St. Joseph County Council Should Deny IEC Funding
The Indiana Enterprise Center (IEC) has morphed from an idea that merits further study to a fiscal boondoggle. St. Joseph County has spent millions of dollars on an economic development program that has no measurable return in sight. While we're in a pandemic, voices offering everything from constructive criticism to outright disdain have been unheard, yet the IEC spending spree marches on.
We continue to see resources being spent to purchase options, to effect zoning changes and to install infrastructure for the IEC. And now the County wants to throw more money at the "build it and they will come" scheme.
Simply put, the St. Joseph County Council should use the budgetary process to deny funding for redevelopment activity for the next year.
If you're not familiar with the IEC, it was originally a proposed development of over 7,200 acres of mostly farmland near New Carlisle, IN. The County's literature claimed it would be done "with an eye on balancing proposed industrial development with existing agricultural uses, conservationism and quality of life enhancements."
However, the initial rollout lacked transparency, meaningful public communication, and opportunities for public input, for which it deserved public outcry. While there was belated effort for citizen participation in a glossy plan, by then the ship had sailed. In the eyes of the Dept. of Infrastructure, Planning & Growth (IPG), the IEC is an inevitability with a life of its own.
Citizens spoke in opposition at a 6-plus hour meeting that I did not attend due to pandemic best practices. (Admittedly, I later found out it was online virtually, too). Despite such opposition, the County Council voted to rezone 730 acres from agriculture to industrial use, with restrictions.
Among the public comments submitted online, mine are under the email column listed alphabetically under firstname.lastname@example.org. That the County still steamrolled ahead is an affront to many people. I know I spent significant effort gathering data and submitting results of a sky survey with technical aspects that I could not address in person. Many other voices were similarly unheard.
Thus far the IEC economics have never been publicly evaluated or discussed. Despite IPG claims of having projects in the wings, the County has not demonstrated there is any labor market impact in sight. Big companies are neither bringing lots of employees nor growing ancillary businesses in the region.
At a recent IPG meeting, an attendee implied it's only tax increment financing (TIF) money being spent on the IEC. At least that's the message I heard just as I tuned in to the December 1, 2020, virtual meeting, which was already underway before the publicly announced start time of 9:00 a.m. Using TIF funds for IEC expenditures, the person suggested, does not have a bearing on other government coffers that are sorely needed to address post-pandemic woes.
As Marty Wolfson described in a South Bend Tribune Viewpoint (Sept. 26, 2020), "Since the IEC is in a tax increment financing district, the property tax revenue would be captured by the TIF. It would be used to attract even more businesses and would not be available to improve county health, education, libraries and other important objectives."
County Commissioners, not the County Council, essentially control the TIF. Spending TIF monies with no identifiable economic return is just as irresponsible as spending traditional taxpayer dollars without merit.
If the County’s executive branch won’t recognize that, then the County’s legislative branch must do their fiscally-responsible duty to use the “power of the purse" to put the brakes on this runaway train.
Simply put, the St. Joseph County Council should use the budgetary process to deny IPG funding for redevelopment activity for the next year.
As one farmer told me, the land isn’t going anywhere. The IEC can wait.
Note: I have posted other data and commentary related to the IEC under the tag "enni," which refers to an inaugural group looking into IEC details before the giant plan was dubbed IEC. More voices can be heard at the Open Space & Agricultural Alliance (OSAA) Facebook Group.