The Unfolding Port Covington TIF

With all of the understandable focus on the election tomorrow and the various anniversaries connected with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the ongoing negotiations regarding the massive TIF for Kevin Plank’s Port Covington project is being lost in the noise–which is exactly how the current power structure in the city wants it.
Make no mistake–this $535 million dollar TIF is being pushed through this summer in part to avoid having to involve a new mayor and new City Council which has been hearing ANGER about our city’s current practice of corporate welfare at many of the doors we’ve knocked on during this campaign.
Please note: I am not opposed to all TIFs. The concept of TIFs–floating public bonds to cover up-front infrastructure costs, then paying off those bonds using increased property tax revenue from the project in question–can make good sense. But I am opposed to a bad deal. This is shaping up, so far, to be a terrible one for our city.
1) No provision has yet been made in state law, or in this TIF application, for a permanent solution to the GCEI state funding formula for our local schools. That is to say–we risk losing tens of millions of dollars annually in state support for our public schools if this TIF goes forward with our laws as they are today. Yes, a temporary fix was passed in Annapolis, but that will expire in just a few years.
2) There is no true inclusionary housing as part of this plan. Sagamore has been given permission to set a goal of 10% of the housing being “affordable”–in the terms of this deal, “affordable” meaning suitable for a 4-person household with $65,700 in income. That’s 57% higher than the MEDIAN household income in our city. How can “affordable” housing be intended for people making far more than the median income?
3) It’s not just the $535 million dollar TIF to pay for infrastructure. With federal and state contributions, the public investment gets close to a billion dollars. On top of that investment, the projects are eligible for property tax breaks totaling $807,610,695. That’s right. Not only are we fronting $535 million of bonds to pay for infrastructure (which will cost $1.4 billion by the time we finish paying off the debt), but we’re also piling $800 million in tax breaks on top of it. $346 million of that is Enterprise Zone funding, intended to spur commercial development in impoverished parts of Baltimore. There’s nothing impoverished about Port Covington. It’s mostly vacant land with no natural geographic connection to any residential neighborhood at all–and certainly not an impoverished one.
4) Based on our experience with previous TIFs, the TIF money itself will likely not be sufficient to cover all of the infrastructure projects imagined in the TIF application. Will the City be on the hook for cost overruns or infrastructure not included in the TIF application? That’s exactly what has happened in Harbor Point with the Central Avenue bridge and a new water line.
5) After the Brownfield tax credit and the Enterprise tax credit and the Homestead tax credit chops the tax liability down by greater than 85% for the first ten years, and the remaining money goes to pay off our TIF bonds, how much tax money (if any) will actually be left to provide police services, fire protection, and schooling to the people in the 5300 residential units and 9.4 million square feet of commercial space? Not much.
Alright. I’ve gotta get back to campaigning. But this was too important to simply let slide, which was the intention of people running the process (seeing as how they released the full TIF application late on a Friday before Election Day, when they knew people wouldn’t be paying attention).
I look forward to working on this critically important matter more when I am serving alongside you as our councilperson.
Some other recent news coverage:
The Unfolding Port Covington TIF

Tools for Comparing the Candidates

There are many neighbors still trying to decide who to support for City Council here in the 1st District. I’ve put together some resources to review and make an informed decision. Please share away and make well-informed choices on Election Day!

Video from Candidates’ Public Events
Canton Forum
Patterson Park Forum
Fell’s Point Forum

Radio/Podcast Content
Roughly Speaking with Dan Rodricks (eight candidates)
First Edition with Sean Yoes (four candidates).
Interview with Roberto Alejandro from On Background (Just me–Zeke has one too on that site).
Transportation Forum with Marc Steiner (four candidates)

Written Voters Guides & Questionnaires
The Baltimore Sun
The League of Women Voters
CrowdPAC Candidate Overview (good financial breakdowns)
Housing Policy Watch Questionnaire (two candidates).
Bikemore Questionnaire   (four candidates)
Candidate Profile in the Baltimore Guide
(note: there’s no one link which connects to all the profiles, but simply search the other candidates’ names at and you’ll find them)

Campaign Donation Summaries
An analysis by a Canton neighbor on overall fundraising.
An analysis by some Fell’s Point neighbors on money from developers.



Tools for Comparing the Candidates

More than just an ice rink

The “Mimi” DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park is a key public resource for families in Southeast Baltimore. It is a rarity – a low-cost public ice rink that’s so accessible that more than 1,800 kids at three neighborhood schools are less than a ten- minute walk from the ice. And now, with the rink at a crossroads in its existence, the city proposes removing it from our diverse neighborhood and relocating it closer to county residents who can pay more for the privilege of ice time.

On a daily basis during skating season, the “Mimi Dome” welcomes kids, families, and adults of all backgrounds. More than 70,000 residents live within a mile and a half of the family skating center, meaning families from throughout East and Southeast Baltimore can easily come together by foot, by bike, and by bus to share time on the ice. Children learning to skate, couples embarrassing themselves on a date, flirting teenagers crisscrossing the rink, parents trying to keep up with kids, adults playing broomball, kids learning hockey – at the Mimi Dome, the ice has room for all of us.

Unfortunately, that time may soon come to an end. During my involvement in the Patterson Park Master Plan process, it became clear that the residents’ goals for the future of the rink did not mesh with the city’s mandates. Running the rink is an expensive proposition, made more so as it ages. The rink cannot continue for long in its present state and is in need of replacement. The mayor’s office decided in recent years that the rink has to generate enough revenue to cover its operating costs without support from the city’s general fund. The city budget office expects our ice rink to function like a private suburban skating facility, prioritizing revenue over public benefit. Meanwhile, in the 2015 budget, the city spent 36% more money on our police than on city schools, recreation, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library combined – yet the ice rink, unlike our parks and pools, must pay for itself.

And so a search has begun for a new location to allow the rink to be “revenue neutral” – a site with abundant parking where suburban residents can stream in by car from points north and east of the city. Access to the ice would be effectively limited by the relative poverty and lack of transportation of many of the rink’s current users. A proposal to move the rink to the Canton waterfront was greeted coolly by residents there. But another potential shift has also been discussed, to an industrial area east of Haven Street – significantly less accessible to neighborhood residents. If such a proposal moves forward, make no mistake as to its implications – the rink’s users would, overnight, become whiter and wealthier, and travel far more than a mile and a half to use a relatively inaccessible “public” facility built using our tax dollars.

As a city, we’ve talked a lot in the last year about how Baltimore’s history of racial segregation, its pervasive economic inequality, and its mind-numbing approach to transit shaped a city and a metro area of haves and have-nots, communities of poverty and communities of means. The General Assembly has recognized the historic pattern of disinvestment regarding children and families as a root cause of our struggles, and is pushing forward legislation to increase mentoring programs, improve city parks, provide college scholarships, extend library hours, expand after school & summer programs, and restore some lost funding to our public schools.

With that context in mind, we have the Mimi Dome–an affordable public ice rink used by residents of all races and circumstances, which is supposed to be relocated to better accommodate wealthier residents from the county. The relocation of the ice rink would be yet another message to young people in our community that their lives don’t matter–that they are an afterthought in our public policy. Instead of moving the rink, we should come together to change the mandate for a revenue-neutral ice rink and identify a location for the rebuilt family skating center in the heart of our community.

* First published in the Baltimore Guide, April 13, 2016 *

More than just an ice rink

On the Mayor/Council Balance of Power

I’m often asked for my opinion on these charter amendments in particular, and the balance of power between the mayor and City Council in general. With the passage of these bills, now I can address the specifics of them.
1) Board of Estimates moving from 5 members (three controlled by the mayor) to 3 (the three city-wide elected officials). I support this move. What’s the point in having the BOE when a) it’s all up to the mayor anyway, so why waste time and money; and b) it consistently awards contracts to low-bid, non-union, non-local companies who come back repeatedly for approvals on cost overruns. See:
2) City Council ability to decrease and increase budget line items. I support this move. The budget is the most important business of our city government, and the City Council needs to be a stronger partner in shaping it so that it actually matches the priorities and needs of our residents instead of the vision of one person. Shaping the budget needs to be a broader conversation, inclusive of the council members and the districts we represent.
3) Moving from single member to dual-member districts. I DO NOT support this move. First, let me say the one good thing about it: having two representatives serving larger districts could help to build coalitions across the city around key issues and get us out of our parochialism.
Second, the negatives: a) accountability–when two or more people are responsible for constituent service in an area, it becomes incredibly easy to pass the buck back and forth, to the point that no one is actually accountable; b) two member districts are a huge benefit to incumbents, who can form tickets to discourage new leadership or, in the case of a retirement, can hand-pick the next person and drag them to victory. It’s a bit interesting that Councilwoman Spector, the longest-serving person on the council, who lives in a different part of the city from where she serves, would advocate for this change as she heads towards retirement. I don’t think it’s a shock that a group of incumbents would vote in favor of this change as they look toward an election when somewhere around nine of the fourteen seats will be turning over. No one likes to be pushed out of office by genuine, grassroots, democratic pressure.
On the Mayor/Council Balance of Power

That’s One Expensive Bridge: Transparency with TIFs

This is some classic Baltimore government business-as-usual infuriating but we’re-not-surprised dysfunction.
Note: I am not ideologically opposed to every TIF request or every development subsidy. That’s not what this is about. I am, however, strongly in favor of transparency, accuracy, thorough analysis, and thoughtful decision-making about when and how the City partners with private sector folks to make development projects happen in our city.
Let’s review:
1) Summer 2013, Board of Finance (in closed-door meeting) and City Council (by suspending the normal rules) voted to approve a $107 million dollar TIF for Harbor Point, which was supposed to cover all of the necessary infrastructure expenses for that development, including the Central Avenue bridge. $6.6 million in TIF funds are dedicated to the bridge project. In addition, $29.8 million of Federal transportation funds are diverted from other projects in the city to go toward this bridge instead. All of this to increase the profit margin for the developer from 10-11% to 14-15%. Even our local chamber of commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee, recommended a TIF in the $30-35 million range.
2) Winter 2014, the city signs documents promising to pay “all eligible costs” beyond the $6.6 million allocated for the bridge. At the time, that additional cost was estimated at as much as $3.4 million.
3) Spring 2016, when the bridge was already supposed to be complete (now scheduled for a 2018 opening), total costs for the bridge have jumped to $47 million. $6.6 million from the TIF, now $35 million in Federal funds diverted from projects like the Harford Road bridge over Herring Run and much-needed improvements to Boston Street, and an additional $5 million directly from the city.
All of this is in addition to the estimated $88 million in straight property tax credits the project will receive over ten years because it was roped back into the city Enterprise Zone boundaries–a program originally designed to spur development in distressed city communities. The state reimburses half of those costs, so it’s another $44 million in straight city support.
For those who were still wondering why I called for a thoughtful and deliberate approach to the $535 million Port Covington TIF, including pushing it to the next mayor and council to approve… this is why. Add this bridge debacle to the tens of millions of state money our school system has lost because of the inflated property values of these projects (without generating General Fund revenue)… and it’s clear that the current city leadership has demonstrated an inability to review these TIF requests in such a way as to be transparent and accurate about the real costs and benefits of the proposals.
That’s One Expensive Bridge: Transparency with TIFs

Don’t Rush Port Covington through a Lame-Duck City Council

The $535 million tax increment financing request from Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Development for Port Covington deserves lengthy public conversation and independent review.

It is far too significant a project, and far too large a request, for the current Mayor and City Council to approve this year on their way out the door. Let the current elected leadership of the city finish up their important work on Transform Baltimore (comprehensive rezoning), on the financial and performance audits that are due this year, and on the details of the city budget for next fiscal year.

Given the long-term financial implications of this request, the still unresolved situation regarding the impact of TIFs on city schools’ funding (the current legislation in Annapolis to ‘fix’ this issue has been amended to only have a three year window), and the robust conversations regarding TIFs/development taking place throughout the city this campaign season–this needs to be the first order of business for our new City Council and Mayor, not the last order of business for a group of incumbents who will soon be out of office.

To recap the numbers below: the total project cost is $5.5 billion. The infrastructure is $1.4 billion. Of the infrastructure costs, Sagamore imagines that 37% would come from the TIF, 24% from the state, 16% from the federal government, and 23% from their own funds.

To those who have pushed me to have a yes/no position on this TIF request, to do so at this point would be irresponsible. Each proposal needs to be evaluated in detail. I will make it a priority to attend the City Council hearings on this TIF request in order to be as informed as possible. My main concerns are: 1) impact on state education funding; 2) long-term manufacturing jobs; 3) public transportation; 4) environmental impacts, parks, and green space; 5) affordable housing; and 6) what revenue sources will be used to pay for the police/fire/school/trash services of future Port Covington residents if the entirety of their property taxes are being used to pay bonds floated to cover up-front infrastructure costs?

campaign sagamore proposal

Don’t Rush Port Covington through a Lame-Duck City Council

On Money & Campaigning: How You Run is How You Serve

There are a lot of strong candidates in this race, and we agree on a lot of policy areas. I’ve enjoyed getting to know my fellow candidates and expect we’ll have the opportunity to be friends and colleagues for many years in the future. But though we may appear similar at first glance, there are real differences in experience, leadership skills, and community engagement.

I’m a Baltimore native who is personally and professionally dedicated to our community. We’re raising our children here just like my parents raised me in South Baltimore. I have been a full-time public servant in Southeast Baltimore for six years, collaborating with fellow neighbors, public officials, government agencies, and local non-profits to make real progress on education, public safety, our parks, opportunities for our young people, and the environment. I’ve worked for our communities at the Liquor Board, the zoning board, the planning commission, the board of education, the City Council, and the General Assembly. I speak Spanish and work alongside our Latino neighbors so that they can succeed here like every preceding group of immigrants in Southeast Baltimore. This is who I am. This is what I have done and what I will continue to do. My commitment to public service didn’t begin with and won’t end with this election.

And that difference is reflected in the structure and funding of campaigns. Whereas the other campaigns are poised to spend $400,000+ wooing the 5,000 voters who will turn up on April 26th, inundating your doors with mail and hiring staff to make calls, knock on doors, and run the campaign–we’re on track to spend $60,000 working entirely with volunteers.

I serve on three local school boards. I serve on three local non-profit boards. I participate in a lot of budget meetings. I know firsthand that there are better ways to use hundreds of thousands of dollars than spending more than $100 per every vote received in a campaign for local office. Shoot, with a budget of $140,000 our church in 2015 was able to involve 300+ kids and adults in different ongoing programs (for more than 5100 contact-days), mobilize 60+ local volunteers, provide school supplies to more than 300 children, serve more than 6500 meals, and assist 45 households with water bills, food, BGE, and eviction prevention. I’ll say it again: there are better ways to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in Southeast Baltimore than on a City Council campaign–especially in a city where our government struggles with efficiency and accountability.

Money also says a lot about the background, commitments, and support of a campaign. Taken as a percentage of the total unique donations to our campaign, as of February 22nd, 39% of our donations were made by neighbors in the 1st district, 66% from people in Baltimore City, and 85% from people living in the Baltimore metro area. And, as of our campaign finance filing in January, 85% of our expenditures were within the city.

Meanwhile the three top fundraisers in our district, when all of the dollars are added together, only raised 11% of their money in the district and 20% in the City of Baltimore. All three of them took donations from PACs. And 79% of the money they have raised came from outside of Baltimore–a shocking 51% from outside of Maryland altogether. It might be nice to have connections like that, I suppose–but I’ll stick with the support of my neighbors who share this beautiful and flawed and exciting and infuriating city with my family.

The way you campaign and fundraise is likely to be the way you will serve in office. I will serve with energy and dedication, working alongside my neighbors and relying on their support and skills so that together we will improve life in our district and our city. I will be a responsible steward of our city budget, pushing for accountability and efficiency in every agency. Just like with the hard-earned money donated to this campaign by our neighbors, I know that every tax dollar we spend as a city is something that has been entrusted to the care of our mayor and council by my neighbors and needs to be used responsibly to actually address the significant challenges and opportunities before us.

On Money & Campaigning: How You Run is How You Serve