I recently wrote a guest commentary for the Towson Flyer in which I suggested that there was an allergy to audits among Baltimore County elected officials when it comes to the operations of County government. [“Kach should demand audit of Treegate and put fellow council members on record,” The Towson Flyer, April 4, 2018.] I want to revise my diagnosis.
I now believe that there is an allergy to truth-telling in general. It is the most recent example of perfidy in Towson that changed my mind:
The consideration for the sale of the property as represented to the Baltimore County Council and the public by the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz under the revised contract of sale between the County and Caves Valley for the “Treegate” property owned by the County is not $6,912,685. It is $5,996,600.
How could that be? The answer is that the County played games with the calculation of the revitalization tax credits to which Caves Valley would be entitled if it buys and improves the property, and that Caves Valley has agreed to “waive” as part of the contract of sale. Those credits are closer to $1,012,532 than the $1,928,617 calculated by the County because the County improperly assigned a base value of $0 to the property for purposes of its calculation.
If you are interested in the details, there is a link below to my letter to the County Council explaining in detail what I will politely refer to as a “discrepancy.” The following is an executive summary of that explanation:
The purpose of a revitalization tax credit under State and County law is to give the owner of a piece of property a tax credit based on the extent to which improvements made by the owner to the property increased the assessed value of the property. (The assessed value of the property includes the value of both the land and any improvements.) You don’t have to be a [adjective bleeped out] Nobel Prize-winning economist to recognize that using $0 for the starting value (“base value”) of property in calculating an entitlement to a revitalization property tax credit is wrong – and very, very obviously wrong.
So, the Kamenetz administration believes that you can take a piece of County property currently assessed without the improvements at $17,810,000 and calculate the projected entitlement of Caves Valley to revitalization tax credits by using $0 as the base value for the property? That’s bullshit [noun not bleeped out], and the Kamenetz administration knows it.
The revised contract of sale negotiated by the Kamenetz administration is on the agenda of the Baltimore County Council for approval on Monday. The manipulation of the revitalization tax credit numbers made it past the County Auditor’s “Fiscal Note” on the transaction and a Council work session this past Tuesday without a single question raised. The farce never would have been discovered before Monday (or maybe ever) but for the diligence of a handful of responsible citizens who have taken on lonely roles as County government watchdogs.
The modus operandi of the Kamenetz administration on matters such as this is predictable. It presents the County Council with a hurried, artificial deadline by which the Council “must” act to preserve some deal, and then gives the Council (and the public) the information relevant to the deal at the last minute. The Council apparently doesn’t mind the arrangement, because it seldom rebels at being backed into a corner.
In this case, a citizen obtained the appraisals that the County used to justify its calculation of the value of the waiver of the revitalization tax credits. As usual, getting information from the County wasn’t easy. Below is a link to a redacted copy of the letter that I sent to shake loose the appraisals. I am afraid that the letter reflects my experience and frustration with the County; the good news is that the County knows from its experience with me that I will go to court to enforce the law, and the appraisals were produced.
The report of the appraisal done by Collier International sent up a red flare: On page 20 of the report, Collier notes that, for purposes of the calculation of the revitalization property tax credit, “it is our understanding that the base value for the credit would be based on the taxable assessment of $0, and not the full assessed value of $17,810,000.” [Emphasis added.] That language indicates that the instruction to use $0 as the base value came from Collier’s client, Baltimore County. And even I couldn’t miss the signal sent by Collier. There is a link to the Collier report below.
I have no opinion on whether the discrepancy in the sale price should affect the Council’s decision whether to approve the revised contract of sale. After all, it is “only” a difference of $916,085, or 15% of the sale price. It would be nice, however, if just once the County would play it straight with the facts, and with its citizens. It is almost as if County officials simply can’t help themselves – as if hiding and distorting the truth has become habitual.
I do not believe that this type of deception would have been attempted in any other county or in the City of Baltimore. It is too brazen, and too easily debunked. The problem in Baltimore County is that the checks and balances internal to County government are not functioning, and there is insufficient scrutiny from the media. The County government has gotten away with similar behavior so often that it no longer thinks twice about pulling the wool over the public’s eyes.
The Baltimore Sun’s coverage of Baltimore County government is too superficial to be of much use. Kris Henry of the Towson Flyer and Ann Constantino of the Baltimore Post do yeoman’s work, but there is more going on than they can get to. So, as an aside, I have a plea to the editors of the Sun who decide where reporters get assigned, and maybe even to the Maryland State Prosecutor: Send some help to the citizens of Baltimore County who are desperately trying to keep track of the shenanigans that go on in the Old Courthouse in Towson.
April 14, 2018
Letter to County Council: Ltr to County Council 4 12 18_0001
Collier appraisal: Towon Gateway Appraisal report 2 16 18
Letter to Asst County Atty: Ltr to ACA Losher 3 20 18 redacted