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Stamford officials seek clarity about Harbor Point district

October 3, 2018

STAMFORD — City representatives seeking to better understand the South End taxing district housing the massive Harbor Point development recently hit an obstacle in their fact-finding mission — the city.

Several members of the board’s Land Use Committee chided Mayor David Martin’s administration during a recent meeting for a perceived lack of understanding of the district and called for more transparency.

“People don’t fully understand what the city’s agreement is with that district, that’s palpable in this room and that’s palpable outside of this room,” said city Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8. “That generally stems from a lack of transparency.”

The tax-incremement-financing (TIF) district, formed a decade ago to pay for millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements in the South End, has come under renewed interest and scrutiny in recent months after another district in the neighborhood began taking shape.

The TIF works by the district selling bonds to finance improvements. A percentage of property taxes created from developments surrounding the improvements then goes back to the district to pay principle and interest on those bonds.

City Rep. Megan Cottrell, D-4, called the hearing to seek financial documents, including annual and quarterly reports. These reports are required in state legislation and an agreement between the Harbor Point Improvement District and the city, she said.

She came up empty. Frustrated city representatives then spent nearly two hours going back and forth with Economic Development Director Thomas Madden and Chief of Staff Michael Pollard.

Madden eventually said the information is public and told representatives to seek documentation at the district’s offices. Representatives could make copies for 25 cents a page, he said.

Committee chairman city Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, D-2, was surprised at the invitation to view documents under Freedom of Information laws instead of having them brought to the meeting.

“Do we have really have to FOIA?” he asked. “I don’t want to use a sledgehammer to drive in a nail?”

Pollard said not to “rush to judgment” as city representatives decried a lack of transparency.

The agreements are a decade old, he said, and came prior to him and Madden’s time in City Hall. He promised to have Mike Handler, city director of administration, attend a future meeting and explain the district.

Handler did not return a call for a comment.

Still, the lack of information incensed board members. The meeting had been on the agenda for more than a month.

Longtime city Rep. Annie Summerville, D-6, said she was ashamed the city didn’t have a better handle on the district.

“It’s very obvious, we have dropped the ball on this,” Summerville said. “We have to take the responsibility for not being the watchdog.”

The district, controlled by developer Building and Land Technology through a board comprised of four company representatives and Madden, is supposed to forward information about the district to the city, Cottrell said.

But the city only has a webpage from the Town Clerk’s office of annual meeting minutes and another webpage on the Board of Representatives website with years-old links, many of which don’t work.

In a statement, BLT Chief Operating Officer Ted Ferrarone said the public is welcome to see all the documents in question.

“Members of the public have done so in the past,” he said.

He also noted that financial documents on the district and its bonds are available online through a website operated by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, the same site where the city posts its bond disclosures.

“The Harbor Point TIF has been very successful for the city and transformative for the South End, and is great model of a public private partnership,” he said.

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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