The state lost the paperwork, but nobody realized what this actually meant until Amos Green of Centreville came along.
Green, a businessman, wanted to know how elected officials in his town spent property tax money under the tax increment funding or TIF, program. This money is intended to increase the overall tax base by temporarily deferring or rebating property taxes to spur new development.
But Centreville wouldn’t tell him anything about who got TIF grants, Green said. They ignored his Freedom of Information request, even after the office of the state Attorney General sent a letter to Mayor Mark Jackson and other city officials stating they must provide the data.
Green, 61, who owns a consulting company, got on his computer and learned that municipalities must file annual TIF reports with the state comptroller’s office. When he checked for Centreville, he found that for the last 18 years, the city has failed to file an annual TIF report.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Failure to file is supposed to lead to a hefty fine. There were none.
Green wanted to know why the city hadn’t been fined and was told in an email from Adam Alstott, the deputy general counsel for the comptroller’s office, “Our policy has been to send out fines notifications after the government reports are received (late). City of Centreville has not submitted their TIF reports, so they have not yet been sent a fine notification.”
At his home in Golden Garden, a Centreville neighborhood, Green laughed and asked, “Why would they file reports if they knew they would be fined? Better to just leave it be.”
But an inquiry by the News-Democrat into Centreville’s failure to file annual TIF reports turned up a statewide problem — that many communities’ reports were either missing or never filed at all, according to comptroller’s spokeswoman Jamie Dunn.
Since Tuesday, employees in the comptroller’s office have been going through a process to determine which cities have been filing their TIF reports and which have not.
The problem, said Dunn, is that when a search in some cases was made, “Documentation was not around. It was missing.”
The comptroller’s office still doesn’t know the extent of the missing reports.
TIF has long been criticized as a way for politicians to give money to their friends and political cronies. The reporting law was enacted so that taxpayers and taxing districts know where the funds are going.
Dunn said the goal of the comptroller’s office is to get local TIF communities into compliance with the reporting regulations and not necessarily to levy fines, although that is part of the law.
Because Dunn was commenting after only a few days had elapsed since the BND’s inquiry, coming up with a list of other communities that have failed to file the annual reports was not possible. But she said the problem was “overall” and Centreville was undoubtedly not the only community that failed to file.
Dunn said that when the current state comptroller, Susan Mendoza, took office in December 2016, they didn’t that cities weren’t filing their TIF reports, or that some reports were missing. “We need to get our ducks in a row and move ahead,” she said.
Green was the recipient of a Centreville TIF rebate of 75 percent of his property taxes on the house $100,000 house he built in 2014. Under TIF laws, the grants are good for the life of the TIF, which is typically 17 years. He became concerned when, according to his calculations, he was being shorted about $3,000.
The city’s failure to respond to his FOIA request for financial data was disturbing, Green said.
Jackson, the mayor, did not respond to requests from the BND for comment. During the day he works full-time as a U.S. mail carrier in St. Louis
It’s not known how much TIF money Centreville — which USA Today listed as the poorest community in the country — takes in or distributes.
“How is any citizen going to find out who got paid what?” said Green. “Officials could be putting money in their pockets and who would know?”
A three-page Oct. 22 from the Attorney General’s Office stated that, “It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible in compliance” with state open records laws.
The letter stated that not only did Centreville government leaders fail to respond to Green, but they also failed to make any response to the state when ordered to provide the requested financial data.
Instead, the Attorney General’s Office closed the case, leaving Green to hire a lawyer to file a motion in St. Clair County Circuit Court to order the city to comply and turn over the information.
“That would cost thousands and take months even if I could find a lawyer who would take the case,” Green said.
He did get some response from the city. It was in the form of a treasurer’s report from the July 2017 Finance Committee meeting.
The report listed checks paid by the city to various vendors and individuals by date, amount and check number, but left out a crucial bit of information — the name of the person getting the payment. be.