It was not illegal for Wausau Mayor Jim Tipple and city staff members to lobby for a state law change that extended the life of a tax increment finance district along the riverfront, according to an independent legal analysis.
The opinion from an outside attorney came in response to a request from Wausau City Council member Keene Winters, who wanted to know if Tipple and others had violated state laws by lobbying legislators in Madison without approval from the council.
Is that the end of it? Only if the most important value is technical adherence to the letter of the law. But this is an issue where what is legal is not necessarily what is wise.
A TIF district creates an incentive for cities to make improvements and attract development. It does this by allowing the city to reap the tax revenues of new developments in a given region for a given amount of time.
Tipple succeeded in getting the law changed, allowing for a 10-year extension of the riverfront TIF, which includes the Dudley Tower, the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin and the Bridge Street Pick 'N Save. That is good for the city, because it gets to set aside new tax money for further development of that area. But it's not such an immediate benefit for the county, the school district or the technical college, all of whom lose out on increased property tax revenue that now will continue to be diverted to the city.
Tax increment financing is a complicated and sometimes eye-glazing subject, but it's not necessary to understand every nuance of municipal financing to understand this: City Hall lobbied for a law that affected all of Wausau - and the county and the education system, too. It was a mistake to seek that change without getting buy-in from the council and at least showing the respect of explaining the city's position to the others affected. That's true whether or not it was legal.
The incentives allowed by the extended TIF might provide broad benefits to the city and the region - the type of shared growth that TIFs were invented to supply. Wausau does indeed appear to be on the precipice of exciting new riverfront developments. If those plans materialize, it will be to everyone's long-term benefit.
But Tipple or someone at City Hall should have been making that case publicly, answering questions and hearing concerns - before lobbying for a change in state law.