A conflict of interest in Baltimore County

Regulating land use and development is one of the most important functions of Baltimore County government. The County Council makes decisions directly affecting the fortunes of land developers, builders and contractors. Anirban Basu is the chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, which on its website touts his consulting work on behalf of “prominent developers” and lists him as the chief economist to Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction industry trade association.

Is it any wonder county residents urged the council to not renew its longstanding contract with Sage to provide it with economic forecasts? A better question is why council members, who regulate developers, didn’t themselves recognize the conflict of interest in relying on advice from an industry ally.

Mr. Basu raised eyebrows by appearing in Facebook videos this spring opposing various revenue-increasing measures under consideration by the council, including the imposition of impact fees on new construction. Impact fees defray the costs of expanding public facilities to accommodate increased demands placed on the facilities by new construction. They are not, however, popular with the builders and developers who pay them.

In May, Sage issued a report commissioned by the Maryland Building Industry Association concluding that impact fees would slow migration into the county and accelerate the loss of tax base. Sage issued a similar report in 2005.

The administration of the late county executive Kevin Kamenetz used a study done by Sage in 2017 to justify the controversial $43 million in financial assistance awarded to the developers of Towson Row, a five-acre mixed-use development. Sage’s theme seems to be that giving tax credits to builders and developers is good; making them pay impact fees is bad.

It is a message that rankled ordinary taxpayers subject next year to a 13% increase in the county income tax intended to help close an $81 million budget gap. Adding insult to injury, that shortfall can be attributed to the cumulative effect of the absence of impact fees over time.

So, it is easy to understand why citizens were upset that the council wanted to renew its contract with Sage. Although the council stated that it would solicit competing proposals before selecting its economic consultant, it did not rule out selecting Sage.

But why would the council even consider doing so? In my opinion, the answer is that most members of the Baltimore County Council have never fully accepted the responsibilities attendant to belonging to a regulatory body, including maintaining an arms-length relationship with the persons whom they regulate.

The problem starts with council members heavily dependent on political campaign contributions from developers, builders and their lawyers. This has been an historical source of concern by citizens, particularly because members of the Baltimore County Council wield unusually strong power over zoning and development decisions.

The quadrennial comprehensive zoning process that begins next month is an example of that power. Every zoning change made during comprehensive zoning, including changes applying only to a single lot, must be approved by a separate vote of the council.

Moreover, each lot owner that requests a change in zoning during comprehensive zoning has the right to have the request voted upon by the council. A change in zoning to a piece of property can result in an enormous financial windfall to a developer with a contract to purchase the property contingent on the zoning change. In the 2016 comprehensive zoning the council made 516 separate zoning decisions, almost all involving financial winners and losers.

The extraordinary role of the Baltimore County Council in land use and development is not limited to zoning. A developer seeking approval of a “planned unit development (PUD),” which affords more flexibility than permitted by the underlying zoning and potentially involves more profit, first must get the blessing of the county council.

The contract with Sage stoked fears that the council is still too closely aligned with the special interests it is charged with regulating. And that citizens’ interests will continue to come in a distant second.

It does not impugn the integrity of Sage or Mr. Basu to suggest that the council should award the contract to a consultant less closely associated than Sage with the development and construction industries. It might even restore a measure of public confidence in the council.

[Published as an op ed by the Baltimore Sun on July 29, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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