Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TDD ABUSE? Are attorney claims about "Citizen of the Year" unfair?

COLUMBIA, 4/19/11  (Beat Byte) --  Buried in a March 24 letter to Columbia City attorney Fred Boeckmann for tonight's Columbia City Council meeting is a damning allegation about one of Columbia's most beloved businessmen, Jose Lindner (left), who passed away last September and in 2007 was the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.
 
About a Transportation Development District (TDD) Lindner operated near Gans Road and U.S. highway 63, Columbia attorney Craig Van Matre leveled the charge that Lindner operated the TDD "in a haphazard (and probably illegal) manner before his death."  The letter addresses a move by the Odle Family to acquire land governed by the TDD.  Lindner's son Jay countered the accusations, telling the Columbia Daily Tribune "this TDD followed all state statutes." 

Van Matre's allegation conflicts with Lindner's long-standing reputation as a quality developer who rarely experienced failure in a business that can be so competitive it's cut-throat.  News of Lindner's passing after a long struggle with heart problems brought a rare 100% positive response from Tribune readers.  "Very good man I was lucky enough to have known," wrote one reader.   "I am saddened to hear of Jose Lindner's passing.  He was one of the best Columbia had to offer." 

Tarnished sterling?
 
Lindner's otherwise sterling reputation raises some important questions:  If -- as one of Columbia's premier developers -- Lindner had problems with his own TDD, is lax regulatory enforcement at least partly to blame?   TDD's are an odd breed of taxpayer-funded handout.  Created in circuit courts, not city councils, they exist in a virtual dark room of poor transparency and minimal oversight. 
 
Secondly, is van Matre being fair to a man who'd been plagued with health problems in recent years, and may have found himself caught between a rock and hard place:  the need to keep his businesses going, for the benefit of everyone from family to creditors, and his declining health, which no doubt took a heavy toll on his abilities?   
 
Maybe technically van Matre is correct, but could he have phrased the allegations differently or left them out entirely, knowing the letter would become a public document?   
 
Finally, is the boom and bust nature of real estate also partly to blame?  In a series on the ongoing woes of local developers, former Columbia Business Times writer Jacob Barker -- now a Trib business reporter -- suggests that both economic and regulatory conditions have conspired to harm developers and the communities in which they work. 
 
It's all a good object lesson on the need for better planning that considers both good times -- and bad. 
 
Down economy, lax regulation
 
From David Atkins to Steve Herigon, Barker's recent stories have described a boom and bust cycle now in full bust mode

Lax regulatory enforcement has also taken a toll, hurting communities more than it does TDDs.  About a State of Missouri TDD audit, Barker noted that "many of the audited districts’ budgets contained math errors, overspent or weren’t properly documented.  In some cases, the report noted the auditor’s office was not aware when a new TDD was formed, highlighting the difficulty of overseeing public money in the hands of private developers." 
that has claimed builders and developers with among the strongest reputations.  
 
Lindner was also far from alone in TDD administrative troubles.  "Twenty one TDDs did not file a report with the auditor on time in 2007 or 2008, including two Columbia districts," Barker continued.   "The Northwoods TDD at Smiley Lane and Range Line Street did not file a report in 2008.  The CenterState TDD, on property owned by Columbia Bass Properties, did not file a financial report in 2007 or 2008."
 
Lucky Lindner 

An attorney with Craig van Matre's TDD and development expertise is in a better position than this observer to judge the efficacy and legality of TDD management.   But given the nationwide decline in real estate, a terribly flawed TDD process, and Jose Lindner's own unavoidable health difficulties, van Matre's assessment seems unduly harsh.
 
Lindner came to Columbia at age 12 as his parents fled Cuba in 1960.   His father taught at Stephens College and his mother worked at Ellis Fischel.  By all indications, his commercial properties -- which include Forum Shopping Center, Nifong Shopping Center, The Broadway Shops, The Broadway Bluffs -- were built not only for profit, but as statements of quality customer service by a longtime local resident. 
 
It was mainly his latter acquisitions -- 1,300 acres in southwest Columbia off Route K, and the 226 acres associated with his controversial TDD -- that ran aground, which -- given his declining health -- probably couldn't have been avoided.  
 
It can be rightly argued that many of Lindner's financial problems should have been expected, but health issues pose a number of quandaries to family, partners, friends, and most of all, the person in poor health.   It can be especially hard to accept that the end may be near, especially when one has the myriad obligations Lindner had.   
 
"Lindner’s 'trademark has been to approach every issue with interest, caring and a sense of humor,' said Blake Danuser, owner of Bingham’s Traditional Clothing, in a Chamber of Commerce news release about Lindner's selection as 2007 Citizen of the Year."

This observer suspects Lindner approached his final developments the same way, but that his long fight to live had become not just top priority, but the only priority.

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