Two Howard County Council members want to repeal an authorization for $90 million in public financing for infrastructure projects associated with Howard Hughes Corp.’s massive redevelopment of the Crescent District in downtown Columbia.
Councilman Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa announced their intentions Thursday to file the legislation because public funds will no longer be used to build a public garage, which they argue changes the financial data the council relied on to approve the tax increment financing last year.
“As a significant public amenity and a key component of a comprehensive parking solution for Downtown Columbia, the $67 million garage would have provided substantial value to the county in return for the investment of public funds,” Ball said in a statement. “If the TIF no longer includes public parking and no longer supports Merriweather Post Pavilion’s long-term success as a thriving arts venue, then we need to take a big step back and re-evaluate this investment of public funds.” The bill is schedule to be introduced at the council’s legislative session on Sept. 5, and a public hearing is expected to take place on Sept. 18.
But County Executive Allan H. Kittleman, in a court filing and interview Thursday, said no part of the TIF money will be going toward the parking garage.
Kittleman, in an interview, said the change was made because Howard Hughes wants to manage the garage but procurement rules prevented the county from allowing the company to be hired directly as a manager. As a result, he said, the county and the company reached an agreement for Howard Hughes Corp. to build the garage without tax increment financing money.
“Unfortunately it’s an example of why people should talk (with the administration and other council members) before filing legislation,” Kittleman said.
The county executive added he would like to use the money allocated for the parking garage to fund other infrastructure projects, including a north-south connector and jug handle from Route 29 to improve traffic flow into downtown.
Kittleman argued using the public financing for those projects would have a larger benefit for all county residents compared to using that money for the garage, which will still house a fire station and provide parking for Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Tax increment financing works by a local jurisdiction issuing bonds to pay for public infrastructure projects associated with a development that are, hopefully, repaid with increased property taxes that result from the building.
The council last year approved the tax increment financing, which could reach $127 million with expenses, in large part to pay for a nine-story public parking garage downtown as part of the first phase of the redevelopment. The first phase also calls for 200,000 square feet of office space and a combined 15,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space. According to the Downtown Partnership of Columbia, the full build-out calls for 1.5 million square feet of office space, 2,300 residential units and 314,000 square feet of retail.
The use of public financing for the garage has been controversial. Earlier this year, Corporate Office Properties Trust, Merritt Properties LLC, St. John Properties Inc. and Greenbaum Enterprises Inc. sued the county, arguing the use of tax increment financing for the garage provided a competitive advantage in attracting office tenants and is unconstitutional.
The county’s attorneys, in a court filing Thursday that included Kittleman’s affidavit, sought to dismiss the lawsuit because of the change in funding for the garage.
Terrasa, who opposed the tax increment financing and voted against the authorizing legislation, said no longer using the funds for a public garage represents a large enough change in the legislation’s intention that it requires more public input.
She also questioned why Kittleman would not welcome public review of his decision to shifting the funds from the garage to road construction if it is a better deal for the county.
“That’s something that should be subject to public scrutiny,” Terrasa said.