Howard Council chairman calls for 'independent analysis' of tax increment financing deal

As the Howard County Council reviews a historic public financing deal tied to the redevelopment of downtown Columbia, Council Chairman Calvin Ball called for an independent analysis of a $90 million public financing toolthat warrants what he calls a "thorough, independent and critical review."

The financing deal — the largest in the county's history — allows the county to borrow against future tax revenue increases in order to fund public improvements. The Kittleman administration said the deal – which would support public infrastructure in the Crescent area being developed by Howard Hughes — is critical to supporting the developer's plan.

"I have significant concerns, and I believe most of my colleagues do as well," said Ball. "We've heard a wide range of questions and concerns from the public as well. I don't think any of us are taking this decision lightly, and we need the best information we can get."

The council will consult an independent expert to critically assess the analysis of MuniCap, a Columbia-based consulting firm hired by the county's finance department. The scope of the independent analysis was not clearly defined.

The county's auditor, Craig Glendenning, welcomed the move on Monday.

"This is a complex package of legislation and the Council has a limited timeline to make a well informed decision," said Glendenning. "I believe it is important for us to bring in someone with the expertise that can help me thoroughly evaluate the Administration's proposal, as well as provide the Council with an analysis of the possible future ramifications of approving this legislation."

It is unclear how the analysis will affect the timing of the council's vote on the TIF.

Earlier this month, some community organizations including the Howard County Citizens Association pushed the county to delay introduction of the legislation to September, saying the council's August recess created an awkward break in the discussion. People Acting Together in Howard, a large community organization in the county, called for the independent analysis at a hearing on Thursday.

The administration introduced the legislation in June, one month later than expected, because it was still negotiating outstanding issues. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman – who encouraged the council to introduce the legislation in July – said he supported the "impartial analysis" by the council.

"The development of the proposed TIF legislation involved extensive review by county staff as well as outside TIF advisors and bond counsel, including MuniCap which conducted an impartial review. These efforts greatly helped us negotiate the proposed TIF with the Howard Hughes Corppration," wrote Kittleman in a prepared statement.

The council will likely hold at least one public hearing in September after its August recess.

Some council members are divided on the deal, which would fund a public parking garage, improvements along roadways and intersections, along with water, sewer and stormwater management upgrades within those roads.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said she is strongly opposed to the TIF.

"Can we seriously believe this development would not happen if Howard Hughes didn't get a $170 million deal?" said Terrasa. "We are selling ourselves short. This is prime real estate. This is a prime location. This is a great place to invest. Why do we need to incentivize the developer? The administration is going to have to show us a whole lot more information to convince me that we need this to make this development happen."

On the other end, Councilman Greg Fox – who led a string of questioning last week to establish if the county was protected by the deal – said he supports the premise of the TIF, but will continue to ask questions to ensure the county's financial position is secure.

"The question is: do you support the plan for downtown Columbia," said Fox. "If you support the redevelopment of downtown Columbia, you're going to have to support the TIF. If we laid out this plan several years ago, this is the way to make it happen."

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said she is open to investigating the use of a TIF in downtown Columbia, including the assumptions that guide how much revenue it will generate for the county.

"I think it's shortsighted for anybody not to investigate all the tools that they have," Sigaty said. "At least in the case of the Crescent area, there is some significant infrastructure that is needed and costly. This allows for the infrastructure to be put in and paid overtime."

Councilman Jon Weinstein staked a neutral position on the deal.

"At this point, I am completely neutral. I haven't been involved in any TIF discussions before and I want to make sure this is right for Howard County and will actually help us achieve what we're trying to do. Will the numbers add up?" said Weinstein. "I'm purely in listening mode."

Ball also said he has not taken a stance on the deal.

A public hearing on the TIF and other pending downtown Columbia legislation — including two competing proposals to incorporate affordable housing in downtown — will be held at the George Howard building in Ellicott City on Monday, July 18 at 6 p.m.

This story was updated.

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