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From the Desk of Linda Norris - Candidate for County Council at Large

Issue that need to see the light of day

(9/2014) In the 80s, when I was trained as "old fashioned" reporters are, we were taught to look for cases where government policy decisions are being made behind closed doors.

Two areas have fallen "out of the light" during the past four years that, more critically than ever, need to see the light of day: the county budget and the process of Tax Incremental Financing requests.

When I was a reporter covering Frederick County Government in the late 1980s, and while I was a county employee in the 90s, the development of the budget was done openly; proposed budgets were presented (and their appeals were argued) by department heads in open session. The reporters, representing the citizens, knew what items were being argued for as important, and could question easily accessible department heads about them.

Under the current board of commissioners, a committee assembled by the president of the Board of Commissioners now examines budget requests and appeals, outside the open, documented and reported sessions that are public. This process needs to be reconsidered under Charter Government to return to the public access to understanding how and where their tax dollars are spent, and I plan to propose legislation addressing this process if elected.

Another policy area under the current commissioners involving millions of dollars is a troubling example of lack of open process: the current policy devised to evaluate Tax Incremental Financing requests from developers (TIFs). These are the public financing tools that are designed to spur development in depressed areas. The TIF provides infrastructure financing by pledging the increased tax revenues from a successful newly developed area to paying back debt service on the infrastructure. This form of financing replaces what past county administrations required property owners and developers to pay themselves.

County policy calls for a TIF Review Committee (committee members include the County Manager, the Finance Director, the Financial Services Manager, the County Attorney, the Manager of the Department of Business Development and Retention (DBDR), the Director of Public Works Division, and the Director of Community Development Division) to rate these applications based on specific criteria.

However, when I asked last spring to see minutes of the committee that made recommendations on recent applications, or to see the ratings on the 21 specific criteria for some recent TIF applications, I was advised that the "committee does not meet" (the criteria are rated by each committee member independently) and the ratings by each committee member are not available to the public. This policy was put in place under the current commissioner board.

This is unacceptable. The public is entitled to know the expert opinion that went into these recommendations, and to be able to hold accountable those who recommended TIFS if the increase in taxes does not come about as projected (which leaves taxpayers footing the bill).

Legislation must be enacted to protect the publicís right to know when these kinds of decisions are under consideration.

Citizens can count on this former reporter, if elected, to find areas that need to have the light of public information shone upon them once again. Freedom of Information Act requests should not be necessary for the public to understand how our dollars are spent.

To learn more about Linda Norris visit her campaign website at www.lindanorrisforcouncil.com

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