Council OKs bond request

Proposed financial boost for developer of tech park near BWI narrowly passes

His ties to executive questioned

Owens fund-raiser tonight set on St. John's property

Anne Arundel

March 16, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Council narrowly approved last night County Executive Janet S. Owens' plan to give a developer a unique financial boost - but not before several council members questioned whether a company whose chief executive has strong ties to Owens received special treatment.

The bill will provide developer Edward A. St. John's MIE Properties Inc. with $2.6 million to make infrastructure improvements so he can build a business park near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Council members and other observers at the meeting noted the close ties between Owens and St. John, whose Annapolis office building will serve tonight as the site of "An Evening with Janet S. Owens," a fund-raiser with VIP tickets that sold for $1,000.

The Committee to Elect Janet Owens will accept the gift of space as an in-kind contribution. St. John also said he will attend the event as a VIP. For the past election cycle, St. John and his wife also contributed $4,600 to Owens' campaign.

"Mr. St. John, no disrespect to you," said Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, "but there are an awful lot of people who are sitting around here wondering about the timing of this."

Vitale and three other council members then voted in favor of the incentive package because they said it will benefit the county by spurring more development around the airport, which houses a cluster of high-tech jobs. They said the improvements made by MIE will help other development, including a proposed hotel and gas station.

MIE plans to build 600,000 square feet of speculative office and warehouse space on a 90-acre site near the airport. Company officials said the development, known as BWI Technology Park, could create 1,500 jobs.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis-area Democrat, voted against the plan. So did Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican.

Reilly said he was troubled that the county hasn't received similar proposals from other developers.

"It seems like a sole-source contract," he said.

Owens, who was elected in 1998 and campaigned against big developer contributions, endured criticism after she accepted more than $100,000 in development-related contributions leading to the 2002 election. Though term limits will prevent her from running in 2006, she continues to raise money. She could use her campaign account to run for another office or to help fund other candidates.

The Democratic executive declined to comment yesterday but has said her proposal was unrelated to any campaign contributions.

The approval last night will allow the county to issue $2.6 million in 25-year bonds - at a lower interest rate than MIE could obtain. That money will go to the Catonsville-based company to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as road widening and water/sewer hookups.

The money will be paid back with the increased property tax money generated by the development, county officials said. By county projections, MIE's technology park will generate about $315,000 a year, more than enough to cover the estimated $175,000 a year needed to pay off the bonds.

The project falls into one of four districts where the county has encouraged development, funding infrastructure improvements and using the property tax revenue collected after a set date to pay for the debt.

But this marks the first time the county has created a second debt within one district. This debt creation also does not include a contingency plan for taxing MIE if its development doesn't produce enough tax revenue to pay for its debt.

In previous districts where debt was created to assist one developer, the county established its right to tax the developer if its development failed.

Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said it doesn't take much to make an already skeptical electorate believe that campaign contributors get special favors. He said the timing of this deal was bad.

"I probably would not have counseled this from a public relations point of view," he said.

The County Council also questioned last night whether it should help build a project that would be constructed even without county assistance. MIE has already spent half the money - $1.3 million of $2.6 million - that the county will help fund. With the bonds, the county will reimburse the company for that $1.3 million.

MIE said it will build the project in five years with the assistance and would require at least 10 years without it.

Joining Vitale in support of the bill were Democrat Pamela G. Beidle, who represents the airport district, Democrat Bill D. Burlison and Republican Ronald C. Dillon Jr. Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks was absent.

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