Lockwood School Board still neutral on TEDD

Originally published in the print edition of the Yellowstone County News – By Evelyn Pyburn

LOCKWOOD — After lengthy discussion and lots of questions, on Tuesday night, the Lockwood School Board punted on weighing in about the proposed Targeted Economic Development District (TEDD) posed for Lockwood.

Board member Scott Kiekover said, “I don’t think it is my responsibility.. . It shouldn’t be the school board’s responsibility to make the decision.”

Board Chairman Tim Sather agreed. “Why do you keep coming to the school to make a decision,” he asked. Present at the meeting was Steve Arveschoug, Director of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority, and members of his staff. Arveschoug said that they weren’t there to make a pitch, but to answer questions. He said that in advancing the TEDD it has been EDA’s goal to keep the board informed.

The process to develop the TEDD, which is a tax increment finance district created for the purpose of financing infrastructure,e for an industrial park at the intersection of Johnson Lane and Interstate Highway 90, will come to a decision at a public hearing held by Yellowstone County Commissioners on November 22.

Board member Sue Vinton added, “I don’t appreciate the county commissioners putting the decision on us.” She said that as school board members they are only responsible to hire a Superintendent and oversee the operation of the school.

“As a business owner,” said board member Joe Borgstrom, “I think it is a great idea, but as a school board member I don’t.”

Woody Woods, a member of the Lockwood Steering Committee, was also present at the meeting and made a strong case for supporting the TEDD. He said, “The reason this is coming before you is because of one county commissioner. If you take no position, that is the right thing.”

Vinton made a motion to send a letter to the commissioners declining to take a position on the TEDD. The motion came after an earlier one, not to support the TEDD, failed. With an obvious sense of relief, all but one of the board members voted in favor of Vinton’s motion.

Board member Teresa Stroebe was the lone dissenting vote. She strongly supported the TEDD because of the growth she believes it would bring to the community and future tax revenues. She pointed out how, after Lockwood residents insisted on building a second interchange at Johnson Lane, business growth around it “exploded.”

What growth could mean for the school district made it an issue of concern for the board, she said.

Peter Frievalds, a former school board member, who spoke in opposition to the TEDD, said the issue was before the school board because it would be one of the taxing jurisdictions most strongly impacted in having to forego any future tax revenues generated by business growth within the TEDD.

The board decision came after Superintendent Tobin Novasio said he didn’t really have a recommendation on the issue. If he had to make a choice, he said, it would probably be in opposition, simply because of the time commitment involved. Fifteen years of tax forbearance would be acceptable, he said, but the possibility of extending that another ten or fifteen years through the issuance of bonds “is what I can’t get past.”.

“I am very disenfranchised with the tax abatement,” said Novasio, “It is not fair.” Some businesses get it and others don’t, he pointed out, and the school district is never consulted. The abatement program offers tax forgiveness for new or expanding businesses that generate most of their sales from outside the area. (County commissioners have said they will not offer the abatement for businesses in the TEDD.) “So the TEDD is better than the abatement.” Novasio said that he knew that the regulations of the TEDD were set by state law, but maybe there could be a “gentleman’s agreement” that they would not extend it beyond the 15 years.

Arveschoug explained however that it was unlikely that the TEDD would be in a position to even consider issuing bonds for the first five to seven years.

One revelation about the potential of the TEDD that also disturbed some board members was the realization that its size could be increased. Board Chairman Tim Sather said that his qualms as to the size of the TEDD had been allayed when he saw that the study area had been reduced with to the TEDD boundaries around 570 acres. But, as Tuesday night’s discussion revealed that property owners who were not included in the TEDD could petition to be in it later, and that there are property owners interested in pursuing that process, Sather said he was once more concerned about its size.

Board members voiced a lot of concerns about what kind of growth the TEDD might bring to Lockwood. Kat Luhman asked “what kind of business development is going to happen?” Luhman said that she wanted to see hotels, motels and restaurants in Lockwood – convenience kinds of businesses that Lockwood residents have to travel to other parts of the community for, now. Those are the kinds of businesses, she said, that would be needed to support a high school, should Lockwood build a high school.

The area of the TEDD would be encompassing prime location for those kinds of businesses and hence encourage their development in the Heights, she said. “High income people tend not to want to live in Lockwood,” she said, because it is a less attractive area. Industrial growth tends not to attract retail business and residential growth.

Tim Sather agreed, saying that what he has seen in other areas demonstrates that even with a strong industrial presence, businesses like restaurants do not do well.

As far as supporting the possibility of a high school – a quest that Lockwood has long been pursuing — a high school could be built and paid off before the TEDD would sunset, it was pointed out.

Because the crowded conference room was stuffy, a side door had been opened. During the discussion, skunk smells wafted through the open door, prompting its closure. At which point, Sather said, the industrial park planned for Lockwood, basically says, “if your business makes a smell you can put it there.”

Scott Kiekover said, “We need to base our future growth upon what we have going….who is living around an industrial park?”

Arveschoug explained that while the TEDD rules set parameters that only “value-added” businesses can directly benefit from TEDD revenues, they have no control over what a property owner wants to do on their property. Restaurants and motels could build, but would not qualify for any support from the TEDD.

Woody Woods pointed out that now, because of the process to create the TEDD, Lockwood has a growth policy that will give guidelines in the future as to what businesses can locate where. “We have never had planning before,” he said, “My biggest concern is that if we don’t go through with a plan, whoever has the cheapest plan will do it,” because no one business can afford to build sewer and water lines.

“We need a plan which has our input which we have never had before,” he said. “I want to see this move forward because we need to look to the future so that money will move into the community.”

The TEDD, which will be administered by an advisory board made up primarily of Lockwood representatives, is the first opportunity for Lockwood to retain and direct how some of their tax dollars are used. Lockwood has to step forward to address its problems, contended Woods, who added that it has been apparent they cannot expect the county commissioners to do it.

Others noted that there are ways to provide planning and future regulation on development for Lockwood other than a TEDD, but everyone seemed in agreement that there needs to be rules and regulations regarding future development.

Peter Frievalds pointed out that Lockwood School is already facing shortfalls. “It is your responsibility, he told the board, “to make sure the school can be funded. My taxes are going to go up because you will need more money” to replace that withheld in the TEDD. He said that while retail is always characterized as convenience stores or storage units, the kind of retail Lockwood needs is box stores like Target. If they can’t locate “in prime development space” such as where the TEDD is proposed, they are not going to locate on side streets of Lockwood…they will go somewhere outside of Lockwood.

He added that whatever someone might want of the TEDD, they had better be sure it is written in its documentation. “There is no such thing as a ‘gentleman’s agreement.”lo

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