As expected, a City Council committee approved a $107 million tax financing plan for Harbor Point last night, but not before the panel’s chairman walked out in apparent disgust.
The action, initiated by Council Vice-President Edward Reisinger and supported by Councilmen Warren Branch and William H. Cole IV, assures that the measure will go before the full Council next Monday, where it is guaranteed to pass on second reader.
The three councilmen made no effort to elaborate on the reasoning behind their votes, whose swiftness left many spectators in shock.
“Democracy in action,” muttered community activist Mark Washington as catcalls and boos rang out from the spectator’s gallery.
The meeting attracted an overflow crowd of visitors as well as the real powers behind City Hall legislation – such as the mayor’s lobbyist, Andrew Smullian, and “strategic communications” consultants Steve Kearney and Howard Libit who work for Michael Beatty, Harbor Point’s developer.
“Cajoled and Browbeaten”
At the outset of the meeting, chairman Carl Stokes complained that “this committee has been pushed, cajoled and browbeaten to push this legislation faster than the committee should move.”
He said it was important for the panel to “properly vet” the TIF proposal and gather sufficient information before bringing the measure before the full Council.
Stokes then took testimony from many citizens, nearly all opposed to the plan to pay for roads, parks and a waterfront promenade with city-issued bonds.
He also read lengthy excerpts from the Downtown Management Authority’s report criticizing the TIF proposal.
Foiled by a Surprise Motion
The chair’s apparent strategy was to delay a vote on the bill until data on the project’s financial backers and various environmental questions were answered.
But his colleagues on the Taxation, Finance and Economic Committee had other ideas.
As Unite Here local president Roxie Hebekian asked for an amendment to include a “labor peace agreement,” Councilman Branch interrupted to complain that she was seeking change “at the 11th hour.”
As if on cue, Councilman Reisinger offered a motion to approve the three bills setting up the Harbor Point funding.
The motion was seconded by Councilman Cole in a matter of seconds.
Stokes, apparently blindsided by the motion on the floor, called for an adjournment. He got up from the chairman’s seat and walked out of the room.
“I Wouldn’t be Your Son”
This left the meeting in the hands of vice chair Bill Henry. As spectators yelled for the committee to honor Stokes’ call for an adjournment, Henry asked for a 15-minute recess.
This sparked an argument between him and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who was monitoring the meeting from a side table normally reserved for staff.
When calm was restored (following a cross-room shouting match between Young and citizen activist Kim Trueheart, with the former saying, “I wouldn’t be your son,” and the later responding, “And I wouldn’t have you”), Henry introduced an amendment to the motion to reduce the Harbor Point TIF to $31.25 million.
There was no second.
He then called for a vote on the motion on the floor. Saying he was “really confused,” Henry abstained as the three pieces of TIF legislation were passed 3-0.
The approval clears the way for Council action next Monday – considered essential by developer Beatty to keep his $1 billion project on track.
Last year, Beatty won the right to build the new office tower for Exelon Corp.
The corporation was required by the Maryland Public Service Commission to open a new regional headquarters in downtown Baltimore as a condition for state approval of its acquisition of Constellation Energy.
The Exelon building is many months behind schedule.
Community Fund Rejected
The Beatty organization has been scrambling to shore up support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s offer to pay $107 million for infrastructure costs to keep the project’s profit margins at a projected 14% internal rate of return.
Beatty says this margin is the minimum needed to attract pension funds and other institutional investors to what is a risky private venture.
At the same time, the developer has been dueling with a local coalition of clergy to fund a $25 million “community benefits trust” for Perkins Homes residents near the waterfront site.
After weeks of fitful negotiations and a draft memorandum written by the clergy, Beatty made clear last night that he was rejecting any such agreement.
However, he said his organization was willing to voluntarily contribute $3 million to underwrite “on-site or off-site” affordable housing because “that’s the right thing to do and what we want to do.”