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C. Fraser Smith: Transparency? Eventually

Insiders say the major Exelon Corp. project won’t happen without tax increment financing — a tax advantage offered “to make the numbers work.”

It’s a $1 billion, mixed-use project on the waterfront between Harbor East and Fells Point.

All kinds of remediation are needed on land once occupied by a chemical company. Parks are planned. And various other costly work.

Without taxpayer help, the project can’t be done profitably. Developers won’t touch it.

And maybe the city’s and the state’s commitment to the energy giant can’t be kept. In that eventuality, jobs and prestige and various intangibles would be lost. Who would want to do business in Maryland if government — and taxpayers — won’t step up?

Much is at stake.

And local government — think of that as you — has to do some of the heavy financial lifting. Many of the big-money boosts from Washington are gone, gone even before the so-called sequester crisis came along.

So we do it or it doesn’t get done.

Don’t wait until end

But here’s the problem. We would be more willing to step up if there were real transparency in the process — not at the end of the process, not when the deal is essentially done, but early when taxpayer questions might actually be heard.

Some in government and politics promise transparency. It’s the new bipartisanship. Leaders used that word until it was clear prospects for parties working together were slim and none.

Transparency, too, slams into reality.

Last week, for example, a city official barred reporters from a meeting on the matter of tax increment financing. Reporters weren’t allowed to hear arguments for this financial help.

“There is certain business that is confidential and proprietary,” a city official said as he gave reporters the boot.

A closed meeting was permitted, according to the city solicitor’s office, under the “deliberative process privilege.”

We can only guess at what that phrase means: While an issue is under consideration, a meeting can be closed. A developer might not want all his business on the street if he has no guarantee of winning the contract.

Yet and still. We’re talking about a lot of money,

Pressed further by reporters, the city solicitor’s office said the meeting was closed under “State Government Article, Section 10-508(a)(4) to consider a matter that concerns the proposal for a business or industrial organization to locate, expand, or remain in the State and Section 10-508(a)(6) to consider the marketing of public securities.”

Oh, that section of Article 10-508-(a)(4).

We are asked to believe in the process. We want to. We might actually agree this tax break is necessary if we knew more about it. Jobs are at stake. The state’s relationship with a big energy company is at stake. Maybe development of valuable property is at stake. Again, we don’t know what to think without the details.

Ryan O’Doherty, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake’s press secretary, suggested that all the necessary information will be available for the taxpayer — in due course.

Momentum already built

“When the legislation is introduced to the [City] Council, there will be public hearings, like any other piece of legislation,” O’Doherty said. “And council members will need to consider the legislation and support or oppose it in full public view. This is likely to include significant questioning of [Baltimore Development Corp.] officials regarding the public infrastructure financing and why they recommend it is needed.”

But here’s the problem. These things tend to develop irreversible momentum. When taxpayers tune in, often the deal is done.

Transparency matters most when it comes early. That’s when it’s likely to be useful.

That’s why transparency matters, right?

C. Fraser Smith is senior news editor at WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Daily Record Fridays. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.