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Havre de Grace council narrowly approves $100,000 city loan for postcard shop

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

12:24 PM EST, December 9, 2011

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The Havre de Grace City Council Monday approved, by a slim margin, a city revitalization and development loan, or RAD, to Mary Martin Ltd., for an antique postcard and supplies business at 230 N. Washington St.

The $100,000 passed by a vote of 3 to 1. Councilmen Fred Cullum, Randy Craig and John Correri voted to approve the loan, while Councilman Jim Miller voted against it.

Councilwoman Barbara Wagner and Councilman Bill Martin excused themselves from voting and left the room.

The business receiving the loan is owned by Martin's sister and was started by his late mother. Wagner is the owner of another downtown business that has a RAD loan.

Havre de Grace's RAD loan program makes loans to small businesses relocating to Havre de Grace or to businesses that are starting up in the city or expanding their operations. Most borrowers typically have had difficulty getting loans from conventional lenders or loans with affordable terms from those sources.

Both Miller and Cullum said they had reservations about the state's RAD loan process, and one resident, Joseph Fiocchi, of Commerce Street, questioned the council extensively about the loan.

Fiocchi said he had concerns about the transparency of the process, particularly after City Finance Director George DeHority said most information about the applicant was not a matter of public record.

Fiocchi expressed additional concerns after council members said they had largely not read the terms of the loan. Cullum, however, explained that a RAD loan committee reviews the terms of the loans. The committee is appointed by the mayor and City Council.

Miller said the entire process has too many problems, and Cullum pointed out the business is still partly based in Perryville, even though the shop has relocated to Havre de Grace. Cullum said he wanted to ensure all of the loan-related money will be spent in Havre de Grace.

Councilman Randy Craig, who noted he is chairman of the budget and finance committee, said the business will create eight to 10 new jobs and is a well-run business with increasing profits.

Craig, however, also said the business' loan application was not accepted by two local banks.

"I think it's important to understand the RAD loan is intended to be inherently risky," Craig said, explaining the loan has been used for at least a decade in town.

"A lot of businesses wouldn't be here otherwise," he said.

Lori Maslin, with Laughing Crab Catering and originally owner and operator of Ice Dreams, said a RAD loan was extremely useful in helping her business get off the ground.

Loans since 1990

Havre de Grace started its RAD program in 1990 with a $392,000 federal block grant. The program concept was for a revolving fund from which the city would lend out the grant money and then use the interest earned to make additional loans, with the fund continuing to grow from the earnings.

In recent years, however, several RAD borrowers have defaulted. According to the city's most recent audit for the 2010-11 fiscal year that ended June 30, Havre de Grace has 12 outstanding RAD loans, totaling $738,000, that were made between 2005 and April 2011, in principal amounts ranging from $15,000 to $100,000. Each loan carries an annual interest rate of 5 percent.

Of the 12 loans, seven borrowers, including Wagner, were current with their payments as of June 30, 2011, while five loans were classified as being in default. All five of the latter were listed as being in default in the audit for the previous city fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010.

According to the most recent city audit, the principal and interest owned on the defaulted loans was $384,000 as of June 30,2011. The amount owed on the performing loans totaled $354,000, according to the audit.

Business tax credit

In another business-friendly matter at Monday's council meeting, Mayor Wayne Dougherty proposed a property tax credit he said would provide some relief for the city's small businesses.

Under the mayor's proposal, businesses would get a credit of up to $500 and must prove they are at least 10 percent owned by a Havre de Grace resident and least 10 percent of their employees are Havre de Grace residents.

"Most small businesses in Havre de Grace could apply and eliminate property taxes in their entirety," Dougherty said, explaining his program is intended to promote widespread participation.

The program would cost the city $95,000 annually in revenue.

Dougherty said he hopes to hold a work session on the proposal.

"As we move along over the next couple of months, I would like to get a work session on it," he said.

Sustainability

Craig, meanwhile, who was absent from the last council meeting, said he was "disheartened" to see the sustainability resolution was hastily approved with numerous amendments during his absence.

He said the resolution made it seem like its proponents were just eager to move on without discussing any aspect of the program, including its costs, benefits or drawbacks.

Craig said he hoped the council would reconsider the resolution and bring it back on the table.

Cullum disagreed, saying he believed the amendments kept the city "from committing to a lot of unnecessary things we did not need to commit to at this time."

Wagner said the original resolution she had presented, which was very simple, was substantially changed.

The council then voted 4 to 2 in support of a motion to reconsider the sustainability resolution. Cullum and Miller voted against the motion.

The council also agreed to hold a public hearing on the resolution during the next council meeting on Dec. 19.

Personnel discussion

Following its regular public meeting Monday, the council went into a closed session to discuss personnel matters related to the employment contracts of Planning Director Neal Mills, DeHority the finance director and an amendment to the contract of Police Chief Teresa Walter