

Finally, the South Carolina statute says that TIF districts are authorized because the tax money would not flow otherwise to the school district because there would be no development without a special district to plow all the new tax revenues back into a baseball stadium, er, I mean infrastructure. How do we know that is not the case - just two weeks before the City amended the TIF District they approved a development agreement on that very property plus 19 more acres with the very same developer for a park, residential uses and 4,000 square feet of commercial space.

So what we have here is a city council ignoring the spirit and the letter of the TIF law because they want to build a baseball stadium. And now they go before the Aiken School Board and will tell them to ignore the law as well, and take school tax money and plow it into a baseball stadium.

Here's the bottom line, the city wants to rob Peter (the schools) to pay Paul (the stadium). And only two years ago, the school board wanted a $236 million bond issue to help repair or replace six schools. If the school board goes along with this scheme, remember the next bond issue they ask for, and ask them why they went along with the "bread and circuses" of baseball instead of investing in our schools. When you take your child to a baseball game, wouldn't it be nice if they actually knew how to compute a batting average?

If this baseball stadium is such a great idea for North Augusta sited on the most expensive undeveloped land in the city, let's stand it straight up. Take a $43 million bond referendum to the voters of the city and see if they want to put their tax money into an enterprise that offers no new jobs, has no new economic impact on the city and seriously degrades the character of the Brick Ponds and the surrounding environs. By contorting the TIF law, city council avoids the voters by taking school tax money away from our already crumbling education system all the while telling the voters they found the elusive "free lunch" - they want you to believe they can build a stadium with no cost to the taxpayer.

Steve Donohue is the president of River Club HOA.