—– By: Ann Costantino —–
The Baltimore County Council will vote Monday whether to give $43 million in grants to two large campaign donors — developers Greenberg Gibbons and Caves Valley Partners (CVP) — in an effort to jolt a stalled development project, Towson Row.
A detailed analysis of Greenberg Gibbons’s campaign finance records by The Baltimore Post reveals the Owings Mills-based firm, its affiliates and executives have contributed almost $90,000 to Kamenetz and six members of the Baltimore County Council. Previous stories by The Baltimore Post revealed that CVP, its affiliates and partners have contributed at least $130,000 to county officials and a slate campaign.
Several opponents to taxpayer-funded financial assistance attended a county council work session last week, questioning County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s desire to assist a private development project using public funding. Kamenetz has said he wants to revitalize that corner of Towson with upscale retail, apartments and a hotel. Yet residents and other elected officials challenge whether such political contributions have played a part in county officials’ decision-making.
Donations to some council members were not as significant as others. While Councilman Todd Crandell did not receive any contributions from Greenberg Gibbons and its affiliates or executives, in 2015 Councilman Wade Kach’s campaign received a single donation of $1,000.
Councilman Tom Quirk’s campaign received $4,000 between 2009 and 2014. And between 2012 and 2016, Council Members David Marks and Cathy Bevins collected $6,500 and $8,000, respectively.
Councilman Julian Jones received $19,500, which occurred over a three-year period spanning 2014-2017. Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s campaign collected $22,100 between 2012 and 2016, while Kamenetz’s campaign brought in $27,221.56 between 2010 and 2016.
Some of these dollar amounts are apparent over-contributions made to the county executive and one council member by a combination of Greenberg Gibbons affiliates listed at the exact address and confirmed through a state corporation search. Additionally, there is an apparent over-contribution – collectively – in which campaign contributions from those affiliates appear to exceed the aggregate limit of $24,000 for overall contributions from the developer that occurred after 2015.
A law enacted in 2015 allows for no more than $6,000 to be donated to a single candidate (or no more than $24,000 to all campaign finance committees) over a 4-year election cycle by the same individual or company. Donating over $6,000 to an individual campaign (or over $24,000 in aggregate contributions) in a four-year election cycle is an over-contribution.
Prior to 2015, $4,000 was the limit, yet a company could donate through its various Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) without being seen as one business entity. After the 2015 law went into effect, however, donations made by those LLCs or affiliate companies were to be considered part of the parent company’s collective donations if at least 80% of the LLCs were owned by the principals of the parent company. All noted possible over-contributions occurred after 2015.
Community leaders and residents have questioned the county’s priorities and ask to whom elected officials are beholden: their constituents or developers?
State Senator Jim Brochin, a Democrat who is running for county executive, says constituents are telling him that they do not feel heard. “Some of the council members may be in for a shocker on election day because (constituents) are feeling helpless and powerless against special interests –particularly developers.”
Brochin said constituents feel “they have no say. I’m all over the county and I’m hearing this across the board.”
State Delegate Pat McDonough said he believes the money being proposed for the developer “is needed for education and other problems in the county. The size of the project can be reduced (which would) eliminate the need for that money.” He recommends that the project be done in phases and “reorganized so that taxpayer money is not needed.” McDonough, a Republican, is also running for county executive.
In 2013, the county announced CVP’s $350 million Towson Row project as part of its “It’s Towson’s Time” campaign. Described as a private investment intended to “transform downtown Towson’s Southern Gateway,” the project would include one million square feet of mixed-use development space– including offices, apartments, a hotel, student housing, grocery store, shops, and restaurants.
However, the project stalled after hitting bedrock shortly after demolition in 2015. In May, CVP and Greenberg Gibbons announced a “joint venture” as co-developers of Towson Row. They redesigned the project and divvied up the components. In the new arrangement, Greenberg Gibbons will lead the retail, residential, student housing and hotel, with CVP taking on the office component.
Towson resident, Mary Ellen Pease says “It took the developers two years to put this idea together … a way to make this whole thing work. And they want the county council to just carte blanche stamp it without (council members) doing their due diligence.”
Under the proposal Kamenetz announced last month, the county would give upfront payments to the developer – totaling $43 million: $26.6 million in payments in lieu of revitalization tax credits and a grant for $16.4 million for future hotel taxes the county expects to eventually collect from hotel guests, once the hotel portion of the project is up and running. The Baltimore Sun was first to report the proposal.
Flanked by major holidays, the county dropped the news of the proposed grants last month and now – on Monday – the council will vote whether to hand over the $43 million to the developers to kick-start the Towson Row project.
However, Pease says it’s simply not enough time.
“The council hasn’t been privy to the information until the Friday after Thanksgiving. It’s like voting on a ‘pig in a poke,” said Pease. “They have no idea what they are agreeing to. They just need time to take a deep breath and slow down and do their due diligence, do their homework. It just doesn’t make any sense. Why this rush-rush?”
“I’m not opposed to development there.” But, Pease said, “I want smart development that makes sense financially for the taxpayers of this county. We need to generate jobs, but we can’t just be giving it (money) away to developers.”
Greenberg Gibbons and council members were not immediately available for comment. This story will be updated.