It may not matter in the long run, but the Ellisville Tax Increment Finance Commission sent an important message Monday night that should resonate countywide.
By a 7-4 vote, with every St. Louis County representative of the commission on the prevailing side, the public body decided that the city in west St. Louis County should reject a developer's request for tax incentives to build a Walmart.
The vote was a protest of the "gross overuse" of TIF incentives throughout St. Louis County over the past couple of decades for retail development, said Mike Jones, a commission member and a top adviser to County Executive Charlie Dooley.
TIF incentives allow developers to use a portion of the increase in local sales tax to pay the costs of construction. In reality, they reduce much-needed tax revenue while shifting consumer spending from one part of the county to another, particularly when applied in a suburban area like Ellisville, which most definitely is not blighted.
As the East-West Gateway Council of Governments determined in a study released last year, St. Louis-area taxpayers have spent more than $5.8 billion in the past 20 years on various development tax incentives, and there is little economic growth to show for it. The money spent on retail jobs in particular has produced at most 5,400 jobs, for a cost of about $370,000 per job.
That's obscenely bad investment strategy, but it continues because developers pit Ellisville against Chesterfield against Bridgeton against St. Charles, and eventually one municipality yields and offers the world.
If Wal-Mart wants to build a store at the corner of Clarkson Road and Manchester Road, a busy intersection begging for something to replace the deserted car lot once in the southwest corner, it has the wherewithal without a middle-man developer squeezing a few million more dollars from Ellisville taxpayers.
The concern over TIFs isn't a criticism of any particular retail outlet or municipality, but of the process, aided and abetted by willing elected officials who give in to the blackmail game played adroitly by developers and their attorneys.
More and more, however, elected officials from Democrats like Mr. Jones to Republicans like St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann are pushing back against the TIF game of robbing Peter to pay Paul. They should keep pushing.
Thanks to the TIF commission's vote, if the Ellisville City Council wants to give away the farm to lure a big-box store that probably is coming anyway, it will need to do so by a super-majority vote.
They should just say no.
Keeping more local taxpayer dollars in hand will make the inevitable ribbon-cutting that much sweeter.