Citizen group files court challenge on TIF petition

Mon, Feb 16 2009

Not satisfied with the city’s response to its petition drive, citizen group Glosta Tea Party filed a lawsuit against Gloucester officials on Friday, Feb. 6 asking for a suspension of the tax incentive plan brokered between the city and developers of Gloucester Crossing.

A hearing set for Tuesday, Feb. 10, in Salem’s Essex Superior Court was delayed until March 18 after the city requested more time to prepare its case.

Jamie O’Hara, a lead organizer of Glosta Tea Party, said his group was caught off guard by the city’s move.

“We were fully prepared,” said the Gloucester resident. O’Hara said he was surprised the “big dog in the fight,” the city, was not.

Even so, Gloucester Crossing developer Sam Park was confident the resident group would lose the case.

“It’s clear to us that there is no grounds for the lawsuit,” Park said in a telephone interview. He was sure the city strictly abided by its charter in addressing the petition.

On Dec. 3, 2008, the City Council voted 8-1 in favor of granting a tax-increment financing plan to DeMoulas Supermarkets – owners of the Market Basket chain and one of the three anchors slated for Park’s Gloucester Crossing shopping center.

The TIF would allow a 50 percent forgiveness of taxable improvements made to the site over a 12-year term, beginning in fiscal year 2011 – totaling roughly $2.2 million.

A $2 million state job creation grant is also tied to the city’s approval of the TIF.

By city charter, citizens are allowed to file a petition within 21 days of a final City Council vote asking councilors to rescind their decision. If councilors continue to support their vote, the issue is put to ballot at the next regularly scheduled election or special election.

Petitioners must collect signatures from at least 10 percent of registered voters, or 2,095 people, to have their drive recognized.

Glosta Tea Party launched its petition in opposition to the TIF shortly after the council’s vote and delivered 1,697 signatures on Friday, Dec. 26, falling short of the required number of voters.

Yet members claim the city misrepresented the petition’s deadline. They say the deadline should have been Dec. 29, 21 days after Mayor Carolyn Kirk signed the TIF agreement on Dec. 8, and are prepared to hand over 2,400 signatures to the city clerk’s office in the hopes of reversing the TIF or putting the issue to a public vote.

Glosta Tea Party lists City Clerk Bob Whynott, the City Council, the Board of Registrars and Mayor Carolyn Kirk as parties in its motion before Essex Superior Court. Park asked to be part of the lawsuit as well. His attorney, David Weiss, was present at the hearing.

Both Whynott and Kirk said they could not discuss details of the case, as it is still pending. City attorney Suzanne Egan did not return calls for comment before the Beacon’s deadline.

Before Glosta Tea Party brought the case to court, Whynott said the city charter states that a petition must be filed 21 days after the City Council’s final vote, not the mayor’s signature.

Rockport resident and Glosta Tea Party member Laura Fillmore Evans said she has “no horse in the race,” but is fighting for the thousands of Gloucester residents who would rather see extra public funds go to local services and not a retail developer.

Evans compared the federal government’s Wall Street bailout to what she saw happening between the city and Gloucester Crossing developers. She feared small stores would go out of business due to the TIF deal.

“Treat everybody equally, treat everybody the same,” Evans said. “Let them pay taxes like the rest of us.”…(Read More)