Columbia TIF debate continues at council hearing

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Residents reopened up debate over the merits versus perils of the Columbia tax increment funding (TIF) package on Monday night after two council members introduced a bill last month to repeal the controversial public financing deal.

Council members Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball proposed a repeal of the $90 million deal meant to advance the development of Columbia’s downtown after County Executive Allan Kittleman announced that $51 million of the funding would no longer go toward a public parking garage; the garage will instead be owned and operated by Howard Hughes Corp.

Kittleman stated that the money originally slated for the garage would go toward accelerated road improvements in the area. Terrasa said at the time of the repeal’s introduction that she was concerned that the public was not informed by Kittleman of the change in the TIF’s use.

Residents spoke out on both sides of the bill at Monday’s meeting. Cole Schnorf, who sits on the board of directions of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, spoke out against the repeal, saying that to renege on the financing deal would send the wrong message to businesses in the county.

“Predictability and good faith are the foundations of the relationship between government and businesses investing in the community,” Schnorf said. “There is no justification for repeal of that legislation and the threat of such a repeal is in and of itself a detriment to economic development in Howard County, which relies upon the willingness of investors to believe our county government will honor its word.”

Others, such as Cynthia Fikes, voiced their support for the repeal. Fikes said the public deserved to know what the funding meant for the garage would now be used for, and that without a specific plan for that money, the county is writing a “blank check” to developers.

“I hear the word TIF tossed around like it’s just a thing — these are our tax dollars,” Fikes said. “It hasn’t even been 12 months and that plan has changed. We should have been informed when the plan was changed instead of understanding from a press release following the repeal request. That is not transparency. I don’t expect decisions to be made in a vacuum.”

Also at Monday’s council meeting, opponents of the controversial adequate public facilities ordinance legislation voiced their grave dislike of what they see as a weak law.

Monday marked the third council meeting where testimony was heard on the bill, which aims to regulate development in the county to ensure public infrastructure can keep pace with an increase in the number of residents.

Residents expressed their frustration with allowing so much development to the county and the negative effect they say it has on school populations, several of which are currently filled well above 100 percent capacity.

Kittleman said he thought some of the anger over APFO was due to misinformation about the makeup of a 23-member citizen committee that crafted recommendations for how the legislation should be updated. He emphasized that the task force was made up of developers and community organization representatives, and the recommendations were the result of compromise on both sides.

The task force was the first to review the ordinance since 2002. During that time, the county’s population has grown 9.5 percent, more than double the state average of 4.2 percent, according to national census data.

Josh Greenfeld of the Maryland Building Industry Association expressed his support of the legislation, saying during his testimony that the county’s school capacity test is already one of the strongest in the state and does enough to limit unmitigated growth in the area. Greenfield also expressed concern that if the government slashes development in the area, it will drive the price of existing homes up, making the county less affordable for families.

Howard County Education Association President Colleen Morris spoke in support of the recommendations submitted by the board of education at last week’s public hearing by board Chairwoman Cynthia Vaillancourt, including adding high schools to the schools capacity test for determining if an area’s schools can handle more students due to increased development; capping school capacity limits at 100 percent; and requiring all potential development to pass the school capacity test.

“When overcrowding and redistricting splits neighborhoods, friendships and PTAs apart, it is difficult for the school community to focus on teaching and establishing strong relationships,” Morris said. “All of these issues can be mitigated with better APFO regulations.”

The county council is set to discuss possible amendments to APFO, as well as the bill to repeal the Columbia TIF, at its work session on Sept. 25. County Executive Allan Kittleman said he was open to discussing possible changes to the APFO bills, but that he was not preparing to introduce any of his own amendments.

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