Convening for its first full meeting since being sworn into office, newly elected Mayor Mike Bennett and the Aberdeen City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve a 10-year tax break for a property owned by Art Helton – the Democratic former state senator who masterminded Bennett’s triumphant ascent.
While Enterprise Zone tax credits, 10-year phased reductions in taxes due on properties located in specially designated areas like Route 40, are certainly not unique, it is unusual the city council would act so swiftly after the Nov. 6 election to approve Helton’s tax break.
In fact, the Helton tax break was the first and only legislative item on the plate for the new mayor and council Monday night. See:
- Resolution No. 07-8 Greater Aberdeen, Havre de Grace Enterprise Zone for 690 S. Philadelphia Blvd., Art and Ann Helton Properties, LLC (For Introduction and Adoption)
The Helton tax break was approved by a unanimous 5-0 vote with no discussion from the mayor or any of the members of council.
Helton, of course, was the primary booster of Bennett for mayor and has been tapped by the new mayor to head up a 30-person transition team tasked with ferreting out problems in city hall and with Aberdeen government operation.
And while we’re talking conspiracy theories, it’s interesting to note the Aberdeen Economic Development Corporation, chaired by failed city council candidate Steve Johnson – who was also heavily supported by Helton, does not provide a link on its web site to download an application for an Enterprise Zone Tax Credit, although it appears it once did.
So while it may be entirely legal, it certainly is unsightly to award a tax break to the man who just single-handedly handed you the keys to the mayor’s office. As Helton explained in an email, it was all just a matter of coincidental timing.
“This was applied for 6 months ago and goes through normal approval routine. First the county has to approve it, this was done several weeks ago. This is a routine tax credit that anyone in the targeted redevelopment zones on the Rt. 40 corridor is eligible for,” he wrote.
The property for which the Heltons are receiving the tax break is the old Colonel’s Choice Restaurant site on Route 40 which has been vacant for about 5 years. Art said he and his wife, former Harford County Executive candidate Ann, bought the property after failed attempts by others to redevelop the site.
“Projects like these are why you have tax credit programs for blighted areas,” he wrote.
My questions to Helton were simple: Had former mayor Fred Simmons done anything to stall the tax break or had new mayor Bennett done anything to accelerate the tax credit approval?
The answer to both, predictably, was ‘no.’
“This is a state, county,and municipal tax credit program that was approved by state law. Nothing that we have been singled out to receive. There must be at least a hundred of these that have been approved over the years in the revitalization zone on Rt. 40,” Helton wrote.
I agree with Helton that this Enterprise Zone tax credit program awards tax breaks to dozens of property owners each year, many inside the Aberdeen portion of the zone.
But shouldn’t Helton, Bennett and the city council have held off approval for another session or so – just to give full assurance that there was no impropriety? And couldn’t Bennett or one of the council members at the very least have made a comment during the public meeting Monday night?
Maybe something like this: ‘We recognize this looks bad, almost like a political payback, but please believe there is nothing political about this vote.’
It would have been nice for someone to give the citizens of Aberdeen confidence that the Bennett administration isn’t getting off on the wrong foot.
After all, in his campaign Bennett did talk about ways to cut the tax rate – we just assumed he meant for all of Aberdeen and not just Art.