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New Carlisle Residents Learn About Tax Abatements

by Marlys Weaver-Stoesz

Published: Friday, November 23, 2018

A group of community members concerned about potential industrial development on what is largely farmland in western St. Joseph County (Ind.) is continuing to gain support while also learning more about the economic development process.

The Open Space and Agricultural Alliance formed in opposition to St. Joseph County's plans to develop land near New Carlisle for a "mega-industrial park" branded as the Indiana Enterprise Center. To learn more about two of the tools often used in economic development, the group, along with the Lead Affinity Group of South Bend, the Environmental Network of Northern Indiana and the Community Forum for Economic Justice of South Bend, hosted a workshop last Thursday at New Prairie Middle School in New Carlisle. During the event, two experts explained to about 30 attendees how the county uses and could use tax increment financing (TIF) and tax abatements to develop the area.

Most of the evening centered on information from Marty Wolfson, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and board member of the Community Forum for Economic Justice. Wolfson presented first on how tax abatements work before detailing some of St. Joseph County's current tax abatement agreements.

"What an abatement does is essentially reduce the amount of property tax that the company has to pay," Wolfson began.

After explaining the tax abatement process, Wolfson reviewed with the group some of the details of outstanding tax abatement agreements, highlighting several where companies have not complied with agreed upon terms. Wolfson listed companies that created fewer jobs or invested less money in the area than promised or did not fulfill other terms, but with no consequences to receiving the tax abatement. Several in the audience questioned if the St. Joseph County council, which handles tax abatements, had the staff and time to properly monitor tax abatement agreements.

Donald Inks, former staff member of the South Bend department of community investment and current member of the South Bend redevelopment commission board, walked attendees through TIF.

Once a municipal government declares a TIF district, Wolfson explained, tax monies on new development in that area from then until a set ending date are redirected from the usual jurisdictions to a separate TIF fund. The overseeing city, town or county can then use this separate pot of money for infrastructure development.

Both Inks and Wolfson encouraged those in the audience with further questions or concerns about particular information to contact the county council or county redevelopment commission.

Jennifer Betz, a member of the alliance, opened the workshop by explaining why the multiple groups wanted to organize the event.

"We just suddenly realized that the way our taxes are being used and not used and tax abatements and the TIF districts all have a lot to do with each other," she said. "We realized what we needed was to get educated to try to figure out how this is all working."

After the event, several people said the event was helpful in understanding TIF and tax abatements and also brought up new areas of concern, including Debra DuRall of South Bend.

"It was very helpful to understand the arithmetic behind all of this," she said. She noted too that her major concerns about the Indiana Enterprise Area development have to do with quality of life for residents, losing fertile farmland and the likelihood of soil, water and air contamination, but that "what's really driving (the county's plan) is the money."

As of Monday, more than 1,040 people had signed the Open Space and Agricultural Alliance online petition calling for the St. Joseph County board of commissioners and county council to hold a "more open and participatory process" and to consider alternative plans "that prioritize sustainable development and the protection of farms and natural areas."

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