Tag Archives: Baltimore

Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest

By Barry Rascovar

You might call them Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest. They have earned those titles for outrageously ignorant and beyond-the-pale actions as elected officials. Their names: Kirby Delauter, Richard Slutzky and Jack Young.

Judge for yourself which is Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.

KIRBY DELAUTER

I am using his name in this blog without Kirby Delauter’s authorization.

Frederick County Councilman Kirby Delauter

Councilman Kirby Delauter, Frederick County MD

Who is this guy? Kirby Delauter was a Frederick County Commissioner for one term and before that served on the Thurmont Police Commission. He runs a Thurmont contracting company and was elected to the new Frederick County Council last year, representing District 5.

He claimed the right to exclude his name from media publications.

After the Frederick News-Post wrote about a juvenile spat involving Delauter over special councilmanic parking spaces, he responded by threatening the reporter: “Use my name again unauthorized and you’ll be paying for an Attorney.”

Huh?

Guess Delauter forgot about the First Amendment, i.e., freedom of the press. He also apparently isn’t aware of court decisions that make it clear Kirby Delauter, as an elected public official, is fair game for the media. You don’t need a permission slip from him to mention his name.

Delauter’s temper tantrum went viral around the world. He’s been mocked and made fun of by his local newspaper and folks all over the country.

No wonder he backed down, claiming he acted before thinking about the ramifications of his nasty missive to the newspaper.

He still owes the reporter an apology. He sought to bully and threaten her.

Nice move.

Now he has painted a bull’s eye on his back. From now on, when he sends an outrageous email or mouths off without thinking at a council meeting, it will be reported by the media.

What an embarrassment.

RICHARD SLUTZKY

Who knew members of the Harford County Council are prime terrorism targets?

Council President Richard Slutzky, Harford County

Council President Richard Slutzky, Harford County

Thanks to the council’s new president, Richard Slutzky, we’re fully aware of these unbeknownst dangers when a citizen walks to the dais to converse with a council member after a meeting.

Holy mackerel, imagine what terrorists have in store for the rest of us if they’re targeting Slutzky & Company!

No wonder Slutzky used his new-found power to ban reporters and citizens from approaching the dais. Apparently he feels that mingling with common folk or the media is too dangerous for an elected lawmaker in Harford County.

What might reporters be hiding in their pens and note pads? What might that citizen be concealing in her pile of papers?

It seems Slutzky dreamed this one up all by himself. It was a good excuse to avoid being pressed or asked uncomfortable questions about his remarks or votes. He apparently dislikes being accosted by angry constituents who disagree with him on local issues.

So he decided to waste taxpayer dollars by hiring a County Council spokesperson to serve as the mouthpiece for the county’s elected local legislators.

Want to get a comment from Slutzky? The spokesperson will respond for him.

Want to know why Slutzky voted a certain way on a bill affecting your neighborhood? The County Council’s spokesperson will come up with some blather so Slutzky doesn’t have to deal directly with upset constituents.

What a great idea! Isolate yourself and the council from the public and the media.

Wait a minute. Didn’t Anthony Brown employ that same tactic when he ran for governor last year?

It proved a disaster. Brown came across as aloof, arrogant and afraid of tripping over his own words if he had to deal with voters or reporters directly. He diverted all questions to a taxpayer-paid propagandist.

Slutzky apparently shares Brown’s distaste for direct contact — though a harsh negative response from Harford residents soon forced him to retract his ban on dais-approaching.

Slutzky’s idea of elevating the status of council members — and creating an unnecessary government post at a time of government austerity — so they don’t have to mess with common folk is not exactly the American Way. It’s not even the frugal Harford County Way.

JACK YOUNG

Here we go again.

First, Baltimore City Council President Jack Young abused his power and stripped a dissenting lawmaker, Councilwoman Rikki Spector, of all committee assignments.

Council President Jack Young, Baltimore City

Council President Jack Young, Baltimore City

It was a crass display of power and a clear sign Young craves total control of the City Council.

After all, Spector was the only one to oppose Young on two controversial bills to ban plastic grocery bags and force 3,000 city police officer to wear body cameras.

Forget the fact Young’s grocery bag ban was an ill-thought and counter-productive idea that accomplishes little. And forget that the council has no authority to dictate policy to the police department.

When Dictator Young speaks, he wants everyone on the council, without exception, to salute and vote as he commands. Winning 15-1 isn’t good enough for him.

Now Young is furious because the city Law Department told him he can’t remove Spector from the city planning commission as well. It seems that is the prerogative of the mayor.

Why did Young strip Spector of all substantive committee work? Because she “has not supported anything I have done for four years.”

Poor Jack Young. He just can’t stand it when someone disagrees with him all the time. He uses his power to mete out extreme punishment. Off with her head!

Young also thinks the answer is to hire his own lawyer to give the council president legal advice he wants to hear.

Yet even a hack lawyer hired to mouth the legal guidance Young desires would have trouble satisfying his narrow-minded boss on the aforementioned issues. Here’s why:

Police powers lie with Baltimore’s mayor, not the council.

Appointment powers to the planning commission lie with the mayor, too.

Read the law, Jack Young, it’s not beyond your capabilities.

Betcha don’t remember what Lord Acton said about folks like yourself: “”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

***

There you have it: Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.

How would you match this trio of elected officials with those three titles?

Hogan’s Unappetizing Choices

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 5, 2015 — The New Year belongs to the victors, like Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr. But reality will set in quickly once hard, unappetizing choices pit campaign pledges against on-the-ground reality.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

Here are some examples:

RED LINE/PURPLE LINE

During the campaign, Hogan criticized both mass transit lines as too expensive for Maryland’s financial situation.

He said the money would be better spent on roads, not rapid rail.

At the same time, Hogan pounded away at the need for aggressive job and business creation. He pledged to energize the state’s lackluster economic development effort.

Killing the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs would, indeed, save lots of money for Maryland — $1.035 billion on the Red Line and $637 million on the Purple Line.

But not a penny of the savings will help Hogan close the $1 billion general fund budget deficit staring him in the face. Transportation funds are segregated in a separate account.

Even worse, the savings probably wouldn’t pay for much in the way of local highways work, either. That’s because the state would only be paying one-sixth (or possibly less) of the cost each year during the lengthy construction stage.

Compounding matters, revenue estimates for transportation taxes are proving overly optimistic, leaving a $441 million hole in the state’s six-year transportation plan.

Killing the Red and Purple lines would close that gap, but what’s left wouldn’t have much of an impact on local road-building when spread over six years, plus inflation.

The demise of Maryland’s two major transit projects, meanwhile, would be devastating for transportation contractors and the thousands of workers who wouldn’t be employed building the two rail lines.

That hurts Maryland’s jobless rate and the state’s economic growth.

So killing the two projects outright may not be the smartest step.

Baltimore badly needs the Red Line to connect its inadequate transit system and get low-income city workers to job sites. The Purple Line is crucial for near-the-beltway, lower-income neighborhoods and for lessening the crunch in rush hours on the Capital Beltway.

Then there are the political ramifications.

Kill the two transit lines and the new governor immediately makes enemies of the three largest delegations in the Maryland General Assembly — Baltimore, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County.

Together, the three have enough votes to make life miserable for Hogan.

There’s got to be a middle-ground way, which would involve a construction delay while engineers search for cost-effective options to lower the price tag for the two rail routes.

When the Woodrow Wilson Bridge crossing the Potomac River near National Harbor was reconstructed, the cost soared out of sight. Only after an innovative project engineer, Tom Mohler (now a partner with RK&K Engineers in Baltimore) devised a cheaper approach — chopping the massive project into smaller chunks — did the price tag diminish enough for Maryland, Virginia and the District to proceed with construction.

That’s what may have to take place on the two expensive mass transit routes, too.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION

Hogan faces a huge budget deficit, which may require a deep cut in school construction funding, from the $300 million level favored by the O’Malley administration to the $200 million level.

The problem is that many of the counties where Hogan was wildly popular are the very counties lobbying the state for more new-school dollars to handle a surge in students.

Hogan might end up disappointing the very voters who put him in office.

Clearly the state’s budget hole, plus the state’s over-reliance on floating bonds, call for reductions in spending.

School construction sticks out like a sore thumb.

Hogan might attempt to do more with less — by putting the state’s money into renovations of existing schools instead of costly new construction. He may be able to stretch fewer dollars further.

But it won’t make all his supporters happy, especially those with kids attending overcrowded public schools.

FILM TAX CREDIT

Maryland’s generosity toward the film industry led two TV production companies in recent years to work in the state on “Veep” and “House of Cards.”

Since 2012, this has cost Maryland taxpayers $62.5 million in tax credits to the production companies.

Yet it has put hundreds of skilled laborers to work behind the scenes: designing sets, arranging the lighting, working on the sound and engineering crews, preparing the costumes and working as extras. Hundreds more have been hired locally to play roles in the TV series.

If the tax credit is killed, one of the biggest losers would be Harford County, which, ironically, gave Hogan an overwhelming victory in November.

The Department of Legislative Services claims the film tax credit has generated little in the way of a return on the state’s investment, but the DLS may have been looking at the wrong indicators.

As an economic development tool, the tax credit is nurturing a local film industry. It is responsible for the evolution of a solid core of high-quality, skilled craftsmen and artists — just the right ingredients for luring more film crews to Maryland.

Kill the film tax credit and you likely kill any chance of Maryland retaining “Veep” and “House of Cards.” Hogan would be chopping off any possibility of Maryland gaining a reputation in Hollywood as a welcoming place for film production.

For a governor promising to grow jobs and the state economy, Hogan would be sending the wrong signal by taking an ax to the film tax credit.

Such unappetizing choices put him in a bind.

Hogan must find a way to balance the state’s books while not forsaking his pledge to jump-start Maryland’s quest for jobs and business — while at the same time not alienating his supporters or powerful groups in the legislature that could potentially subvert his agenda.

It won’t be easy.

# # #

Barry Rascovar writes a blog, www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

MD’s Best in 2014

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 29, 2014 — There’s no sense wrapping up the year without a traditional round of “bests” for 2014.

In this case, let’s look at some of the “worsts” as well, in politics and beyond.

2014-calendar

Best Catastrophic Recovery

Isabel FitzGerald and Carolyn Quattrocki

Remember when Maryland’s online health insurance exchange was a national joke in late 2013?

The state’s $261 million computer system crashed in its first hours of operation and never fully recovered.

Lots of finger-pointing ensued and the executive director was pressured to resign. The prime contractor was fired. It was a government nightmare.

Gov. Martin O’Malley jumped in to help jerry-rig a temporary fix that involved dispatching his IT gurus, Isabel FitzGerald and Carolyn Quattrocki, to try to straighten things out.

It was a terrible mess, with inexcusably long waits for anxious Marylanders seeking health insurance.

Still, by the time enrollment closed last April, 263,000 people had received health insurance via the exchange – either through private insurance or Medicaid.

Enrollment for next year, which began in mid-October, topped 136,000 by mid-December. That number will grow considerably prior to the mid-February cut-off.

It wasn’t pretty – and it certainly wasn’t cheap – yet in the end the exchange achieved its purpose. A large chunk of Maryland’s uninsured or under-insured individuals have insurance policies, giving them peace of mind when it comes to health care.

FitzGerald and Quattrocki were handed a lemon of a computer system. They turned it into lemonade.

Best Bit of Chutzpah

Blaine Young

It took real gumption, and a public-be-damned attitude, for Frederick County Commissioner President Blaine Young to connive with fellow Republicans to appoint him to the county’s planning board as his term on the commission was coming to a close.

Frederick County finally is a home-rule county, with a county executive and council. Young tried to become Frederick’s first county executive but he angered so many with his land-use decisions that he lost to Democrat Jan Gardner.

That’s when Young decided to strong-arm his way onto the planning panel, where he could continue to promote his pro-growth, pro-business policies, be a thorn in Gardner’s side and remain politically newsworthy.

Too bad this outrageous bit of chutzpah was illegal, as Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote. Young was “ineligible for the position, and his appointment was ineffective from the outset.” Young also can’t hold two public offices simultaneously.

But Young’s chutzpah persisted.

He showed up at a later commission meeting and confessed to an 18-month affair with the county’s budget officer, who had recently been shifted to a lesser post by Democrat Gardner at a lesser salary. Young wanted a full-fledged investigation of his paramour’s $40,000 cut in pay.

As for confessing his ethically and morally dubious affair and causing his lover intense public embarrassment, Young never flinched. A wrong had been committed, he said.

No wonder voters showed him the door.

Best Vegas Bet

The Baltimore Orioles

Orioles Logo

Who woulda thunk it?

Oddsmakers pegged Baltimore’s baseball Orioles to finish last or next-to-last in the American League’s tough eastern division.

One prognostication group gave the team a 4 percent chance of winning the AL East. Another set the O’s odds at 16 percent.

How wrong they were.

The O’s won the AL East by a country mile, finishing a strong 12 games ahead of the rest of the pack. The team’s chemistry was a joy to behold.

Free-agent acquisition Nelson Cruz crushed more home runs than any other AL player. The bullpen proved miraculous, and the starting pitchers remained solid throughout the 162-game season.

Manager Buck Showalter was named Manager of the Year and General Manager Dan Duquette received honors as the AL’s top executive. Owner Peter Angelos has every right to take pride in his team’s accomplishment.

Now if only we could go back in time and place a bet in Vegas on the O’s winning the AL East this year!

Best Investment

Jim Davis

Once it was the world’s largest steel mill with 25,000 workers, but the sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant that dominated southeastern Baltimore County for a century was shuttered, its parts sold for scrap – until Jim Davis stepped in.

The co-founder of the highly successful Aerotek national staffing firm in Hanover (along with his cousin, Steve Bisciotti), Davis and his partners at Redwood Capital formed Sparrows Point Terminal, LLC, to buy the steel mill’s 3,100 acres for $110 million. He then negotiated a $48 million cleanup with the EPA.

What he got in return was the largest industrial-zoned parcel on the East Coast, with its own railroad line, proximity to I-95 and loads of deep-water access to the Port of Baltimore.

The strategic site – at the mid-point of the East Coast – is being developed as a hub for port-related, energy, advanced manufacturing and distribution uses.

Already, Federal Express is considering a giant warehouse on 45 acres in Sparrows Point. The Port of Baltimore, meanwhile, is eager to annex the former coal pier and surrounding land in anticipation of a shipping boom, thanks to the widening of the Panama Canal. The land is ideal for roll-on, roll-off cargo.

Davis could be sitting on a gold mine, producing at least 2,000 jobs for the region within five years, by one estimate.

Best at Blowing a Sure Thing

Anthony Brown

Think about this: In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, with a huge advantage in campaign funds, with a giant party infrastructure to get out the vote, and with all the benefits of holding statewide office for eight years, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown got the stuffing beaten out of him by Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Everything went wrong for Brown in the governor’s race.

He proved his own worst enemy. He hired terrible campaign advisors. He ignored on-the-ground reports of trouble from veteran Democratic politicians. He gave the little-known Hogan millions worth of free advertising in a shameful attempt to smear the Republican.

Brown thought the election was in the bag. He didn’t campaign some nights so he could be home with his kids. He avoided contact with the media. He rushed out of meetings to make sure he didn’t have to answer audience questions.

He gave voters little exciting or innovative to think about. He refused to aggressively defend his administration’s record. He never explained why so many taxes had to be raised. He stuck to his prepared remarks and his bland campaign speech.

He looked and sounded robotic. His strategy was wrong and his tactics proved disastrous.

It was the worst gubernatorial campaign of the century.

Perhaps there’s something to the Curse of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office after all.

Best Gambler

David Cordish

MD Live logo

Competition be damned!

The ultra-competitive David Cordish fought like a tiger to delay or prevent new gambling facilities from opening in the Central Maryland corridor.

Yet his Maryland Live! Casino now has a rival in Baltimore with another arising near the Potomac River.

It didn’t faze Cordish.

Maryland Live! continued its aggressive expansion and marketing, raking in more gambling dollars than any other casino in the Mid-Atlantic region — $605 million through November, of which the casino kept $304.5 million.

The opening of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore was expected to chop a third off Cordish’s receipts. Instead, Maryland Live!, with 4,200 slot machines and 198 table games, took in more this November, $53.8 million, than in the comparable month a year earlier.

Now Cordish is embarking on a $200 million expansion that includes a 300-room hotel and spa next to Maryland Live! to help ward off competition from the $1 billion MGM National Harbor that could open in mid-2016. He’s also building a $425 million casino in South Philadelphia.

The key? Huge amounts of free parking, Cordish says, for both suburban and urban patrons.

Best of Baltimore

War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration

Sure, it was two years late (sort of), but Baltimoreans knew how and when to commemorate the epic defense of Fort McHenry that helped turn the tide against the British in the War of 1812.

Baltimore was saved 200 years ago by the strategic blockade of the inner harbor, the savvy defensive lines thrown up in Patterson Park and the sure shots of Privates Daniel Wells and Henry McComas in targeting the British commander, Gen. Robert Ross, at North Point.

Charm City celebrated those events for months.

The long-forgotten history of that 1812-1814 military engagement was resurrected repeatedly at events around town. Francis Scott Key’s poem, now the National Anthem, was given more attention than ever before. The Battle of Baltimore, and other clashes of the war, were recounted in books and at historic re-creations.

A giant fireworks display highlighted Fort McHenry’s portion of the celebration, as did an impressive display of Tall Ships in the Inner Harbor.

It was an event to remember.

Best Losing Candidate 

Dan Bongino

He came within a whisker of knocking off the Democratic incumbent in a district re-drawn to favor the incumbent. Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent with a knack for publicity and relentless campaigning, almost succeeded in mining the discontent of Maryland voters to win a seat in Congress.

Bongino benefited from an outpouring of Republican and independent support in the Western Maryland portions of the Sixth Congressional District for GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan Jr. Both of them zeroed in on Maryland’s high taxes, high government spending and anti-business attitude. Bongino benefitted from anti-Obama sentiment.

Thanks to an exceptionally low turnout in the populous Montgomery County part of the district — where Democrats dominate — Bongino almost pulled an upset over first-termer Rep. John Delaney, losing by a little more than a percentage point.

Will Bongino try again in two years? Will the atmosphere then be just as conducive? Turn in to find out in 2016.

Most Pointless Power Play

Jack Young

Leave it to the Baltimore City Council — and especially President Jack Young — to top the list for ridiculousness.

Young maneuvered through two controversial bills and won council approval by near-unanimous margins. The only “nay” votes were cast by veteran Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector.

That was too much for Young.

Spector not only had voted against his wishes but posed pointed and astute questions at Young: Why wasn’t there a separate hearing on the last-minute amendment to ban all plastic grocery bags from the city? Why not listen to the mayor’s objections?

Young, proving Spector’s point that he’s a bully, stripped her of all committee assignments.

It gets dumb and dumber in Baltimore’s legislative branch.

No wonder the City Council and its hapless presiding officer are the town’s laughingstock.

###

State Center Questions

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 11, 2014 — Next week, lame-duck Gov. Martin O’Malley may decide to bring the matter of the $1.5 billion State Center project before a divided Board of Public Works.

It would be a controversial move.

State Center with new building

State Center with new building

Readers responded to my previous column on this topic with some interesting thoughts. Their conclusion: There are far better ways to redevelop this space and provide decent offices for state workers in Baltimore.

University Center?

Steve, who is a Baltimore-area developer, writes:

In my opinion the universities and hospitals are the glue that holds this City together once you get away from the Inner Harbor. 

“How about they move the government uses down to the [Central Business District] as [Peter]Angelos suggests and then make the State Center parcel available to the [University of Baltimore] and/or [the Maryland Institute, College of Art] so that they can expand their campuses, while incorporating into the project some retail and other amenities that would benefit neighboring communities? 

“[A win] for the CBD, win for the universities, win for the neighboring communities.  Maybe that makes too much sense for it to happen.”

Hurting ‘Older Downtown’

Hugh, a long-time financial industry executive, writes:

“It was an ill-conceived idea from the start. There is so much B [office] space in the Central Business District available suitable for state workers at much better rates/rents.

“Additionally, [the State Center project] would take current state workers [out of] ‘older downtown.’ [This] would hurt vacancy rates even more.”

Ideal Arena Site

Owen, a longtime development pro, believes the State Center site is ideal for a new city arena.

The current plan, he writes, suffers from its “wayward scope, negative financial profile and appealing alternatives.”

Relocating the arena there makes sense, he believes:

“While the previously contemplated office project appears permanently stalled, the site adjacent to the O’Conor office building is large enough to accommodate a new arena and would certainly bring new life to the neighborhood.”

The area has lots of public transit and the Lyric and Meyerhoff performance centers. Owen adds an arena at that site would create “a more dense critical mass of entertainment related uses.” This, he feels, would lead to “more amenities for those patrons and create a rising tide for all to benefit.” 

‘No Longer Affordable’

A few days ago, Comptroller Peter Franchot chimed in as well. Not surprisingly, he’s against the amended plan, just as he opposed older versions of the State Center proposal.

Franchot says, “This is really a very questionable project. . . . When you look at the deal right now, unlike a few years ago, it’s no longer affordable. The commercial real estate market really hasn’t fully rebounded in Baltimore. We’re going to be paying a lot in rent.”

Then there’s the question of endangering Maryland’s triple-A bond rating.

State legislators are concerned State Center subsidies might put Maryland over its capital bond cap. Even if that’s not the case, the costly lease agreement will put a crimp in the state’s operating expenses for decades to come.

DLS Analysis

It’s also worth noting some of the points made in the Department of Legislative Services analysis of the revised State Center proposal.

State Center plan

State Center Plan

First, the plan now is based on the state taking an additional 115,000 square feet of office space — for a total of 515,000 square feet. That means yanking more state agencies out of the downtown business district, which already is hurting badly from high vacancy rates.

Second, these sky-high leases — $35.85 a square foot, plus a 15 percent inflation factor every five years — “would not be subject to appropriations in the State budget.” It is the only such project that is exempt from legislative oversight and review.

Third, the now-shrunken underground garage still would cost the state $28.3 million, leading to an annual debt service of $2.5 million for the state and an annual loss to the transportation trust fund of $2 million per year.

Fourth, the 500 spaces reserved for state employees will cost each of those workers $600 a year, versus the free parking on surface lots employees now use. (There are 3,500 workers in the State Center complex, meaning the new replacement building will not come close to accommodating all those who drive to work.)

Fifth, moving expenses alone will cost the state $2.4 million. Then the state will mothball the existing buildings. That adds another $5.8 million per year in expenses.

Sixth, DLS questions whether a private charter school is best situated in a state-leased office building. That’s the latest plan from the developers.

DLS also wonders if it is realistic for developers to anticipate a supermarket will open in the Firth Regiment Armory building, with its high walls and enormous heating and air-conditioning bills.

“It is unclear if any of these changes make sense,” DLS concludes.

The agency’s analysis lists four options:

  • Do nothing, which will require costly annual patch-ups to the 50-year-old structures.
  • Renovate or replace the current state buildings, at a cost of $215 million. (Given the state’s over-extended capital bond program, this is a non-starter.)
  • Sell the State Center buildings now in use and rent space elsewhere. Downtown office rents are cheap and there’s oodles of quality space available.
  • Buy out the developer and re-bid the project — but this time limit the RFP to one new privately owned office building for state workers.

DLS raises significant and substantive issues that cry out for careful scrutiny.

Changing Times

Since the State Center plan was first unveiled to great fanfare in 2005, times have certainly changed.

What is now under examination may not be economically feasible.

There may be far better uses for the site.

There are far less expensive ways to find better office space for state employees.

Perhaps most telling, the state no longer has the financial strength to give such a generous subsidy to a private developer for a project that is, at best, marginally viable.

There are plenty of reasons to take a “go-slow” approach on the State Center proposal. 

We could learn next week if O’Malley agrees.

###

 

 

State Center Boondoggle

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 8, 2014 — As Gov. Martin O’Malley winds down his second and final term as Maryland chief executive, he owes it to his successor — and to his legacy — not to push for approval of a new plan for developing State Center in mid-town Baltimore.

It’s a boondoggle in both its current form and in its amended form.

State Center vision

State Center vision

With the state facing dire budget deficits for years to come, it makes no sense for O’Malley to saddle the next governor with an inflated lease that will cost an extra $18.5 million per year — rising by another 15 percent every five years — to house agencies already working in lease-free buildings at State Center.

The only winners in this proposal are the developers, who just happen to include a number of friends and allies of the governor.

One-Sided Deal

Going forward with this shell game of a $1.5 billion plan would seriously tarnish O’Malley’s reputation. It would be unfair to pawn such a one-sided deal off on Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and Maryland taxpayers.

The governor should do the wise thing and put the amended State Center plan on hold  until Hogan is inaugurated.

Bringing this matter before the Board of Public Works could set off needless fireworks and disputes over an ambitious development that the Department of Legislative Services has repeatedly called into question.

From the beginning, the State Center plan that O’Malley has backed made little sense.

It was an idea that emerged during boom times and depends on the largesse of the city and state governments.

Ambitious Plan

The developers want the state and Baltimore City to underwrite much of the cost for constructing a new building on state land near the existing, aging state office complex.

Then state agencies will move from the state-owned buildings to the new, privately owned office structure — with the developers charging exorbitant rent equivalent to harbor-view rates.

The developers then will gut the 15-story State Office Building and turn it into market-rate apartments. More office buildings and residential units will follow on land leased from the state — with all the profits benefiting the developers.

None of this was realistic, even during good economic times.

The site is not in an appealing location, since it abuts a crime-ridden housing project and an under-achieving hospital. The site is about a mile from the central downtown business district, overlooking a forlorn section of Howard Street.

Appealing Alternatives

It would be far cheaper for the state to move agencies into inexpensive, modern office space downtown — either permanently or temporarily while the State Office Building and Herbert R. O’Conor Building are renovated. Or the state might move the agencies into the million-square-foot former Social Security annex near Lexington Market through a private-public partnership arrangement.

State Center complex

State Office Building (right) and O’Conor Building (left)

The most expensive way to give state workers better office space would be to proceed with the private development of State Center.

Even the developers’ parking arrangement for the office building seems unrealistic.

The state would be stuck with the tab for the expensive underground garage, but there wouldn’t be enough spaces to handle all the workers’ cars — and there would be few parking spaces for people conducting business at state agencies or shopping at the building’s ground-level retail stores.

The initial plan, devised before the Great Recession and championed by Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, was overly optimistic at the time. It envisioned State Center as a great transit hub (Metro, light rail and buses) that would be a natural magnet for new city residents and offices.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Angelos Vindicated

Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos sued the state over the plan, claiming it would be far less costly and far better for Baltimore City if state agencies moved into  vacant space in the central downtown business district.

Angelos won his argument in circuit court but lost on appeal. Time, though, has proved Angelos right.

O’Malley shouldn’t leave office under a cloud.

Citizens owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the way he muscled Maryland through the Great Recession without massive layoffs or harmful cuts to the state’s social safety net.

It would be best if O’Malley left the State Center plan in limbo rather than foist this ill-timed proposal on Hogan.

Given the depressing economic outlook for Maryland’s state government, there’s no way the State Center project should move forward.

It’s a white elephant waiting to happen.

###

 

Horseshoe Arrives in Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 2, 2014–Baltimore’s first and only casino is open — a decade later than anticipated by city officials.

Horseshoe Baltimore, run by Caesar’s Entertainment, is a bright, cheery and decidedly friendly facility a short walk from Ravens stadium. It’s got a giant parking structure that allows direct access to the casino without venturing on to city streets.

Horseshoe Baltimore

Horseshoe Baltimore

With 2,500 brand-new slot machines, 122 gaming tables and 25 poker tables, the $442-million Horseshoe Baltimore fulfills the wishes of city leaders, though it should have happened years ago.

Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke had a deal with then-Gov. Parris Glendening in the late 1990s to allow a Baltimore casino for a struggling urban city in need of an economic boost.

But Glendening reneged and went on a moralistic anti-slots campaign. It may have been good politics for the governor but Schmoke regarded it as a stab in the back. Baltimore desperately needed the revenue and stimulus.

It still does.

New City Revenue

Granted, Horseshoe isn’t the answer to Baltimore’s woes. But proceeds from the casino will help Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake slowly lower sky-high property taxes, make infrastructure improvements and eventually pour millions it now doesn’t have into community upgrades.

The current squabble over using some of the casino revenue to re-locate a stream pipeline serving downtown Baltimore businesses deflects from the fact that Baltimore should receive more than $10 million in the current fiscal year from Horseshoe operations, $15.5 million or more next year and $22.5 million in fiscal 2017.

That is a gift sorely needed by City Hall to help accelerate the downtown-living renaissance, deal with a serious crime problem and finally start to attack a glut of vacant housing.

For Baltimore, Horseshoe’s arrival is a ringer, a home run, a winner.

Horseshoe Baltimore casino

With 1,700 jobs — many filled by tax-paying city residents — Horseshoe is a new economic engine. Its location near the baseball and football stadiums means huge before-and-after crowds on game days and added revenue both for the casino and for Baltimore.

Under terms of the state casino law, Baltimore will split with Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties 5.5 percent of the winning proceeds from their three gambling facilities — Horseshoe, Maryland Live! at Arundel Mills and MGM National Harbor now under construction.

This local impact revenue is a godsend for Baltimore.

It is a new, ongoing money source that will allow City Hall to undertake projects on the back burner for years (or decades) and to balance the annual budget without draconian cuts.

It’s no panacea, but it gives city officials breathing room.

Late Entry

Baltimore is late to the casino party, but probably not too late.

Gambling — legal or illegal — always has been popular in Charm City. A single casino will probably do well for years to come, even with a glut of gambling sites in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Horseshoe also provides a much-needed boost for local tourism and for Baltimore’s downtown hotels. It gives visitors another reason to extend their stay or to come to Baltimore in the first place. It’s a decided plus for drawing conventions, too.

Part of Horseshoe’s success will come at the expense of David Cordish’s highly profitable Maryland Live! casino.  But Horseshoe will draw a more urban clientele versus the suburbanites flocking to Maryland Live!

Maryland Live

Both casinos, though, will feel the squeeze when MGM National Harbor opens in a couple of years. It will translate into smaller profit margins for both, but  National Harbor’s main draw will be for gambling patrons south of the Potomac River in Virginia.

Six casinos in Maryland seems about the right number — three in rural locations and three in the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis.

Casinos are becoming established, middle-class entertainment options that offer substantial benefits for state and local governments for their relatively stable revenue — as long as the gambling is tightly regulated and the sites are limited in number.

#  #  #

Immigration Quandary

By Barry Rascovar

July 28, 2014 — Are Republicans poor spellers?

They might be, judging from the graffiti (“NO ILLEAGLES HERE”) spray painted on a former Carroll County military building. It briefly was under consideration as housing for immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America.

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Contemplated immigration site in Westminster

Or is it just that Republicans are narrow-minded bigots?

It seems they don’t want people entering this country unless immigrants are Anglo-Saxon Christians who believe the “G” in GOP stands for God.

Republican History

Hostility toward immigrants is in the Grand Old Party’s DNA.

The Republican Party started as a coalition of anti-slavery groups and the Know-Nothing Party (formally known in states as the American Party or the Native American Party).

The Know-Nothings’ near-hysterical hostility toward Irish-Catholics and Germans later turned into anti-Chinese venom.

Keeping “them” out of the U.S. of A. has morphed into today’s sweeping condemnation of 57,000 children from non-English-speaking, heavily Catholic nations in Central America who have crossed the border.

‘Combat Zone’

Frederick County’s arch-enemy of immigrants, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, recently toured part of the Texas-Mexico border, declared it a “combat zone” and called for full militarization.

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County

Fortress America, here we come!

“We’re being invaded by drug cartels, drug smugglers, human traffickers,” the sheriff railed.

Huh?

Unaccompanied children are crossing the border, not gun-toting thugs and narco terrorists.

And in Baltimore County. . .

You’d never know that by listening to Del. Wade Kach or Councilman Todd Huff of Baltimore County.

The two Republicans have joined the anti-immigrant mob.

They’re upset Catholic Charities wants to house 50 children from Central America at its secluded St. Vincent’s Villa that tends to children with severe emotional and behavioral problems — and which originally opened 174 years ago as an orphanage for immigrant children.

Meanwhile, Republican Baltimore County Del. Pat McDonough, who never misses a shot at outrageous publicity, is calling for the erection of tent cities along the border and immediate deportation of “them.”

Congressional Intervention

Then there’s the irrepressible Republican naysayer, Congressman Andy Harris.

He was quick to announce his bombastic opposition to Central American kids living temporarily at a former Army Reserve building in Westminster – a locale that is not in his district.

Harris, an anesthesiologist, cited among other reasons “the potential health risks to the community” — as though these kids were carrying the Bubonic Plague.

He wants the 57,000 children deported to their home country “and get back in line.”

Discrimination is alive and well in the Republican Party’s Maryland branch.

Christian Response

Catholic Charities’ proposal, thankfully, does not follow Republican Party dicta.

Instead, it follows Christian teachings that most Republicans ostensibly say they follow.

This is, as Pope Francis pointed out, a “humanitarian emergency” involving unaccompanied children in a foreign land. We must first protect and care for these children, the pope said.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Catholic Charities is extending the good work it does by undertaking this new mission at St. Vincent’s Villa in Timonium.

It’s not a permanent solution but rather a helping hand for 50 kids while their situations are sorted out. What’s wrong with that?

Governor’s Response

How does Maryland suffer from a local charity assisting some of the needy, regardless of their place of origin?

Gov. Martin O’Malley understands.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

He first complained to the White House about placing kids at a Westminster facility lacking security or running water – not to mention the seething animus in Carroll County toward outsiders (especially Spanish-speaking “illeagals” who might pollute Carroll’s idyllic surroundings).

He was right to tell the White House it was a ridiculous idea.

There are far better ways to assist these kids — such as finding compatible settings near Washington, where there are large Hispanic communities (and proximity to Central American embassies) or in Baltimore City, with its own Spanish-speaking enclave and ample support services.

NIMBY Republicans

The Republican line is that this crisis is “a federal problem” created by the hated Obama administration, which should handle this matter itself.

Republican NIMBYism is alive and well: Let someone else care for these desperate kids, all 57,000 of them.

Just make sure the federal refugee camps are “not in my back yard.”

What’s confronting the United States is a major human dilemma. It won’t be solved solely by the White House. It will take a combined effort by sympathetic states, non-profit groups and the federal government.

Republicans, though, don’t want any part of extending charity to these kids.

The best way to stop this unwanted influx is to help Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala curb criminal activity, bolster health and education opportunities and encourage business development that translates into jobs.

Republicans will have none of that.

They don’t want immigrants coming to this country and they don’t want to help other countries stem the tide, either.

Their only answer is stationing armed troops on our southern border.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori calls this problem “a test of the moral character of our nation. This is not a time for political posturing. . .”

Sadly, Republicans aren’t listening.

###

Puzzling Choice in Baltimore City

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2014 — WHY IN THE WORLD would Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pick a small-town official to run the city’s 3,700-member Fire Department, an agency that has been beset by tensions and controversies?

The new fire chief, Niles Ford, may turn out to be a great choice but his resume suggests otherwise.

He’s only run one, 300-member fire department — in Lincoln, Nebraska, a college town that doubles as the state capital. Lincoln is less than half the size of Baltimore. He did win praise for his budgeting skills and bringing calm to a troubled department.

City Manager in Georgia

Ford left his last post as city manager of Chamblee, Georgia (population: 15,500) under political pressure. The town’s African American population is just 7 percent (Hispanics constitute 60 percent of residents). Chamblee’s median household income is $55,000 — versus $40,800 in Baltimore.

Niles Ford, new Baltimore Fire Chief

Niles Ford, new Baltimore Fire Chief

The entire budget for running Chamblee, a suburb of Atlanta, came to $14 million. Baltimore’s Fire Department budget alone is $223 million.

Ford’s doctorate in management comes from an online, for-profit institute. He gained his master’s degree from a Christian university in the Deep South. His bachelor’s degree is from an upper-level state institution in Alabama.

All that may become irrelevant if Ford has the smarts and people skills to navigate the dangerous shoals of Baltimore’s City Hall and its Fire Department. He did it in Lincoln but not in Chamblee.

About the only thing that seems apparent is that Rawlings-Blake got what she wanted in picking an African American for the post.

But she is placing Ford in a difficult situation.

What Awaits Ford

Two of the rejected candidates are deputies in the Fire Department. That’s not going to make for calm seas.

The last fire chief, james Clack, ran into a storm of controversy when he sought to initiate reforms and was forced to impose budget cuts.

Clack didn’t understand the dynamics of this large East Coast fire department with long-standing racial and labor-union issues.

Even worse, the department is in the midst of painful downsizing and a king-sized pension fight with the mayor.

Clack hailed from Minneapolis, which doesn’t have much in common with Baltimore. The Upper Midwest ethos is quite different from Balmer’s, hon.

Fire Chief Ford at Lincoln, NE, blaze

Fire Chief Ford at Lincoln, NE, blaze

Charm City’s unique ethos is even more foreign for someone like Ford, who is coming from jobs in a Plains State community like Lincoln and then a Southern town like Chamblee, where three folks conversing on the street is a crowd.

Running a large fire and EMS department in an aging but dense Eastern urban city differs dramatically from the fire-fighting demands of a community in the middle of the nation’s sparsely populated  Farm Belt.

Mayor Favors Outsiders

Rawlings-Blake apparently is persuaded that outsiders do a better job running Baltimore than insiders. She consistently has ignored internal candidates in favor of national searches.

That doesn’t always turn out well.

Indeed, the best mayoral selection of recent vintage for a top post was a home-grown product — Fred Bealefeld, who understood how to pull the right strings to bring about reforms and a lower crime rate as police commissioner.

Clack left Baltimore with a mixed record. Ford already is under suspicion as a small-town official from outside the region with a modest record.

He has much to prove, which doesn’t say a lot for the mayor’s insistence on filling key posts with people who know little about the way things work in Baltimore.

#   #   #

Like this post? Tell a friend about politicalmaryland.com. And subscribe by clicking on the “subscribe” key in the right-hand column.

 

Maglev: An Impossible Dream?

By Barry Rascovar

December 2, 2013 — MAGLEV IS BACK. So run for the hills.

Maglev Train in China
Maglev in China

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new coalition of Political Influentials is lobbying for this ultra-expensive, ultra-high-speed rail system.

How expensive?

Let’s start at $15 billion, or more, just for a magnetic levitation route, underground, from Washington to Baltimore — 39 miles.

Yes, you could make the trip between the two cities in 15 minutes. Yes, it would transform commuting.

Just imagine the ticket prices.

Maglev in Asia

In Shanghai, which has one of the only two commercially operating maglev routes in the world (the other is in Aichi, Japan), a one-way ticket from the airport to the outskirts of that mega-city costs a heavily subsidized $8.14 — and then you’ve got to catch a cab or light-rail train to downtown.

That line is considered a flop.

Construction costs on a Washington-to-New York route could top $600 billion, but at least you’d be able to reach the Big Apple in an hour — about the same as a plane flight.

It’s ridiculous pie-in-the-sky rambling from lobbyists looking for a gigantic federal handout that isn’t going to happen.

We’ve heard this tune before.

Past and Future Maglev Plans

The Abell Foundation was a big maglev booster, proposing a line from Camden Yards to Union Station at a cost of $5.1 billion (in 2007 dollars).

That plan went nowhere in the halls of Congress.

Japan is eager to tout a maglev line in the U.S. for the Northeast Corridor.

Its government is building a $100 billion long-distance maglev route over the next 15 years from Tokyo to Osaka. This could turn into a white elephant unless Japan persuades other countries to build similar lines that would bring down construction costs.

Maglev in Japan

Maglev in Japan

There’s no doubt maglev would be beneficial.

Its trains are propelled by superconducting magnets, thus reducing friction and allowing for super-high speeds of up to 300-plus miles an hour.

There’s virtually no noise. Trains can operates in all kinds of weather.

But, oh, the price tag.

Amtrak wants to build its own high-speed train route from D.C. to the Big Apple. Travel time would be 94 minutes. All it would cost is $151 billion.

Given this country’s historic parsimony toward mass transit, neither Amtrak’s plans nor the maglev group’s plans are going to get traction in Washington.

A Private-Sector Solution

Only through private-sector development will maglev happen in the U.S. of A.

Is there an Elon Musk * out there eager to put up a dozen or so billion dollars to build a magnetic levitation route?

Quick: Call Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Google co-founder (and University of Maryland alum) Sergei Brin. * *

That’s the only way this pipe dream is ever going to turn into an American reality.

#     #     #

* Billionaire refresher 1: Elon Musk is founder of Pay Pal, Tesla Motors (electric cars) and Space X, (space-launch vehicles). Net worth: $6.4 billion. He’s also working on  a “hyperloop” — a subsonic air travel machine in a partial vacuum that would operate between the outskirts of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Cost: $6 billion.

* * Billionaire refresher 2: Bill Gates (net worth: $72 billion), Warren Buffett (net worth: $59 billion), Sergei Brin (net worth: $25 billion)

( Read all of Barry Rascovar’s columns at this website, www.politicalmaryland.com )

 

O’Malley’s Folly, Part II

More on the ex-Mayor’s Hotel Fiasco

HOW DEEP IS the hole former Mayor Martin O’Malley dug for Baltimore City by insisting that the city put up its own money to build the now-struggling Hilton Baltimore convention hotel?

Here’s what an acquaintance with years of commercial real estate expertise messaged (in an edited form):

“Without getting too technical, there is an old rule of thumb in hotel finance circles, especially when the facility is of scale (i.e., not just an extended-stay hotel but has meeting spaces, etc.).

Hilton Baltimore

Hilton Baltimore

” ‘Break-even’ operations (enough cash available to pay debt service) equals about 1 percent of room costs with an average daily rate (ADR) of 70 percent occupancy.

“So by that math:  $300 million in bonds, 757 rooms requires $396,000 per room. (Yes, the City is in for almost $400,000 per room just in financing alone.)

“One percent of room cost is $396 per night.

“2012 figures show the Hilton Baltimore booked 161,469 room nights, or 58 percent occupancy.

“There is a long way to go on this one.

“Can we have a sidebar on the hotel’s architecture?”

Nowhere Near ‘Break-even’

Here are more comparisons: Projections called from the Hilton Baltimore to post average daily room rates of $214.70 last year. In reality, it reached an average daily rate of only $170.79.

That’s not even close to the $396 per room rate or the 70 percent occupancy rate needed to break even and keep pace with the hotel’s enormous, overhanging debt burden.

Want to know why cities don’t own convention hotels themselves? It’s self-evident.

Why O’Malley as mayor insisted on such a high-risk venture that saddles Baltimore with a money-losing hotel for years to come is still an open question.

It’s one he may have to answer, though, if his national campaign for higher office develops any momentum.

Architectural White Elephant

As for the request for a sidebar on the Hilton Baltimore’s plain-vanilla, view-blocking (from Camden Yards) architecture, I leave that to others with more credentials.

Suffice it to say the building is antiseptic and lacking in redeeming architectural value.

It adds nothing to the city skyline, even as its finances sink the city deeper and deeper into debt.

# # #