I attended the Hagerstown mayor and council meeting yesterday only because another economic redevelopment group, Urban Partners, was to present yet another Economic Development and Implementation Plan. I understand that this most recent study was funded by a non-matching grant, which a lot of people in this town think is "free money," but in reality it is still taxpayer money coming from the state. The study may be relatively free, but implementation of these plans tend to be short on private investment and costly to the taxpayer. I thought I better see where this is heading if anywhere.
1. Strategy for new office development and recruitment
2. Maryland Theater Expansion Project
3. USMH Expansion Support Strategy
4. Hotel/Conference Center/Heritage Center/Commemorative Park
5. Linking City Park and A&E District with trail and new housing
6. Expanded downtown A&E District with trail and new housing
7. Expanded operations of the City Farmer's Market.
8. Expanded and targeted home ownership support strategies
Without any mind boggling new ideas, I began to wonder what the difference is between the Urban Partners group and the Soro Development group that presented their similar plan in January 2013. Soro also reached out to stakeholders. Soro also presented a plan. Soro also wanted the mayor and council to give them the nod to proceed. That is where things fell apart, but this time the mayor and council were more receptive. The most obvious answer is that Urban Partners presented with an attitude of respect and humility. Soro came on like gangbusters with claims of connections to investors and state government purse strings. They were selling themselves more than their concepts for the city. I had the impression that it was Soro's local connections that gave pause to mayor and council. They barged in like a bull in china shop stomping on everybody's toes. Oh, and they also wanted $100,000 and something in writing in order to proceed. I did not hear anyone from Urban Partners mention that more money would be needed in order to proceed with feasibility studies for these projects or as they called it "drilling down deeper." I hope I am not wrong in assuming that it is coming out of the $83,400. I did hear the often repeated "This is not set in stone. This is just a starting point." Yeah...a little deja vu. No, a lot of deja vu.The final plan will be presented on June 24.
There was one entertaining moment when Councilman Metzner went on a rant against the Washington County delegation. He could not believe that they were not on board with securing a bond bill for $750,000 for the Maryland Theater. I am no expert on bond bills, but I do want to address this particular bond bill (GAM-HB1240) because there are some misconceptions and accusations that even I understand, and I can't let them go unchallenged.
As I stated earlier state grants are not free money. The title of this bill says a lot: Creation of a State Debt-Washington County-The Maryland Theater. It is a state debt. It is not included in the Capital Budget. Those who use bond bills to win elections would like voters to believe that there is this big pot of their taxpayer money set aside to be spent on local projects, and that if we don't get our share of the pot someone else will. First, there is no pot of money from which Washington County gets their share to bring home for pet projects. State debt is created in order to get that money. The super majority Democratic Party in Annapolis uses bond bills to curry favor for legislative votes. A Delegate who likes to bring home money to win votes, will almost always vote with the ruling party and will always vote to pass the budget, no matter how bloated it is or what fund had to be raided to make the budget appear to be balanced. If you do not vote for the budget, you do not get your request for state debt (bond bill), and you don't get to be the big shot back home.
So, when Metzner bellowed, "When they vote against bond bills for us, they are voting for money for someone else!" This is not true because 1.) bond bills are not voted on by our delegation, and 2) there is no pot of money that someone will get our share of...it's new debt. This bond bill was presented to the Appropriations Committee, which happens to be Delegate Serafini's committee. Whether or not he said something to sway the committee against approving this new state debt for $750,000 or not, I'd have to watch the video. He is a fiscal Conservative, so it would not surprise me to know that he wasn't interested in creating this debt. The only other way it could be our delegation's fault is if it is because they did not vote for the bloated and falsely balanced budget, which means they will not get the approval to create debt to take money home. Delegate Donaghue plays that game, but I guess he didn't play hard enough this time. He couldn't vote along Party lines on the gun control bill because his constituents would have run him out of town.
Another question, although I love the Maryland Theater and would love for them to be able to reach all of their capital goals, is it fair for that non-profit (usually it's a private business) to get special favors over another non-profit. Directly after the meeting, someone said to me, "The museum had to work hard to raise the money for the new atrium. Why didn't we get help?" That's a valid and fair question. Why? Who gets to decide who the winners and the losers are in Hagerstown or Washington County? Is it who you know? Is it political will? Who makes these rules?
I want to clear up one more misstatement by Councilman Metzner. He felt that because there was private money and city money available for the theater that the state money should automatically follow. He said, " They [Serafini and Shank] sat right there and said that it is usually one-third [private], one-third [city/county], and one-third [state] for funding for projects." He was referring to a joint city-county-state meeting regarding the stadium debacle. Yes, they did, but they did not say that they would support it. Shank and Serafini pointed that out only because the one-third private investment was clearly not available for the stadium. They did "a Gysperts" and did not say if they would or would not support it. How's it feel? Not good...I know.
As the election season heats up, I believe the bond bill issue is going to be significant. Do we want to be represented by those who don't think twice about creating debt in order for us to have what we want when we want it? Our current delegation was elected by the majority of the voters who did not want more debt. The voters will again be asked to decide if they want pro-bond bill candidates or fiscally Conservative candidates. I just hope that they vote with full knowledge of what a bond bill is...and isn't.
pork barrel. pork barrel. a government appropriation, bill, or policy that supplies funds
for local improvements designed to ingratiate legislators with their constituents.