Welfare for downtown biz owners?

To the Editor,

Fire prevention is a worthwhile endeavor; and maintaining a top-notch fire department like we have in Mount Airy is a necessary and appropriate expense that should be borne by all city taxpayers. With that understanding, I read with interest the article “Fire-suppression grants to aid downtown housing” that appeared in the April 28 issue of The Mount Airy News.

The city’s newly developed initiative – creatively tagged the “Downtown Fire Suppression Life & Safety Grant Program” — is little more than an open spigot to steadily pour taxpayer-funded handouts (er, “grant awards”) into the wallets of select downtown business owners who choose to renovate the upper-floors of their buildings to create residential rental units. In a nutshell, the city will pay up to $35,000 of a portion of the each qualifying owner’s costs to install, as part of their new-construction or remodeling expenses, the sophisticated sprinkler system that is required, by code, for residential units.

The program was promoted as one designed to save and protect lives and historic property (make that lives and property within the Downtown Fire District only) while incentivizing downtown residential development. Using a combination of fear tactics and concessionary projections, the proposed program was quickly passed during the April 21 meeting of the city council — despite the fact that, at that meeting, nobody could say exactly how much money would ultimately be paid to business owners, which part of the budget would be used to fund the handouts, or whether or not there is an end date to this creatively marketed give-away program. Talk about fiscal mismanagement.

Fast forward two weeks: the proposed city budget for the next fiscal year was shared with city council members at the May 19 meeting; and, as reported in the May 21 issue of The Mount Airy News, $105,000 has been earmarked for the “grant” program. How was that arbitrary amount determined? Seems like three eligible owners have already applied for their full handout (3 x $35,000 = $105,000).

More importantly, given the propensity of the city to simply ignore its own budgeted numbers when those numbers prove inconvenient, taxpayers can expect the initial $105,000 to grow exponentially as more and more prospective landlords demand their piece of the promised pie. The Downtown Fire District includes more than 100 properties. Assuming, very conservatively, an average “grant award” of only half the allowed maximum to eligible applicants, the city is primed to give away $875,000 to 50 business owners, $1.3 million to 75 owners, $1.75 million to 100 owners, and so on.

Why should hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of city tax dollars be given to scores of downtown business owners to help them cover their code-compliance costs when they decide to voluntarily improve their property in order to make more money from rental income?

City officials justified this latest corporate welfare caper by touting the increased tax benefits that will come to the city. That may be so – but only if you define a good investment as waiting multiple decades to fully recover the total amount of money forked over.

Business owners – both within and without the Downtown Fire District — should shoulder their own costs for ensuring that their facilities meet or exceed all code requirements appropriate for their stated use and necessary to protect themselves and others from fire and other hazards. Rather than tossing cash at these owners, city officials should have encouraged them to do what they’d tell the rest of us to do – go to a bank and take out a loan!

Rebecca Harmon

Mount Airy

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