Group wants to block city deal

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AUBURN – Short on money but not spirit, the United Citizens of Auburn group agreed Sunday to seek a court injunction to “slow down” a land deal essential to the city’s plans to build a parking garage near the Great Falls.

UCA Chairman Ed Desgrosseilliers told about 40 members that suing the city would cost $10,000 to get started and untold thousands more to see it through the legal system. Instead, he suggested the group try to find a lawyer who would represent it free in a pro bono case seeking an injunction to stop a land swap between the city and Platz Associates.

“I’m not suggesting that I want to stop progress,” Desgrosseilliers said. “I just think this is a sweetheart deal for somebody else, not the city of Auburn.”

The swap would give the city land it wants to build a new parking garage on near the Hilton Garden hotel in Great Falls Plaza. But Desgrosseilliers and others argued the land swap is unnecessary and the location is poor because a massive underground storm drain cuts diagonally across the property.

UCA members also are angry that negotiations for the deal were conducted in executive session.

Although Degrosseilliers said he did not oppose the parking garage itself, other members of the group said they remain opposed to another parking garage, which could cost $5 million or more to build.

But members also agreed that by delaying the land deal, they could also delay the garage project and possibly get another vote on it after a new council is elected in November.

“This is a war we have going on here,” said group member Joe Mailey.

UCA, which was formed last fall out of anger and concern over new property values, has agreed to focus on city spending and bringing down the property tax rate.

Members also discussed their concerns over school spending Sunday and cautioned each other that fighting the school board could mean they will be portrayed as anti-education.

When asked how the group could get the school board to change its spending habits, Desgrosseilliers answered, “Be persistent and put up with the indignities we are going to suffer.”

Meanwhile, UCA member Jonathan Labonte highlighted the city’s use of tax increment financing districts saying that virtually none of the new property value being created in the city will help lower taxes.

Labonte said that in many cases, 40 percent of property taxes on new development is returned to developers and the balance is placed into special accounts that the council uses to avoid public votes on projects like the Great Falls parking garage.

Labonte said the city has socked away enough money from TIFs and community development block grants to be able to cover cost overruns for the parking garage or any other project the council wants. He said the language in the TIF and CDBG agreements is so broad that the money could be used for almost anything.

“There is no place in Auburn (where) new development would actually create tax revenue to bring our taxes down,” Labonte said.

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