County Executive Gardner blasts previous Young board on growth

A sobering presentation from County Executive Jan Gardner on Thursday highlighted the downside of growth, and put county council Republicans on the defensive. They promise to vet the information in the coming weeks.

A county study identified 21,428 housing units in the approved residential pipeline as of April 2017. Most of the development is slated for the southern and eastern areas of the county, and in the City of Frederick.

Quoting from two reports at Thursday’s press briefing – one from a roads consultant, and the other generated internally – Gardner said residential growth will cost taxpayers over a half a billion dollars in school construction and road improvements in the next 20 to 30 years.

Gardner blamed the bleak forecast on the last board of county commissioners [2010 – 2014], led by President Blaine Young (R). Current Council Members Kirby Delauter (R) and Billy Shreve (R) were commissioners on the board, who changed the county’s growth ordinance to benefit developers and property owners, Gardner said.

The Young board reduced fees for developers and negotiated agreements that shifted the burden of road improvements and school construction to taxpayers, the county executive said.

As a result, the county could see “severely overcrowded schools,” more clear cutting of trees, and increased traffic congestion on failing roads. The county has few options to influence the approved plans because the 14 developments planned in the county are protected by Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreements. The DRRAs give property owners certainty that their approvals and zoning regulations for the approvals will not change with new administrations. The last BOCC approved 14 DRRAs, many rushed through in the last months and days of the previous board, Gardner said. None have been approved since charter government was initiated.

“What were they thinking when they let developers out of paying the building excise tax for transportation improvements for 25 years, shifting millions of dollars of cost to taxpayers?” Gardner said in an email, after the press briefing. “What were they thinking when they let the developer of the Jefferson Tech Park out of building a needed $8 million school addition in exchange for $800,000? Why should taxpayers have to come up the $7.2 million difference? I have been cleaning up these messes and saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.”

The School Capacity Needs Analysis of the Approved Residential Pipeline details student growth forecasts based on the 21,429 housing units, the schools needed to accommodate the new students, and costs associated with school construction. Spearheaded by Janice Spiegel, the county’s liaison to Frederick County Public Schools, the report estimates that county schools will absorb 9,700 new students in the next few decades.

To accommodate the additional students, the county will have to build six new elementary schools; two new middle schools; and one new high school. The price tag, based on today’s dollars and includes both state and county shares, is estimated at $442,000,000. The developer’s contributions, established in or before 2014, total $77 million. [photo right, Jan Gardner, FCG]

The Monrovia/New Market Roadway Needs Study, from consultants WRA, call for widening several major county and state roads where the bulk of the growth is planned. The $17,000 study was submitted early this week. Consultants estimate the cost of needed road upgrades at $348 million.

County officials can only change or slow the growth attached to the DRRAs by proving that the growth will have a negative impact on the public health, safety and welfare. “The county can declare a public health and welfare issue like was done with the moratorium in the City of Frederick when there was no water,” Gardner said in an email after the briefing. “When schools are over a certain percentage, the county could declare a public health issue. Clearly most people would agree that schools over 200% create a public health and welfare issue. Ultimately, it may be decided by the courts.”

Gardner is committed to tightening the DRRA to impose stricter conditions on property owners and developers. Changes include a five-year limit on approvals, and reinstating a former county requirement: large developments of 500 units or more will have to contribute to school sites.

She also wants to increase the excise tax, which she said was gutted during the last BOCC, and use it for its intended purpose: to pay for roads.

Finding the “tipping point” on the amount of development that creates the need for the majority of the transportation improvements is also a priority, she said in an email.

Republicans Respond

The majority of the approved developments will be built in District 2, Council Member Tony Chmelik’s district. Chmelik, unlike fellow Republicans Delauter and Shreve, admitted to watching Gardner’s press conference online. And he took notes.

“It’s disingenous to suggest we won’t have the funds available for schools, or to put a limit on DRRAs for five years,” Chmelik said. “It takes three to five years for developers to get to the point to even get approvals.”

Chmelik challenged the county executive’s dire projections, including associated costs. Chemlik brought up increased revenue from income and property taxes as a result of growth. The cost of school construction averages $25 million a year, a figure Chmelik said is not insurmountable.

Still, Chmelik was reluctant to delve too deeply into critique of Gardner’s assumptions until he could research further. “I will have a lot more to say about this in the future. We will be looking into a lot of this. I am not saying there aren’t upcoming expenses, I am saying we have more money than she suggested,” he said.

Increased revenue from income and property taxes is something Gardner should be applauding, rather than disparaging, Council Member Delauter said. “She couldn’t have gone on a $60 million spending spree without our economic vision,” he said.

During the first three years of her term, the county budget increased by $56.2 million. The Young Board’s budget increased by $78 million in its first three years, Gardner said. “As Kirby should also know the increase in income tax revenue for the current fiscal year vs. the prior fiscal year was an increase of 8/10th of 1%. Yes, that’s right – less than 1%. Not exactly a big increase. Did he even read the budget?,” she said. [photo left, Kirby Delauter, SM]

Shreve switched gears, pointing out what he determines is hypocrisy on the part of Gardner. He said that Gardner’s BOCC [2006 – 2010] created $200 million in lawsuits against the county from the 702 properties that were downzoned. “DRRAS were created to settle lawsuits at the advice of the county attorney and the county insurance company’s attorney.” Gardner shot back: “The county was sued by at least two developers but the county won. The county paid out absolutely nothing in settlements on lawsuits. Not a penny. Billy has no idea what he is talking about and can’t prove what he has stated.”

Thursday Briefing Echoes July Announcement

The grim picture comes nearly six weeks after Gardner delivered a related and equally disturbing review of the consequences of another “giveaway” by the Young board, the Jefferson Tech Park, a 173-acre mixed use development near the U.S. 15/340 interchange. At a July press conference, Gardner called the Jefferson Tech Park deal “the worst financial deal and biggest taxpayer giveaway in the history of Frederick County.”

“There’s no putting lipstick on this pig,” she said in July. The deal would cost county taxpayers a total of $150 million, with $53 million in lost tax revenue; $89 million in bond servicing the TIF (tax incremental financing) funds; and the loss of an $8 million contribution to the construction of Crestwood Middle School, part of the initial deal with JTP developers that the Young board later scrapped.

After Gardner’s July briefing, Council Member Shreve, told The Frederick Extra that Gardner’s allegations were made for political gain. “She is going after Kirby [Delauter] and Regina [Williams] – and it’s purely political,” Shreve said. “I don’t know why the county executive is attacking someone who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in in Frederick County.” Delauter and Williams are Republicans running for county executive in 2018.

Young, architect of the JTP deal, argued that the worst deal is the downtown hotel deal and the county stepping back from the sale of Citizens’ Nursing Home, a deal he also orchestrated during his tenure, “She always just looks at property taxes, never what would be gained from the income tax to the county,” he said in an interview. “If it was just property taxes, she would have a point.”

Delauter said he hadn’t yet seen the JTP press conference, but called it “irrelevant.” After Gardner began publishing her concerns about the JTP deal in various newspapers and online publications, Delauter denied her interpretation of the agreement. He told The Frederick Extra Thursday that he’d have a presentation refuting Gardner’s claims ready in a month.

A presentation from Delauter is news to Gardner who said in an email this week that Delauter has no plans to schedule a presentation on the JTP. “The council chief of staff indicated in an email yesterday that the council was going to request county staff to make a presentation on the JTP TIF, but they have now cancelled or deferred that, too,” she said. “I really can’t comment on a ‘counter presentation’ that I have not seen and is likely to never happen.”

Delauter, she said, voted in the last BOCC to “give away 100 percent of the property taxes from the JTP project for 30 years until 2043.” Delauter, Gardner said, claims that the project will generate $185 million in tax revenue. No scenario presented, then or now, reflect a number anywhere near that amount, she said.

“Kirby Delauter and the majority of the Young Board mismanaged the county and spent literally millions of dollars on deals that hurt taxpayers,” Gardner said.

This column was originally published here.


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