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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

IMPROVED STADIUM PROPOSAL STILL A BURDEN TO TAXPAYERS

   The mayor and city council have changed. The proposed location of the new Suns stadium has changed. The process seems to have changed. The public funding and crony Capitalism continue. 
   Majority owner Bruce Quinn finally addressed the mayor and council yesterday. He began by reading a lengthy prepared statement at an amazing speed, followed by a lot more fast talking that was hard to follow. The mayor and council had the advantage of a handout of the presentation. Council member Munson requested a copy of his written opening remarks. Just to be clear, I am not insinuating the negative connotation of a "fast talker." The man just talks fast! 
   He began with the obligatory congratulations on the election. A special thanks was given to council members Metzner and Brubaker for standing with him from the beginning and continuing to support the project. He even had a "mom story" for council member Nigh...she didn't look moved by it or impressed. 
  He then said he would give a 9-month summary of events, as if any of us needed one. He started with the word "misconceptions" and that always raises a red flag with me. That usually means nobody bought the intended perception. Right off he intimates that the Washington Nationals would not allow the Suns to play at a renovated Municipal Stadium. That is not true. They will not allow use of Municipal Stadium in its current state, but they are open to using it if it were upgraded. 
  He wanted to make a few things clear:
1. The Suns owners offered no advice on the location of the Baltimore Street site. 
2. The Suns were not involved in any way with the mystery donor.
3. The Suns provided no input of the first rendering of the site on Baltimore Street.
4. The Suns have incurred $200,000 in legal fees on their own behalf and on behalf of the City as well.
5. The City has not done its part by applying to the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) for funds.

   Admittedly, I am no expert on sports, sports facilities, or the MSA. I just wanted to know if applying for funds from them is applying for taxpayer money. It doesn't state that anywhere on their website, but after several on-line searches, I think I am safe in saying yes it is taxpayer money. The only site that clearly states that is Wikipedia: 
The Authority is a public corporation of Maryland which is authorized to issue tax-exempt bonds for financing its operations. The proceeds from the sale of those bonds and any other revenues collected are deposited in the Maryland Stadium Authority Financing Fund. 
   Mr. Quinn then rattled off a list of expenditures that the Suns have paid as if we should be grateful that he is maintaining his own business environment. That works for a lot of people, but I think those expenses are to be expected. Even if Municipal Stadium is in bad shape, and we all know it is, surely he knew that when he bought the Suns and afterall, he only pays $1 annually in rent.
   The Suns, via Mr. Quinn, is now proposing the East End as a site for a new Suns stadium. Congratulations to those community activists who fought hard to protect their neighborhood! He  said it would remedy the blight on the East End and I agree. I did find it a strange argument to say in the original proposal that we will take this "great prospect" out of one neighborhood and place it in another in order to revitalize it. Anyway, he wants the city to demolish Municipal Stadium, demolish the Municipal Electric Light Plant (MELP), and perhaps buy or gain use of the 1st Urban Fiber plant. He wants a new multi-use facility (Suns stadium) near the old stadium site. According to Quinn, "these are all things that the city needs to do anyway." 
   When he spoke of the proposed financing of this new vision, he was talking so fast that I need to purchase the DVD of the meeting so that I can capture all that he said. I wish that I had a copy of the handout. The Herald Mail printed some figures, but I've learned that  I can't rely only on them for information. I do know that he said that he is willing to put up the initial $3M to get things started. Thank you Mr. Quinn! So very generous of you.
   Most of the council discussion was between known proponents council members Metzner and Brubaker. There were no surprises there, except for the repeated call for open public meetings going forward. Council member Munson stated that during his door-knocking campaign the public expressed displeasure with site location, but that all wanted to retain the Suns. Council member Nigh remained silent, and I would have like to have heard from her. 
   I was really waiting to hear from council member  Alshire who is known for his thoroughness of research,  thoughtful consideration, and conservative financial practices. This is what he said, 
"It comes down to two things: limitation of resources and reasonable fairness."
 Mr. Quinn had this deer in the headlights moment and stammered that he'd have to think about that for a minute. [Wait, is somebody actually stopping to think? Where is the unconditional love? Wasn't expecting intelligent discussion. What do I do?]  Council member Alshire went on to say that the limitation of resources was satisfactory to him if the project proceeds on the East End and if the city continues to build on an education theme in the Hagerstown core. As far as reasonable of fairness he did not think that the cost of the original proposal was reasonable nor the financing of it fair. The cost kept escalating and private investment was not forthcoming. The proposed cost of the new proposal seems more reasonable to him. However, he would like to see the city's $400,000 contribution divided between the project and the city's core. In addition, he would need at least one third of outside private investment (currently missing from this proposal) before he could vote to proceed. The Hagerstown TEA Party's stance is that it should be 100 percent privately funded, but council member Alshire's statement is at least a move in the right direction. Unfortunately, with the required expediency (before the 1st pitch of next season) I don't get the feeling that the mayor and council as a whole will hold out for that one third if it doesn't materialize. I think that Metzner, Brubaker, and Munson will be the key players in this arena.
   Mr. Quinn did have some remarks about the Suns being a business that should get special treatment from the city:
"The Suns team is more than a business. The Suns provides income to at least 100 other businesses. The new facility will be more than a Suns stadium; it will be a recreation center for the city."
I think there are similar businesses and projects that could stand equal to the Suns in that regard and I still think that they should not receive public funds in order to enrich their business and themselves. Mr. Quinn stated that he is not in it for the money. Really? He claims to have never made a cent on the Suns. That sounds like a bad investment to me. He claims he doesn't care if he ever makes a cent of off the Suns. Can we get that in writing?  
   In summary, I like the proposal. I think it would be a fantastic opportunity to clean up the East End in a big way.  I'm not convinced that restoration of Municipal Stadium isn't the better and less costly idea. According to their website, the MSA encourages historical restoration. I remain firm that the Suns business should provide the majority of the financing with private investors joining them in the associated cost and risk of this project. The city will make money on the taxes and utilities just as they do on every other business in Hagerstown. The taxpayer doesn't have the money, not on any level of government, and should never bear the risk associated with private investment. 



   

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

WASHINGTON COUNTY DELEGATION REBUKES CHAMBER OF COMMERCE



   Note: After seeing how the Herald Mail down played what happened at the pre-legislative forum, I realized that perhaps I had as well, so I decided to edit at least the title of this blog to reflect the epic rebuke that actually occurred.

    I attended the Washington County Delegation  Pre-legislation Forum hosted by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce (COC) this morning. I am sure that  I was not the only one expecting it to be a rather dull Q&A session where the audience asks the questions and the delegation attempts to provide answers. Certainly, the Democratic-leaning COC expected to control their meeting. Instead, the meeting turned into what one man at my table laughingly called "a blood bath." It was nothing short of a skillful takeover, or maybe in football terms, an interception. I almost stood up and shouted!
   First, this was the first time that "Hagerstown TEA Party" appeared on my name tag. It used to be fun being incognito as just Jane Doe citizen at these events, but I guess my cover is blown now, so I did fill in the Organization blank on the registration form this time. I have to give the person in charge of name tags props though for putting in parentheses "non partisan." It's usually assumed that us TEA Party people are just an arm of the Republican Party. I'm doing my best to dispel that myth. I have heard many Republicans and Conservatives say that they avoided the COC events because they are so partisan. On their website their vision statement says, "To be the preferred advocate and recognized voice of business in the greater Hagerstown-Washington County area." It is supposed to be unaffiliated with any party, but it is widely thought of as an arm of the local Democratic party. This could be a topic for another blog post. 
    Only Senator Shank, Senator Edwards, Delegate Serafini, and Delegate Myers attended. I didn't expect no-show Delegate Donoghue to attend, but I was disappointed that Delegates Parrott and Hough were not there. Turns out Delegate Hough was at the hospital being introduced to his new baby girl! With only four of the delegation in attendance, I wondered if there would be anything to blog about at all. It didn't take long to see that this was going to be more fun than I've had in a long time!
   The delegation skillfully took charge of the meeting. The chairman of the Delegation, Andrew Serafini, spoke first. He introduced himself as a business man and "financial guy" and stated that the state, and really every level of government, is faced with a huge challenge in regards to budgets, debts, and deficits. His only hint of the direction that this meeting would take was to say, 
"These forums are where we all need to have open discussions about our challenges. Here is where we may disagree on issues, but when we get to Annapolis we have to be coordinated and speak with one voice."
   Delegate Myers came to the podium next and things started to get interesting! He began with an acknowledgment  that now that the election is over business people know what they can expect for the next four years. He stated that he expects Congressman Delaney to work with our delegation and to be seen in Western Maryland. He said there are big issues ahead, but locally he expects one will be the revitalization of Hagerstown and how a stadium may be part of that process. Then he made everyone sit up and listen when he said,
"We don't have the cooperation of the chamber. We are Republicans that represent a Conservative area of the state. All of us received over 70 percent of the vote in this area and we must represent those who elected us. We are here, so you need to work with us. We need a report from the COC on issues and we don't get one. The COC Chair should be present in Annapolis and is not. The COC lobbyists should be at our weekly meetings and are not. We need cooperation with this COC."
I still didn't see the takeover coming.  I expected that any minute the guy with the mic would be taking questions. 


   Senate Edwards spoke next. He's a likable, funny kind of guy that serves District 1, which only includes a small portion of  Washington County. He travels a long way to participate in events in our county. He probably hasn't had to participate much in the political tug-of-war that goes on here, but he didn't go without admonishing the Chamber on one point.  He said that he attended a three-hour public meeting last night in Allegheny County and that he has a good relationship with the Allegheny County and Garret County Chambers of Commerce.  He suggested that this Chamber should work closer with those two bodies, since people often come from those counties to spend money here. He also asked those in attendance to "speak up" and let this Chamber know when it doesn't agree with the State Chamber of Commerce.  He then named a few important issues that he sees as being important this year: the structural deficit, transportation funding and sharing the burden (gas tax, mass transit tax, or mileage tax), broadband coming to Western Maryland, slots, and the management of natural resources. 
   Senator Shank officially took over the meeting and went full offense! First he commended the Chamber and other related groups for consulting economist Anirban Basu to address our "profound problems", calling him brilliant . Shank then referred to a chart that ranks states in regards to being business-friendly and pointed out that Maryland ranked significantly worse than our neighboring states and even worse when compared to Virginia. He stated that the numbers are disturbing, and that since we do border other states, many businesses have relocated to those states due to increased taxes and regulations. He said that the business climate here is just "wrong." Then he said to the Chamber,
"What are you going to do about these things? This delegation has been rated 100 percent as voting in favor of businesses. We are doing all that we can do. What are you going to do? You may say, "Shut up Shank, because if you say these things we won't get our share." I reject that and the COC should also! Work with us. The alternative is to give up, let businesses continue to leave, but keep our hand out to the state for handouts. We can't continue down that path. "
Shank went on to say,
"We have great potential here. But I have to ask this COC, What is your mission? Your mission statement says advocacy. We need you to show up in Annapolis, write, and testify. I have begged you with little to no response regarding the proposed gas tax." 
He listed several bills that they fought for in support of business (too quickly for me to note). This was a Conservative blogger's dream! I was taking notes as fast as I could. He also stated that they were able to kill bad bills that would have been bad for business. He finished by saying,
"Can we continue without you? If advocacy is truly your mission, I hope that you have an aggressive strategy and that you will be an aggressive advocate. Together we can do this."
   I looked around the room and some were as elated as I was, but many were scowling. This was completely unexpected and well...wonderful! This is the kind of dialog that has to happen, in public, to get everyone off of the partisan treadmill and working together. Call them out! Are you with us or against us? The Frederick Chamber of Commerce supports their Delegation. They work together and work through disagreements to get things done. Why invite your elected officials to your forums for a charade if you are not going to work with them? By this time there was only time for two questions:

Question 1. Gay McGovern [name provided by someone at my table who was visibly in pain] made a statement before asking her question. I do not know if she is affiliated with the Chamber or a business owner. Her statement leads me to think that she is affiliated with the administration of the Chamber. She said,
"We have provided no report? I thought that we have. We thought that we were communicating. I don't know why our lobbyists are not attending your meetings."
That seemed a very weak defense, but a defense none the less. Then her question,
There is money that should be coming to our county and it's going to go somewhere else. [He just said that he rejects that philosophy!] Do you have specific suggestions for improving communication?
Answer 1.  Shank: We used to receive FAXs from the COC and this helped us directly on bills and issues. We need a report from you on where you stand on issues. I have asked for this at every level from committees on up and behind closed doors. Maybe asking publicly will make a difference. Myers: In Frederick County the COC lobbyists attend the delegation meeting every week. We are going to get our fair share. I want to hear from you weekly. Step into our offices and say hello. Killing bills that will hurt businesses is important also.

Question 2. Mary [last name unknown] said that she had attended a meeting where she heard a disturbing comment and it was that Montgomery County is the economic driver of the state and as Montgomery County goes so goes the state. How do you counter that in Annapolis?

Answer 2. Edwards: They try to run the state. He said that he has been told in a committee that "you are getting enough" when asking for a $100,000 and then two seconds later Montgomery County asked for millions and got it without any discussion. They try to take over the Marcellus Shale issue as an environmental issue. He repeated his earlier recommendation:
"We have to be in close communication with Allegheny and Garret county governments, that is, respectful communication. We have gotten a fair amount. Please send testimonial to Annapolis, especially when you don't agree with the State Chamber of Commerce."

   Delegate Serafini closed the meeting stating, 
"I hope that this has been the start of a dialog." 

Me too!!!! However, by the body language and small talk in the room, I have my doubts. I was surprised that Chamber president, Brien Poffenberger, remained silent. It appears he was still short on words for the Herald Mail interviewer. I wonder if this is going to be one of those situations for him where he thinks of things he should have said...long after it matters anymore, or if he is feverishly writing his defense of the Chamber and himself as president in an op-ed for the Herald Mail. One thing I do know, if he writes it, it will get published. 





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