Department of Irony

Officials from Aurora, Colorado are in a tizzy because someone conducted some focus groups to see what taxpayers thought of a $300 million subsidy to a proposed hotel. Such focus groups “violate the ethics code for economic development organizations in the region,” said Tom Clark, the executive vice-president of Denver’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

Apparently, it is perfectly ethical to steal money that taxpayers had allocated to schools, fire, and police and give it to a private developer, but it is unethical to ask those taxpayers how they fell about such theft. Colorado’s “taxpayer bill of rights” prevents governments from raising taxes by more than a certain percentage each year–but tax-increment financing, the main source of subsidies for the proposed hotel, is exempt from this law.

“You can’t work against your neighbor, and you can’t run around them,” Clark said. “If you do, you’re subject to permanent expulsion from the Metro Denver EDC.” Of course, it is always possible that some people don’t want to be a part of Clark’s cozy little club of thieves.

The Denver Post suggests that the focus groups were paid for by Walter Isenberg, the CEO of Sage Hospitality, a hotel service company. Aurora’s mayor Ed Tauer suspects there is “a monetary interest at stake.” Of course there is, considering the city is subsidizing a competitor to the region’s major hotels. But it is possible that Sage Hospitality could have gotten the contract to serve the proposed hotel, which would mean that Isenberg was motivated more by a sense of fairness than by monetary interests.

Tauer and others fear that those who funded the focus group plan to circulate an initiative petition to overturn the subsidies. Such a petition, says Tauer, would be “a slap in the face to the thousands of Aurorans who support this project.” Because the thousands who oppose it should not be allowed to have a say in how their city operates.

The real irony is not that government agencies that run focus groups all the time are accusing others of being unethical for running a focus group. Instead, it is the curious notion that leaders of tax-increment finance agencies think they have any ethics at all.

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17 thoughts on “Department of Irony

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    Though the article linked by the Antiplanner above (first hyperlink) contains these words:

    The focus groups consisted of likely voters in an Aurora municipal election ages 50 and older, excluding Democrats and liberals, according to an Aug. 12 memo from ballot initiative consultant Rick Reiter obtained by The Denver Post.

    I find that offensive on its face, and I am pretty sure that the person(s) paying for the focus groups did not want that to slip out.

    Also from the article:

    The Gaylord project has regional significance and should be supported by all communities in the metro area, Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen said.

    Gaylord National has a large project at National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Maryland which seems to be doing pretty well – it was strongly opposed for many years by civic and environmental activists from across the Potomac in Virginia.

  2. Dan

    In my view the huge subsidy is for a boondoggle. And the electeds don’t want such a question on the ballot. Especially Adams Co officials, who all seem to be corrupt, judging from the number of depts under investigation.

    DS

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    Dan wrote:

    In my view the huge subsidy is for a boondoggle.

    I don’t dispute that, even though Gaylord National seems to be doing a decent job with National Harbor in Maryland.

    And the electeds don’t want such a question on the ballot.

    Presumably those elected officials can be denied re-election? Does Colorado law allow for recall from office?

    Especially Adams Co officials, who all seem to be corrupt, judging from the number of depts under investigation.

    I recall reading someplace that Aurora, Colorado is located in more than one county (is that correct?) – otherwise, I don’t know enough about the political scene there to connect the Gaylord project to Aurora and to Adams County.

  4. The Antiplanner Post author

    CPZ,

    What’s offensive about seeking a target audience for a focus group? We don’t even know what their goal is. Maybe they want to attract people to a Tea Party. Polls and focus groups often target on selective audiences. As long as a private party paid for it, that is their decision.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    What’s offensive about seeking a target audience for a focus group? We don’t even know what their goal is. Maybe they want to attract people to a Tea Party. Polls and focus groups often target on selective audiences. As long as a private party paid for it, that is their decision.

    Only because they are seeking to influence public policy (and yes, I am not generally in favor of taxpayer subsidies to hotels, and would quite possibly be sympathetic to what the sponsor(s) of the focus group(s) are trying to do).

    If they exclude people from a certain political party, why not also exclude people with certain ethnic backgrounds or certain religious beliefs as well?

  6. Dan

    I don’t dispute that, even though Gaylord National seems to be doing a decent job with National Harbor in Maryland.

    Denver Post, despite being fishwrap, did a decent job reporting on Gaylord, and some of their returns on investment (tax breaks/abatement) aren’t as advertised. Developer promising the world again and electeds falling for it.

    I recall reading someplace that Aurora, Colorado is located in more than one county (is that correct?) – otherwise, I don’t know enough about the political scene there to connect the Gaylord project to Aurora and to Adams County.

    Nope, one county. Adams Co is having lots of problems with corruption – Public Works, RTD, etc. They are not credible right now.

    DS

  7. Sandy Teal

    Somebody has to mention the great oversight of the project entrusted to the local school board, which as a taxing district has to give its approval. The school board gave its approval of the $300 million subsidy as long as the hotel would let the two high schools hold their proms in their fancy digs. http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_18933086

    Is there a more egregious example of how development oversight can degrade into pure government-developer back scratching at the expense of the tax payers?

  8. Dan

    They rolled over for cheap. They should have extracted much, much more from the developer.

    Dan’s first rule of pre-application analysis: never trust the promises of an out-of-town developer. Works 99.875% of the time. For in-town developers, the likelihood is ~92%.

    DS

  9. MJ

    A developer who is looking for $300 million in subsidies for an $800 million project deserves more than a modest amount of scrutiny. Besides this, one can seriously question the rationale of subsidizing the construction of a hotel in general. How many travelers choose a particular location simply because of a hotel?

  10. C. P. Zilliacus

    Sandy Teal wrote:

    Is there a more egregious example of how development oversight can degrade into pure government-developer back scratching at the expense of the tax payers?

    While I am equally suspicious of developer-bashing (an old, old tradition (which has done plenty of damage) where I’m from), what Sandy described above sounds like a taxpayer rip-off. Those schools should be soliciting space for high-school celebrations on a competitive basis.

  11. Dan

    What MJ said. Silly destination hotels won’t work on the edge of the plains. Mountains maybe.

    And even better: Aurora’s mayor is term-limited out, so anything that goes wrong won’t get on him.

    DS

  12. Craigh

    “Gaylord National has a large project at National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Maryland which seems to be doing pretty well”

    So what? They’re good managers — at least some of the time. This has no bearing on Colorado.

    “The focus groups consisted of likely voters in an Aurora municipal election ages 50 and older, excluding Democrats and liberals”

    And you’re “offended” by that. What do you think focus groups are? When Democrats want to test their latest anti-capitalist message, they don’t form focus groups of Republican businessmen. A focus group isn’t a poll. You should really work on not being offended so easily.

  13. C. P. Zilliacus

    Craigh wrote:

    “Gaylord National has a large project at National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, Maryland which seems to be doing pretty well”

    So what? They’re good managers — at least some of the time. This has no bearing on Colorado.

    At least no bearing on Gaylord’s asking for a huge taxpayer subsidy from Colorado taxpayers.

    “The focus groups consisted of likely voters in an Aurora municipal election ages 50 and older, excluding Democrats and liberals”

    And you’re “offended” by that. What do you think focus groups are? When Democrats want to test their latest anti-capitalist message, they don’t form focus groups of Republican businessmen. A focus group isn’t a poll. You should really work on not being offended so easily.

    I am a lifelong registered Democrat. In large part because I do not approve of the Republic Party’s pandering to racists and Bible-thumpers, and saying one thing about [deficit] spending (claiming to be opposed to same) while at the same time running up billions of dollars in public debt (including two unfunded wars and a massive (and also unfunded) expansion of entitlements for geezers). And for good measure, I don’t approve of my party’s frequent pandering to extreme environmentalists (e.g. Sierra Club and others) and big-city politicians, especially when a majority of U.S. citizens live in suburbia.

    My point in being offended is that I am not the only Democrat who has these points of view, and the sponsors of the focus groups are being exclusionary in an effort to influence public policy.

  14. C. P. Zilliacus

    Sandy Teal wrote:

    I bet CPZ listens to both NPR and Rush Limbaugh, or else reads both the Washington Post and the Washington Times.

    NPR? Rarely. Limbaugh? Never. WBAL Radio’s Ron Smith? Sometimes.

    Washington Post? Yes, all the time.

    Washington Times? Not usually, because its owner, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, is a convicted felon, and I do not approve of his Unification “Church.” The Washington Examiner is a much more credible source of conservative opinion and news in the D.C. media market.

  15. Sustainer

    I just wanted to comment on this sentence: “Apparently, it is perfectly ethical to steal money that taxpayers had allocated to schools, fire, and police and give it to a private developer…”

    TIF is definitely not theft from taxpayers. It would be much more accurate to say that a good TIF proposal creates investment for everyone involved, which is why it is popular. If the loss of revenue had been too much for schools, fire, and police to bear, than the TIF would not be implemented.

    For example TIF does eliminate taxes for a period of time, but then the taxes resume once the project is complete. The project would have created more tax revenues from the site, so all tax jurisdictions will receive more than they would have if the project would not have occurred. Next it follows that the project would not have occurred had it not been for TIF because the developer would have been burdened by acquisition costs, relocation costs, demolition, loss of value to that which was purchased just to be demolished, environmental reviews, and environmental clean up and site preparation. To avoid most of these costs the developer would just go build on undeveloped land, increasing the need for city services, increasing the length of the transportation corridor, and the blighted area would remain in decay.

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