Auburn garage in limbo

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AUBURN – Opponents of a Great Falls Plaza parking garage have tried to kill funding for it and have attempted to launch a petition drive to recall it, but nothing has worked.

Proponents have fought off last-minute votes and have passed two different land swaps to defend the garage.

Two years after the City Council approved $5 million in bonds to fund it, ground still has not been broken on the 300-plus space garage. No city bonds have been sold to pay for the work. Architectural designers have yet to put pen to paper and render the project.

The stalled garage has become a lightning rod for tax activists and some city councilors who want to rein in city spending.

“In my mind, there are so many hidden costs in the project that it’s not to be believed,” said City Councilor Belinda Gerry. “I want those questions answered.”

Gerry has asked Mayor Normand Guay to put a vote on the land swap with developer Tom Platz on the agenda yet again. Councilors approved the swap last month, trading roughly one-acre lots.

Guay, an avowed supporter of the garage, said he’ll announce his decision at today’s City Council meeting.

It’s the latest skirmish in the war on the garage that started two years ago. Opponents like Gerry see it as graft, a $5 million public gift for private developers. For proponents, the garage is a necessary step in Auburn’s economic revitalization.

“If you want economic growth, this is the key,” Guay said.

City Manager Pat Finnigan said architects are scheduled to finish designing the garage this fall, and work should begin early in 2007.

Developer Tom Platz has promised to put up at least one office building in the plaza, whether or not Auburn follows through and builds the garage.

Platz said he will build more buildings if Auburn provides a parking garage. More Platz buildings means more revenue for the city in a tax-increment finance account dedicated to downtown development. It also means more jobs, more people and a bigger downtown boom.

If Platz builds four buildings, those tax revenues will pay for the garage and give the city a $7 million surplus over 25 years, according to city financial forecasts.

That’s money in the bank, said Mayor Guay.

“All it will do is spur more growth downtown,” Guay said. “The most conservative estimate says this will not be a burden on the taxpayers. In fact, it’s a plus.”

Gerry and other opponents doubt the financial numbers. The city’s $5 million cost estimates are based on a 2003 study, before Hurricane Katrina drove up the cost of oil, construction metals and concrete. Opponents insist those factors will drive up the cost of the garage.

The parking permit revenues are not new money, either. Businesses pay those fees to park on the open-air lot in Platz field. That money goes into the general fund to pay for other city services.

“And I wonder about what is really in those TIF accounts,” Gerry said. “We have a lot money coming out already, and I’m not sure where the city stands.”

That’s why she moved to deauthorize the bond for the parking garage last May and again in October.

“All we want is to get it all put on the table, once and for all, and have a real look at the costs,” Gerry said. “If I’m wrong, show me that I’m wrong, and where I’m wrong.”

“(T)here are so many hidden costs in the project that it’s not to be believed.”

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