Missouri’s Brownfield Remediation Tax Credit program is long overdue for a closer look, the state auditor said Wednesday, in the wake of a Post-Dispatch investigation that uncovered cost overruns and weak oversight on the cleanup of the former Carondelet Coke site in south St. Louis.
The auditor’s office has not reviewed the brownfields program — which funds cleanup of polluted sites — since 2002, shortly after its creation, when Claire McCaskill was auditor. Current auditor Tom Schweich said he wants to audit it in his first term, but couldn’t say exactly when because of a tight office budget.
“It is my plan to audit it during my term,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say.”
The Post-Dispatch investigation found that the cost to taxpayers for Carondelet Coke nearly doubled, to $12.3 million, when more pollution was found at the former coal gasification site. Schweich compared the project to ones he saw in a recent audit of the Missouri Quality Jobs tax credit, which, like brownfields, is also run by the state’s Department of Economic Development.
“How much it was going to cost the taxpayer was understated and how many jobs it’s going to create is overstated,” he said. “That’s a pretty common theme with tax credit programs.”
Schweich also criticized the lack of competitive bidding on Carondelet Coke, in which one environmental firm managed the contracting process and ultimately awarded much of the work to itself. Non-competitive bidding, he said, is distressingly common on projects at all levels of government in Missouri.
“Many of our audits uncover this sort of thing,” he said. “Competitive bidding in an open and transparent manner is the best way to achieve value for the taxpayer.”
St. Louis officials, Gov. Jay Nixon and the Department of Economic Development have generally defended their handling of the Carondelet Coke cleanup, pointing out that it will bring new life to a long-empty 42-acre industrial site and potentially create hundreds of jobs.