Anaheim City Council members really struck a nerve last week when they approved a $158-million subsidy to a hotel developer.
The vote on the subsidy was a tight, 3-2 affair with Mayor Tom Tait and Councilwoman Lori Galloway voting against the council majority of Gail Eastman, Harry Sidhu and Kris Murray.
On the Voice of OC Facebook page, the council action also triggered an intense debate among Community Editorial Board members and readers.
Many question whether it's a good idea to give these kinds of tax breaks to private-sector developers, while others argue that's exactly what cities should be doing.
Community Editorial Board member Jon Fleischman, who publishes the conservative Flash Report, took issue with steering government money toward a private-sector developer and questioned whether the politics of the past in Anaheim need an update.
"The current Anaheim City Council has inherited a big mess from Council's long ago past," Fleischman wrote. "The reality is that subsidizing developers, owning convention centers and sporting arenas — these all represent government doing things that should be done in the private sector.
"If I were on the Anaheim City Council, I would be looking at a long-term plan for how to extricate the city from this kind of stuff. I certainly would put a kabash on this deal, and on expanding the convention center until there is an exit strategy."
That drew a loud applause from fellow editorial board member Jennifer Muir, who works with the Orange County Employees Association.
Muir questioned the council majority's strategy of tax breaks amidst cuts, asking "How can you give a $158 million subsidy to developers with one hand and with the other, cut $1 million from Anaheim's library budget, slashing the city's investment in the community's future?"
Community Editorial Board member Eric Altman, who heads Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (ACCORD), argues that city officials can easily get instead of give when it comes to the profits from development.
"With smart, responsible investment of public funds, cities like Anaheim have a lot of power to create good quality jobs and revitalize our communities. Los Angeles and other cities have required developers to give back to the community in exchange for tax breaks and subsidies, and Anaheim should do the same. What are the people of Anaheim getting in exchange for their $158 million? Nothing much.
"No guarantee that the jobs will pay a living wage and provide benefits like health insurance. No commitment to hire and train local residents. No provision for affordable housing or community resources such as parks and libraries. All this at a time when the City is laying off staff and doesn't have enough money to keep its promises to residents. The City should reverse course and require the developer to agree to specific, measurable community benefits."
Altman's take drew a quick response from Anaheim resident Kevin Hogan, who joined the debate, arguing "All the rhetoric about how the Resort/Arena/Platinum Triangle/whatever are 'economic engines' for the city means nothing if the additional revenue generated by these projects are locked away for decades in developer subsidies, bond repayments, and other side deals.
"I'm beyond disappointed in Eastman, Murray, and Sidhu — once again, neighborhoods and residents are left to hang, and developers and the well-connected are quickly granted their entire, expensive wishlists, without Anaheimers getting anything in return except vague promises of 'jobs! jobs! jobs!' "
Community Editorial Board member Lucy Dunn, who leads the Orange County Business Council, questioned why city officials are being beat up and Mayor Tom Tait (who voted against the subsidy) wants a re-vote.
Dunn asked: "What is going on here? After a fair, transparent process, community, business, labor support — not one voice in opposition at a well-attended public hearing and a city staff report commenting on the considerable economic benefits for Anaheim, the council voted 3 to 2 to approve the plan. So the 'losing votes' want a re-vote? What's up with that? What new info is before us? What happened to a democratic process? Is Anaheim going anti-business like the rest of the state?"
Hogan questioned Dunn's logic, adding "failing to unquestioningly give a developer a sweetheart deal at the expense of the public is hardly 'going anti-business.' "
Community Editorial Board member Matt Cunningham wrote that Altman and readers like Hogan are making a big mistake in how they look at development agreements.
"Developers — or any other business enterprise — are not milch cows to be squeezed for 'specific, measurable community benefits.' That approach to government is not too far removed from operating a protection racket."
Altman took issue with that, asking, "Matt, are you really saying that our cities should give away massive subsidies to developers without getting anything in return? Our elected leaders are supposed to protect the public interest, not give away the store."
By the end of Tuesday afternoon, Hogan, an Anaheim resident, had wrapped up the debate questioning Cunningham's logic.
"Were this a case of a rugged individualist building a hotel with nothing but his own capital, you'd have a leg to stand on with that rhetoric — but if this is what my city chooses to spend its money on, then as an Anaheim resident (a shareholder in the enterprise, as it were), I want something more in exchange than a vague, amorphous promise of more jobs somewhere down the road," wrote Hogan.
"Any way you slice it, this is a rotten deal and it sets a bad precedent for the future."
To read all the responses and add your own, visit the Voice of OC Facebook page.