Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Column: Downtown Cape Girardeau is doing it right with CID

I am usually sympathetic to the perspective of the St. Louis-based Show Me Institute, whose writer David Stokes in a nearby column cautions the City of Cape Girardeau about the establishment of a Community Improvement District in the downtown. But in this case Stokes strokes with too broad a brush, failing to understand the specifics of the effort in Cape Girardeau. If Stokes would have done some research on the ground before writing his column, I believe he would be praising what's taking place in downtown Cape Girardeau as a model for other communities rather than casting aspersions on it by using a disastrous but one-of-a-kind situation outside Kansas City as a straw man.

Stokes makes many worthwhile suggestions in his column; but the fact is he offers them in general. Most of his points have been addressed already in Cape Girardeau through a lengthy and open petition process.

But first: some disclosures. I serve on the CID steering committee and am listed in the CID petition as a proposed board member for the district. This would be an unpaid, voluntary position, and not something I or any others who have been proposed for the board have sought. We are involved to provide governance for an entity that has the potential to be very good for downtown Cape Girardeau. Second, I am a resident of downtown Cape Girardeau, and thus, intimately familiar with many of its challenges, specifically around safety, security and litter. Finally, I am publisher of the Southeast Missourian, a newspaper that has been covering the local process to establish a CID in the downtown since it first surfaced here as part of the Dream Initiative during Gov. Matt Blunt's administration.

David's column appears in these pages, because the editorial board and editors of this newspaper believe informed discourse is vital to democracy (no matter how much I may personally think his argument lacks appropriate context). His argument does provide an important warning that transparent decision-making, basic management skills and public accountability are vital to good government. Without them, mismanagement or even corruption is more likely to flourish, as it appears to have happened in Lake Lotawana.

Another disclosure: I contacted David and the Show Me Institute to inquire about writing a rebuttal column on the same day, which they eagerly welcomed. David and I had a great discussion, in part because as a prospective board member to the downtown CID, I really wanted to understand his perspective to confirm that Cape Girardeau is going through the process in the right way.

Here's the good news: Cape Girardeau is doing it right.

To go through some of David's points: First, the city of Cape Girardeau isn't "imposing" a CID. That's not how the process works. For more than three years, a mix of downtown residents, businesses and institutions (like the Chamber of Commerce, Old Town Cape, the city manager's office and the university) have studied and debated the establishment and potential benefits of a CID. Members of a steering committee have knocked on business doors to seek input, and they've hosted numerous public information sessions. Its leaders also have appeared with progress reports before the city council. This group has gained the signed support, verified by the city, of more than half of the property owners in the district by both number of owners and valuation of property.

Meanwhile, if the city approves the CID, the taxing component of the CID will go to a vote of all residents in the district. Simply, this process is exactly opposite to an imposition. Instead, the city is responding to a grassroots effort by local citizens to confront real challenges and opportunities in the downtown, and who will themselves be affected most directly by the slight property tax and half-cent sales tax.

That brings me to David's next point, that Cape Girardeau's CID should comply "with all state laws and additional local requirements." I couldn't agree more. But this point really could be made about almost anything.

I depart slightly from David when he argues a CID should "answer to the taxpayers of the city and county, not just property owners." And he seems to find it unseemly property owners in the district may actually serve on the board. In fact, the taxes are NOT paid by every taxpayer in the city and county. The property taxes are paid only by the property owners in the district. The half-cent sales tax is paid only by those who shop in the district; no one else.

The way democratic capitalism works from my perspective is that, in fact, the property owners in the district have the most vested interest in making the CID work to the benefit of the district, which in turn is to the benefit of the larger community. Would David prefer a board of politically correct bureaucrats with no direct interest in the area making decisions based on who-knows-what criteria?

I don't mean to demean. David's larger point is valid: the board should work transparently, employing good governance practices like minute-taking, competitive bidding, conflict-of- interest rules, etc. Above all, it should not waste money. These are all points on which everyone who's already donated time to this effort would agree. Rules to assure this happens are spelled out in Section 3 of the downtown CID's plan.

David also suggests the downtown CID should have a limit on the property tax rate for those in the district. In fact, as he acknowledges later, the proposal does have a limit, and it's well below the level that he cautions against.

What he doesn't acknowledge is a special business district property tax already paid by many in the area, which is identical to the new rate, will go away if the CID revenue mechanism is passed. Again, the downtown group is doing this the right way.

David also expresses concern a CID's goals can morph over time. This concern also was identified by the steering committee, which is why in contrast to almost everywhere else where CIDs are passed, the downtown Cape Girardeau proposal includes a sunset provision on any tax plans. We believed it was important for accountability that the CID regularly go back to the voters. Moreover, the steering committee sought out board members who would be good stewards of the plan, which is specifically identified in the proposal.

So, what is the CID planning to do? Simply, it is estimated to raise about $250,000 annually. Roughly 47 percent of these funds would go toward keeping the area "clean and attractive." That includes trash and litter pickup, and some streetscape maintenance and other beautification projects that aren't already the responsibility of the city. For anyone who works and lives downtown and is used to picking up beer bottles and other trash after those who visit, you know how real this issue is.

Roughly 21 percent of the revenue would go toward security management and contracting, including a cost-share grant opportunity for businesses within the district that install security cameras. Again, for those who work and live downtown (or who follow the crime map as printed weekly in the Southeast Missourian), you know this is a real issue, too.

Another 20 percent would go toward special events: to draw more people to the area, thus improving the quality of life for the region.

Finally, about 12 percent is slotted for legal and professional support, to ensure as David encourages, everything is done properly.

Ultimately, I agree with most of David's general points. His warning about what can happen when governmental and semi-governmental entities fail to be responsible and transparent should never be ignored. But people in Cape Girardeau should feel confident the downtown CID, as proposed, is in fact a model of good people doing things the right way with a good plan in place.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and a member of the downtown Cape Girardeau CID steering committee.