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With little to do, Revenue Authority meetings take only minutes

Michael Jack, chairman of the Howard County Revenue Authority Board of Directors, joined a conference call and called the board's monthly meeting to order Aug. 18 at 4:04 p.m.

After board members approved the July meeting minutes and were briefed on the status of the authority's annual financial report, the meeting was adjourned.

At 4:06 p.m.

"That's record time," Stanley Milesky, the county's acting director of finance and administrative liaison to the authority, said as the call ended.

"That was the fastest one yet," record keeper Eileen Weber agreed.

Though the two-minute conference call may have been the shortest authority meeting to date, it's not uncommon for the group to be finished discussing its business within a matter of minutes.

The average revenue authority meeting — it is held every month as required by state law — lasts 11 minutes, according to meeting minutes from January through August.

The authority, which was formed in 2006 to finance or operate cultural, recreational and parking facilities (excluding golf courses), is not working on any projects. Though its affiliated with the county, the authority is an independent agency that can acquire financing for projects by taking out bonds, which it would pay off by charging user fees for the amenity the project provides.

In the past four years the authority has been meeting, it has only studied two revenue-generating ideas — a parking garage for historic Ellicott City and a county swim center. In both cases, the studies found that the projects would not produce enough revenue to pay for the debt the authority would incur to finance them.

"A revenue authority is simply created and empowered to take on projects that generate enough revenue to offset the debt for those projects," County Executive Ken Ulman said. "We just haven't seen projects that made economic sense."

Roy Meyers, a University of Maryland Baltimore County public policy professor who specializes in finance, said the authority's inactivity "might indicate that they're making sensible decisions," but also affirms there is no great need for the authority right now.

'You don't really do anything'

The inactivity has been enough to make at least one member decide to resign from the authority's Board of Directors.

"My term is expired, and I've asked to be replaced," said Christopher Merdon, a former County Council member and Ulman's Republican opponent in the 2006 county executive race. "Because there are no projects, and it requires you to attend a monthly meeting where you don't really do anything."

At the authority's June meeting, Merdon suggested the monthly meeting requirement be changed to as needed. The authority is regulated by state law, so the meeting requirement would have to be changed by the General Assembly.

"All of our calls are 10 minutes long; they pretty much are the same thing," he said. "Without a project, there really doesn't seem to be a need to meet."

Because the authority's meetings do not require a major commitment of time or resources, Ulman said he does not believe the requirement needs to be changed.

"To have a brief meeting by conference call, I don't see anything wrong with that," he said.

But Ulman said he understands why some members have indicated that they do not wish to serve much longer.

"It's no fun to be on a board that doesn't have much to do," he said.

Merdon agreed, noting that if the board were given a project to study in the next few months, he may reconsider leaving the board.

"If there was more activity and something to work on, I think it would be exciting," he said. "At this point, we've been so many years without a project, it's not too exciting to serve on the board."

Searching for projects

Ulman said the administration has brainstormed ideas for revenue authority projects, but has yet to come up with one that is needed and could be financially self-sustaining.

"We're not going to force it; we're not going to take a risk to get involved in a project just to do it," he said, adding that the county is "choosing very wisely what we get involved in."

Still, Ulman said he believes there are upcoming opportunities for projects, especially with downtown Columbia redevelopment.

Should the county decide it needs a parking garage or a conference center in downtown Columbia, the revenue authority could finance those projects, he said. If the county were to ever take over Merriweather Post Pavilion, the revenue authority could manage it, Ulman added.

If a Maryland Stadium Authority study finds that the proposed Troy Hill Park Tennis Center in Elkridge would be profitable for the county, that could be a good project for the revenue authority to manage, Ulman said.

"It may make sense to have the revenue authority build the stadium and collect the tickets," he said.

County Council chairman Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, and member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, agreed that the revenue authority will likely serve more of a use in the future.

"There's a lot of great opportunity in some of the things that they could do," Ball said. "As the economy improves and as we have more opportunities in economic development and recreation, I think there will be more for the revenue authority to do."

Watson also said "the economy has really stalled a lot of opportunities." Despite the inactivity, she added, the revenue authority "is a good structure to have in place."

Merdon disagreed that the economy has contributed to the lack of project opportunities for the authority to pursue.

"I don't think Howard County's economy was hit that hard," he said. "I think it has to do more with the self-sustainability issue … It's difficult to find projects that people are willing to pay for to use."

Executive director planned

Regardless of the reason no projects have been started to date, officials are preparing for future use of the authority.

The county's Fiscal Year 2012 operating budget, passed in May, includes funding for a new county employee who would serve part-time as the executive director of the revenue authority and part-time as the point person for downtown Columbia redevelopment. Ulman said his administration is still working out the details of the position, but it's likely someone will be hired by the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2012).

Regarding the possibility of an executive director, Merdon said: "The authority has never discussed it. Nor do I think there is a need for it."

The county provided $200,000 in Fiscal Year 2007 and $100,000 in Fiscal Year 2008 to serve as start-up funds for the authority. The only money spent funded the feasibility study for a public parking garage in historic Ellicott City. The $245,886 balance has been rolled over from past budgets and remains in the authority's account should a project arise.

Milesky, the county's acting director of finance and administrative liaison to the authority, said the authority will be ready should that happen.

"They're a very good group; capable people," he said. "I think as the opportunity comes by, they'll be very effective in terms of what they're looking at."

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