Big Box becoming more of a terrible deal.

From the Institute for local self reliance: About ILSR
For Cities, Big-Box Stores Are Becoming Even More of a Terrible Deal.

#DoTheMath – Couple of takeaways from this:

1. We have a potential dark store issue in Lower Macungie. Since.

It’s an established part of the big-box retail model that the boxes themselves be custom-built, cheaply constructed, and disposable. If retailers decide that they need a bigger space, it’s cheaper for them to leave the old one behind and build a new one.

This is happening in Lower Mac right now with Weis. They are currently in the process of abandoning their current store to build a new one – across the street. This opens the possibility for Weis to argue the “dark store” method for calculating tax assessment.

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2. Even without assessment reductions box retail isn’t a fiscal winner for local communities. The reduction strategies happening in some states just make it worse.

When eight communities in central Ohio looked at the fiscal impacts of big-box retail, they found that the stores actually demanded more public services than they generated in revenue, and created a drain on municipal budgets to the tune of a net annual loss of $0.44 per square foot, or about $80,000 for a typical Walmart supercenter. 

Mark my words, our increasingly boxy/strippy Hamilton Corridor will be the driver for local police and a massive unavoidable tax increase: 

“Higher demand for police departments is one example. In Port Richey, Fla., nearly half of the town’s crime emanates from the area Walmart. “The taxes that come from Walmart are not even enough to cover two police officers’ salaries,” Police Chief Robert Lovering told Vice.”

It’s happening in Lower Mac today.

3. With Hamilton Crossings we are beginning from an even bigger hole. Throughout the HC discussion it was parroted that the windfall was worth the tax gimmick. The narrative was: “There is nothing now, when something is built we can tax it”. Problem is what we approved costs us much more then what’s there now – fallow open space. And the new tax revenue won’t cover the long term liabilities. Our problem is the fatally flawed short term way we look at municipal finances.

“Cities and towns continue to buy into myths sold to them by the mega-retailers themselves, that big-box stores spark economic development. In service of this myth, local and state governments across the country have granted at least $2.6 billion in subsidies to just six large retailers, including $160 million to Walmart and $138 million to Lowe’s, according toanother study from Good Jobs First.  That’s without factoring in the cost of services, which as Marquette, Mich., saw, can pile up”

We got to start thinking beyond the windfall and look at lifecycle sustainability. That is: Lifecycle costs (liabilities) vs. revenue (tax base). I am not arguing for a valuable corridor to be vacant. This isn’t about NIMBY. My argument is a financial one. We need to build better. Smarter. Patterns that create positive value. But since at least with Hamilton Crossings that ship has sailed….

4. Living in reality. What’s done is done.  Can’t change the fact 3 members of the current BOC opted to hand out a 20 year tax subsidy. So, moving forward our strategy has to focus on repair and triage. We accomplish that with balance. First by preserving farmland and open space concentrating on places where expensive infrastructure would have to be built and maintained by taxpayers to support greenfield growth.

Second, we encourage better/smarter growth in patterns that creates higher value in locations where infrastructure exists. We get there by fixing our terribly archaic and restrictive zoning code. By instituting aspects of a form based code we allow and even incentivize more “Main Street” oriented walkable neighborhood mixed use devleopment on Hamilton Boulevard.

The land development alternative – What does that mean? Lower Mac is working on a vision.  Here is an outline: Lower Mac’s Hamilton Corridor vision study. If we adopt and follow this plan we will induce more high value growth on Hamilton Boulevard. This is essential to balance the low value. More positive growth will help balance the net negative financial development.

“Locally owned retailers provide value to a community in many ways, but one of them is to the municipal accounting books. In a study that found that big-box retail generates a net deficit for taxpayers in a Massachusetts town, the researchers also discovered that specialty retail, like Main Street businesses, are the ones with a positive impact on public coffers, generating more revenue than they require to service.”

One thing to watch is avoiding falling into the pitfalls of “smart growth light” like we have in the past. #WordsHaveMeanings.

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The taxing alternative - Shift the burden off residents and onto warehouses and box stores.

Lower Mac to consider borrowing for open space preservation.

I support preservation of farmland & open space prioritized by parcels with high development pressure. While debt isn’t my preferred means to accomplish this I support whatever consensus the board arrives at since I feel strongly about the long term benefits. I also understand we have a voter mandate for preservation.

*Note: I have over the past year proposed alternate funding strategies including:
1. Ear-marking developer transfer taxes for preservation
2. Creating a transferable development rights program (TDR). TDR is a free market mechanism for preservation. It involves no township money.
Unfortunately, neither got traction from other board members. 

In March Commissioners Conrad & Lancsek proposed borrowing to fund preservation. While I am pleased it appears the entire board is willing to settle on a mechanism I am only cautiously optimistic at this point. Read about the proposal here.

First, let’s talk mandates. I came into office with 2. Important to remember, since both relate to preservation.

1. First keep taxes sustainably low. Meaning setting us up for long term resiliency as opposed to gimmicks. I think I’ve delivered with the homestead exclusion that rollled back 25% of the prior boards tax increase for homeowners. More importantly relating to resiliency it sets us up to capture more revenue from commercial and industrial users (strip malls and warehouses). These uses generate more liabilities than revenue. Addressing this disparity sets us up for a more sustainable long term balance sheet. High liability land-uses should carry the burden. Not residents.

2. Second I came into office with clear mandate from voters to preserve farmland and developable open space. This also relates to #1. How to keep taxes low in Lower Macungie.

So why only the cautious optimism about the bond?

I’m nervous that some might see a 10M bond as a “blank check” for whatever pet project is the flavor of the moment. With the “blank check” mentality we can get lazy. That scares me.  Remember, the reason the prior BOC raised taxes in 2012 was to fund capital projects. Fact is since then, the largest single project moving forward is the 4.9 million dollar quarry park renovation including over 1.5M earmarked for turf fields. Hardly a priority and certainly not warranting a tax increase.

I’m nervous we’ve diluted a conversation about funding open space (something with clear long term financial benefits) with “other capital projects”. (Things that might not)

I’m also leery of inducing more “dumb growth” with STROAD infrastructure. While it’s important we solve existing traffic problems we have to be careful not to induce further congestion. (see graph below)

So, lets proceed but with caution. Any questions about the potential bond please feel free to email me at ronbeitler@gmail.com

What is induced demand.

The red line represents vehicle flow along a given road. Traffic steadily rises until someone decides the road needs to be widened. Then the original trend line (dotted red) gets replaced with an even greater travel forecast (dotted orange), as we'd expect by creating more road capacity. But the actual new level of travel developed by this widening (solid red) is even greater than the forecast predicted.

The red line represents vehicle flow along a given road. Traffic steadily rises until someone decides the road needs to be widened. Then the original trend line (dotted red) gets replaced with an even greater travel forecast (dotted orange), as we’d expect by creating more road capacity. But the actual new level of travel developed by this widening (solid red) is even greater than the forecast predicted.

Senator Pat Browne letter of support for 222 upgrades

Couple weeks ago I posted a letter from Rep. Ryan Mackenzie in support of Rt. 222 upgrades including grade separated interchanges. (on and off ramps at Millcreek and Krocks) Today we were copied on a formal letter from state Sen. Pat Browne. These letters are in response to a letter writing/petition campaign I started in March.

The de-stroadification of the underperforming roadway would allow for a more free flowing bypass. This is critical to ensure regional traffic flows as Rt. 222 provides a critical connection between the cities of Reading and Allentown. This connection essential on a regional scale as well as local scale to ensure freight traffic can get safely and efficiently in and out of Upper and Lower Macungie. This is a quality of life, economic development and most important a safety issue.

Have you signed the petition yet? It takes about a minute.

Here is a copy of the Senators letter:

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Mackenzie letter of support for true free flow bypass.

Neighbors,
Quick note of thanks for taking the time out of your schedules to participate in the Rt. 222 petition/letter writing campaign. In one week we got 110 letters! Clearly, the importance of the bypass struck a chord! Didn’t sign and send letter yet? Click here!
Sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to long range planning but in this case ensuring we’re on the radar for future funding for a true free flow bypass is critical.The Rt. 222 “bypass” is a safety, traffic and economic development issue all wrapped up into one. And most important one that is of regional importance.

Reducing the number of signals on the bypass will reduce congestion and provide a more efficient flowing Rt. 222.

Below check out this letter of support from State Representative Ryan Mackenzie. (and take a moment to thank him) This is a direct result of letters. You had a positive effect! 

Also since the campaign started I have met with County Executive Tom Muller and Lehigh County Commissioner Chair Brad Osborne. Both have a clear understanding of the issue and it’s importance. I look forward to hearing from State Sen. Browne and will update accordingly. I have had conversations with his staff who indicated the Senator has taken interest.Thanks again for your help,
Ron Beitler – Lower Macungie Township Commissioner

The Homestead program is about the long term

Last night after a year of consideration we passed the homestead exclusion ordinance. Here is an overview. I proposed this program in January. After having to do some leg work to get it considered (initially told we couldn’t do it) the board finally adopted the ordinance last night.

One item I wanted to clarify is the program is not a reduction of the millage rate. Some statements made last night could lead people to believe that. It does reduce the tax bills for homeowners it doesn’t for renters, commercial or industrial properties. This is important to understand.

The millage rate in Lower Macungie remains at .33. There was no reduction. What we did was enact a program to lower tax bills of primary residences for those enrolled in the program.

SHORT TERM: With Homestead the reduced bill is based on a reduced assessment. The average Lower Macungie tax bill goes down 19 dollars. This is a good thing. We do our part, the county does it’s part and the school district holds the line. It all does add up. Just like small tax increases over multiple taxing bodies adds up, small overall reductions do also.

I get why some focused on the short term. Framing it as a “tax break“. Politically makes sense for those trying to justify spending 13% of our entire township budget on synthetic fields. But it doesn’t help outline long term benefits. Because focus last night was on short term political narratives the programs long term benefits weren’t explained well. The long term potential is the true value of the homestead exclusion program. To cash in we need to stay focused on that.

LONG TERM: Long term fiscal sustainability means the township must balance the books. Revenue on the positive side. Liabilities on the negative side. Lower Mac continues to build out strip shopping centers and Industrial warehouse properties. These types of land uses create massive liabilities while generating pound for pound very little in revenue/acre. (see example below) The rezoning of 700 acres of farmland (farmland generates net positive revenue – High ROI) to allow warehouses and strip commercial (Very low ROI) will cost the township more in the long run. The beauty of homestead is that if maxed out it allows us to give a 50% reduction on homeowners tax bill.

As the township balances the books as a result of proliferating low ROI land uses homeowners should not have to pay increased taxes because of dumb growth decisionsTo do this we need to:

1. SHORT TERM – Part 1: Adopt homestead exclusion. (We did this last night)

2. LONG TERM – Part 2: Adjust the millage rate and max out the homestead reduction (2015)

With homestead exclusion after we max it out a resident who owns a home in Lower Macungie should always pay a 50% discounted tax bill (via 50% reduced assessment). While we still collect 100% of revenue from industrial and commercial uses.

Residents are intelligent in Lower Macungie. I don’t believe in feeding them talking points. Yes, 19 dollars in your pocket is nice but homestead is a long term play. That’s why I proposed it. Again, I get why some hi-jacked the message and crowed about it last night. Made for a tidy narrative as they tried to justify 3.3 Million in synthetic fields. Great political play. But unfortunately since the program wasn’t really explained in detail the bigger picture benefits were glazed over. This is what’s important. The 19 dollar bill reduction was a bonus. A good thing. But my goal is much bigger. Long term resiliency.

Bottom line: After the one time windfalls of growth is gone the township will eventually need to “balance the books”. Homestead makes sure residential properties aren’t shouldering the burden created by Industrial warehouses and Commercial strip malls. 

Distribution warehouses are one of the lowest ROI land uses for a local community.

Warehouses do not generate enough revenue to cover the liabilities they create. This includes increased need for police protection, specialized fire equipment, massive road improvements and general wear and tear, and low ROI per acre of land lost.

Warehouses do not generate enough revenue to cover the liabilities they create. This includes increased need for police protection, specialized fire equipment, massive road improvements and general wear and tear, and low ROI per acre of land lost.

To address the long term in 2016 I will propose a full 50% homestead reduction with .50 to .66 mil property tax rate: (the Millage should be increased in conjunction with maxing out the homestead % but more work needs to be done to determine how much)

  • Under proposed .66 mil property tax if you own a home at the township average of around 250,000 dollars your tax liability is 165. (Remember, that is local LMT tax not school or County)
  • Under a homestead exclusion program that grants a 50% assessment reduction on a primary residence the assessed value (for purposes of tax calculation only) is cut in half to 125,000. Therefore the tax bill is also reduced by half to 82.50. (Current level)
  • Meantime Commercial properties such as a distribution warehouses valued at 24,000,000 pays the full assessed value at .66 mil which would be 15,800. This is double the 2014 bill of 7,900.00.

All this is part of a long term plan to address underlying fiscal sustainability. But we have to stay focused. Another part is farmland preservation. Want to lower taxes? Preserve farmland. #saveitorpaveit. Preserving farmland is the number one quality of life issue in the township. By committing to it among many benefits we avoid having to build more infrastructure, provide more services, and we do our part to keep enrollment in EPSD stable.

Camp Olympic – A how to guide to developing a park.

I’ve been critical of the Quarry Park synthetic field proposal. More so than any one critique of the actual plan for me it’s more about how I think local gov’t should spend taxpayer money on park improvements. Although I have said that for me synthetic fields are very far down the list of my park priorities.

With the Quarry synthetic fields we have a proposal that materialized seemingly out of nowhere as a 3.3 million line item. As it stands now looks like this will be approved with Commissioners Lancsek, Conrad & Higgins supporting. Myself & Doug Brown have concerns.

As an alternative to that type of windfall reaction budgeting (in other words how quickly can we spend “found money”) is the way we purchased and incrementally developed the entire 120 acre Camp Olympic based on a master plan and funded through grants, public private partnerships, volunteers and incremental funding. Contrasting these two projects shows two very different philosophies of how you plan and fund major park improvements.

Camp Olympic:
Since purchase of the 120 acre park and subsequent adoption of a master plan over 4 years we’ve incrementally secured funding for improvements. Much of that in the form of grants. Each year one or more components were addressed. Over time some aspects of the plan were scrapped. Others added as we tweaked and adjusted based on feedback. Many improvements were considered and prioritized over time by our volunteer parks and recreation board.

First we upgraded the access driveway and bathrooms taking care of basic infrastructure needed to support more intense uses.

Next, we sold auxiliary buildings that didn’t fit into long term plans. Then through a private/public partnership via a generous donation from Bear Creek Mountain Resort we began designing a disc golf course. Construction will begin next year. Clearing of the course will be done by volunteers through the Lehigh Valley Disc Golf Club working with our public works dept.

Camp Olympic disc golf course is the result of a volunteer group spearheading the effort. Bear Creek Mountain Resort donated the baskets.

Camp Olympic disc golf course is the result of a volunteer group spearheading the effort. Bear Creek Mountain Resort donated the baskets.

Last 2 years our volunteer EAC has spearheaded tree plantings funded by grants reinforcing the parks overall theme as a conservation park. CO offers some of the best publicly accessible fishing spots in the township.

The park is now interconnected with adjacent homes through the volunteer efforts of an Eagle Scout who constructed a trail connection as an Eagle Scout project.

Over time we’ve secured grant monies for an eco park and BMX pump park. (Both coming next year!) We designated an area for community gardens. This past year rented 40 plots out to residents. Finishing the year we’ll use green futures funds to refurbish pavilions, the bridge and barn and access to the upper facility will be improved with a new loop road.

In the future as we continue to carry out the parks and rec comp plan the park may be a location for a potential dog park.

Additional adjacent land could be acquired in the future as well. This land is identified by the CO master plan and could be used as active parkland with the potential for Soccer or multi use fields with the added benefits of additional parking, another trailhead and access off of Lower Macungie Rd.

In every measurable way, Olympic has been a prime example of how you plan, develop and fund a 120 acre park. The multiple facets of the park serve many varied interests and are the results of many stakeholders working together for years. by incrementally executing the plan staff was able to identify varied sources of funding and support. 

What’s a PUMP PARK? Check this video out:

 

 

 

LMT Open Space Preservation Funding Proposal

At the end of last night’s budget workshop I outlined a proposal to bank all previously collected & future real estate transfer taxes  associated with the Jaindl Spring Creek Properties rezoning for preservation initiatives to offset the loss of protected open space. All together this would roughly generate 500,000 dollars.

The unfortunate rezoning of the “Jaindl property” resulted in the loss of 700 acres of previously protected farmland in the western portion of the township.

It makes sense to save one time money associated with the sales of subdivided lots within Jaindl Spring Creek properties to offset the loss of previously protected open space by permanently preserving other parcels elsewhere. Smart growth and preservation initiatives are supported by a majority of residents. This is based on elections, polling & surveys. It’s also reinforced by multiple adopted and pending comprehensive planning documents including smart growth and parks & recreation comp plan. Moving forward this is the best way to fund that initiative. The time to do it is now.

Banking this money moving forward gives us the flexibility to debate it’s precise application for a variety of types of open space projects including:

  • Farmland protection via easement
  • Acquisition for park expansion
  • Critical future greenway connections

My preference is easements on currently farmed properties with a focus on those with the highest residential development potential. This kind of preservation is the best way to keep taxes sustainably low over the long term by reducing the need for more services and infrastructure. It’s well documented that over the long run residential subdivisions do not generate enough revenue to mitigate new liabilities.That strategy is my preference but all these can be debated and considered over the next year. 

Today the township has an unfunded farmland preservation initiative. With the exception of Commissioner Lancsek who is openly opposed to preservation efforts, all Commissioners are on record stating preservation is an important goal. Each year that we do not actively pursue preservation we lose out on thousands of dollars of matching county funding which could go away at any point. The township has in the past been proactive. In 2007 supervisors unanimously passed an Act 4 ordinance allowing for the exemption of millage increases on preserved properties. This is a very powerful incentive that has been under promoted by the township since 2010.

Across the Valley communities are making preservation a priority but LMT lags severely behind. This despite our availability of parcels worth preserving and public support.

At the mtg last night Commissioner Brown supported the open space preservation “lock box” concept. This likely gives me a second to make a motion to formally propose the concept at the Nov. 6th BOC meeting. The initiative is also supported by the township EAC.

Jim Lancsek opposed. Commissioner Higgins and Conrad did not comment.  It’s time to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk with open space preservation.

 

EAC's 10/21 letter regarding open space preservation funding

EAC’s 10/21 letter regarding open space preservation funding

 

VBLOG – Lower Mac Quarry Park: Understanding the 1 time windfall

How does a township justify a property tax increase (first in a decade) and then one year later include in a proposed budget line item of a 3.3M to fund a proposed synthetic regional field at Quarry Park? The answer lies primarily in 3 one time windfalls that led to one time additional monies this year. They can be categorized as:

-Real Estate Transfer Taxes
-Hamilton Crossings Recreation Fee money
-One time budget transfer of a surplus from the Solid Waste Fund. (refuse bills)

Whether or not spending this money on synthetic fields is the right decision is a topic for later this week. Here were some initial thoughts I had.

This video deals with explaining the 3 sources of 1 time money that led to a discussion about spending 3.3M at Quarry. Before we discuss spending or NOT spending the money it’s important to understand how we got it.

 

Corporate Welfare

Last night at the township BOC meeting one colleague fellow Commissioner Ryan Conrad asserted that participating in the TIF is not “corporate welfare”.

It’s important residents understand where Commissioners stand on issues. This issue in particular outlines stark philosophical differences and approaches to land development, development subsidies and who should shoulder the costs of impacts both immediate and projected. Therefore it’s crucial residents understand very clearly without semantic interference where each Commissioner stands. Every four years we receive a job review in the form of an election. Therefore, I would be remiss if I didn’t clearly state that I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Conrads assertion in the strongest of terms. 

“Corporate welfare” in this instance has been used as a rallying cry for residents who by and large support the project but without the 20 year tax forfeiture. Some institutional supporters have tried to use semantics and word games to insist this doesn’t qualify as corporate welfare or that the townships decision on participating in the TIF could somehow derail the project. This is a disingenuous game and unfair to residents.

The facts remain:

1. If Lower Macungie participates in the TIF 50% of the developers incremental taxes will be siphoned away from the township.

2. The money instead is siphoned back to the developer and other private interests through LCIDA where it would be used to pay back construction bonds for basic improvements that are required of all developers seeking to do business in the township.

3. With this TIF, tax money is forfeited and instead used to pay for what otherwise would be the responsibility of the developer. In other words the normal costs of doing business. Infrastructure costs every other developer has to pay for themselves. In this case it is the bare minimum infrastructure improvements required by Penndot to build a shopping center of this magnitude.

4. The bottom line is that this mechanism pads the developers bottom line. TIF will increase profits of private business interests and decrease the return received by taxpayers. It is preferential treatment for one chosen business. It is a subsidy of both of the sellers flawed piece of land and of the buyer. It is a distortion of the market that will hurt other local businesses.

5. While you can argue that creating the TIF district could pull the plug on the entire TIF, (including the school district) the townships participation (remember they are 2 separate ordinances and two separate votes) is purely symbolic and will have absolutely zero impact on the developer building the project. In other words, with or without the township participating in the TIF this shopping center is coming. This is a certainty. I can’t be anymore clear about that. There have been attempts to blur this line. 

Lower Macungie’s participation in the TIF is giving one developer receiving special treatment for purely symbolic reasons. We are a relatively affluent township with a healthy and robust economic climate, therefore TIF is unnecessary and borderline egregious to even consider.

A vote for the TIF is a vote to take money out of the pocket of Lower Macungie residents and funnel it to private interests over a 20 year period. This is compounded by the fact some Commissioners seated on this board just recently voted to raise taxes.

If any Commissioner believes this is the right thing to do, then they should stand by that decision and not try to rationalize it by making statements like “The developer still pays 100% of it’s taxes” while ignoring the fact that half those taxes are siphoned away from the township back to the developer by padding their bottom line through the Lehigh County Industrial Authority. The other misleading notion I’ve heard is no “corporation is receiving a direct subsidy. Last time I checked TCH development and The Goldenberg group are in this to make money. They are indeed both private businesses who will benefit from TIF subsidy in terms of increased profits. No, the “nameplates” Costco and Target aren’t the direct beneficiaries but they are indirect beneficiaries. No matter how to slice it private interests are the gov’t sponsored winners in this shell game and taxpayers and other local businesses are the losers.

 

Guest blog – Jim Palmquist: Walk this way: Lower Macungie becoming pedestrian friendly

The following was submitted by Jim Palmquist the chair of the LMT walkways group. You can view the website here. It also appeared as an op-ed in The Morning call.

Surprise, surprise. Lower Macungie Township, the place where almost everyone drives wherever they go, has a major section that is almost completely walkable. About a quarter of Lower Macungie residents live in a walkable community! Who knew?

Lower Macungie is a place where thousands of people can walk or ride bikes on walkways to a drug store, grocery store, state liquor store, medical and dental offices, banks, churches, convenience stores, restaurants and other merchants and services.

walk way

 
But wait, there’s more!. Continue reading