As its Sept. 30 sunset approaches, the St. Armands Business Improvement District renewal is mired in controversy on multiple fronts.
The first-round attempt at securing enough votes from land owners in the district fell just shy of the requisite majority needed to renew the special tax district for another 10 years. That requires the process to start again with a second petition for another round of voting, which was received by the City Commission on Monday.
Renewal is not determined by a majority of votes, but rather a majority of the votes weighted by the assessed tax value of the properties. In theory, an owner of one building comprising 50.1% of the overall assessed value of all the properties there — if there was such a property — could approve renewal with a single vote.
With more than enough property owners’ signatures needed to hold another election, BID Chairman Tom Leonard explained the renewal effort is buffeted by headwinds from some building owners, claiming the extra tax they pay is not producing projects that enhance revenue for landlords and merchants around the circle.
That matter became conflated with a later Monday discussion over filling two vacant seats on the five-member BID board, during which Leonard called St. Armands Residents Association President Chris Goglia “a liar” after he endorsed one of the candidates and commented that the BID has recently skipped voluntary joint meetings with the residents and merchants association groups.
Goglia and current BID board member Casey Gonzmart endorsed St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Rachel Burns for one of the seats. Burns, who heads the organization of St. Armands merchants, and Leonard butted heads last year over his initiative to hold the first Winter Spectacular to highlight the new $286,000 Christmas tree, courtesy of a city grant, in the circle park. That forced her, she said, to cancel some long-standing December events there.
Adding to the controversy, Burns later canceled the 44th annual tree lighting ceremony, which historically had been the purview of the Circle Association. The city reinstated the tree lighting. She also said she didn’t vote to renew the BID, and told them why.
“It is a hefty voluntary tax on every property and every merchant and I do not believe that based on current spending decisions that the board is showing fiduciary responsibility,” she said. “St. Armands Circle has an opportunity to improve the infrastructure and guest experience to increase tourism and revenue generated. It's simple economics. The BID has a lot of tax dollars, but their spending is not generating income.”
Although Ahearn-Koch supported Burns because of her “serious financial banking background that is badly needed at the BID board,” that rankled Leonard and Mayor Kyle Battie.
“I hope that anybody who applies to be on the BID board, by the way, does support the BID,” Leonard said. “If you're not voting for us to be renewed, and then you want be on the board, you’re kind of contradicting yourself.”
Added Battie on the tree lighting, “It's like canceling Christmas, and then you want to be on the board. I'm sorry. I take issue with that and that was huge in my book in terms of not being eligible.”
Burns’ application for the BID board faced further scrutiny from city staff, which categorized her as a owner-merchant because her husband’s business is a tenant there. The board already has its maximum number of owner-merchants. Although Burns insists their entities are separate businesses with no cross ownership, Vice Chairman Liz Alpert and Commissioner Erik Arroyo agreed with staff’s assessment.
Ultimately, commissioners voted 4-1, with Jen Ahearn-Koch opposed, to delay filling the two vacant seats on the BID board until the special district is renewed, if it is at all. In the interim, City Attorney Robert Fournier told commissioners they could, if they so choose, craft an ordinance to change the makeup of the BID board to accommodate more owner-merchants.
Prior to the BID board vacancies discussion, Leonard said the renewal process is being challenged by perceptions of some property owners that they aren’t getting their money’s worth for the additional property taxes they pay. He cited a 2008 master plan for St. Armands, of which he said only one project, the parking deck, has been accomplished.
“We built a parking garage that we pay for part of it,” he said. “As far as I know, no other private organizations ever had to pay for a garage, but yet we have no say when it comes to income or optimizing the parking revenues or controlling expenses.”
Goals of the BID also occasionally meet opposition from St. Armands residents, Leonard suggested, sometimes leading to conflicts before the City Commission and staff. Master plan elements not developed include public restrooms, “complete street” redesign and a small grocery store on the circle, among others.
"I'm not saying that the neighborhood and the residents aren't important, but we are in a commercial tourism district," Leonard said. "If you live next to it, you have to understand everything that happens in a commercial tourism district is mixed use. … I just hope the lines don't get blurred going forward because we really need his commission’s support. I think it's going to be important for the next 10 years if the BID is to be renewed that we can move this plan forward.”
Now that the petition has been certified by staff and received by the commission, the minimum 120-day voting process, per state statue, begins. Ballots will be mailed to all property owners within the BID and voting will continue through Aug. 7. It may be continued if necessary should approval fall short and not all ballots are received.