Mennonite Housing decision a start

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Now that's the kind of thinking we should apply to every project and development in Newton.

The Newton City Commission received a large ask a few weeks ago, to give away land and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to help make affordable senior housing happen.

Newton needs affordable senior housing. The city commission knew that.

But instead of simply moving forward with a huge giveaway on a project all for the sake of development, the commission listened to constituents, as well as common sense and asked, “How would the city benefit financially?”

We've spent many editorials writing on how the city leaders need to make sure the city receives return on any investment it’s asked to make for development.

It's one thing for the city to spend scant funds on amenities that serve the entire public. It's another for it to spend those funds to help developers make their projects as cheap as possible and increase their margins.

In past years, the city has had a bad habit of purchasing real estate, dolling out incentives or in one case building a taxpayer financed factory and seeing little or no return for its efforts. Often, as found out in hindsight, those mistakes could have been avoided if a few smart people were in on decisions and asking questions.

Today, following tighter budgets, in part to finance some of those moves, the city isn't at a point where it can afford to expand its expenditures with no additional return as those costs either get passed on in the form of property taxes or utility bills.

So, it was encouraging to see the reasoning showed by the city commission in the past few weeks.

Mennonite Housing, should it build 32–120 units as it suggested, would represent a positive development for Newton. It fills a need.

But just because it represented somewhat of a win, the commissioners didn't move heaven and earth to make it happen and leverage piles of tax dollars to do so.

They asked questions. They listened to their constituents.

At the meeting, they opted against spending city dollars on improvements for the development and instead of giving away the land, they opted to sell it.

Multiple commissioners said they received feedback from residents. And multiple commissioners noted that as the development would be tax exempt and not represent a way for the city to recoup expenses, they didn't wish for the city to go into a deal and not be at a net positive.

And so they came to a contract that would keep the city from large expenditures to make a development happen. We hope the development still moves forward.

So now we've seen this city show the capacity to make such a decision to keep the city whole, in regards to low income housing, a category of development that enjoys the fewest strong and powerful advocates.

Let's see them show the same consideration in terms of economic development.

When a business or developer makes huge asks in order for a company to grace our lowly hamlet, let's ask how the city comes out ahead.

Let's take a real accounting of it.
It's easy for a developer to say it will bring x number of jobs and people to assign an arbitrary income amount to those jobs and call it a benefit. That's a common practice in economic development.

Still, every single dollar spent on payroll doesn't translate into a dollar that flows back in municipal coffers.

Instead, let's see the city commission asking about hard numbers and looking at the exact revenues the city will stand to gain along with the exact costs it will spend, including infrastructure and maintenance costs.

That might not always set well with the select few who would profit off the city and its expenditures, but the city commission's job isn't to look out for those select few, but the city as a whole. Development moves that don't expand our tax base in a sustainable way shouldn't warrant significant public investment.

In that case, the development's either happening the old fashioned way with those building them also paying for them, or they don't happen at all.

Either way, the city's budgetary liabilities aren't impacted.

That isn't to say the city couldn't be proactive in pursing development or trying to improve the community. It just needs to be done strategically and safely.

We've seen flashes of that recently and hope it continues....