Times Record: BDC: Fix it or nix it (Sept. 12, 2013)

Oh, the poor, misunderstood Brunswick Development Corporation.

How dare people blame this group, when all they’ve done is to dole out cash, create jobs and reimagine the town of Brunswick in the aftermath of the base closure?

Who else was going to step up and get job-creating projects done without the risk-taking derring-do of the BDC?

Well, who indeed? Do banks not lend anymore? They’re getting it from the Federal Reserve at 0.25 percent. They can’t make a business loan at 5 percent to someone with bonafide business credentials? If not, maybe it’s because the project is likely to end up a loser. Or there’s not enough benefit. Or the market disagrees.

That’s what happened with the purchase of The Times Record building — a decision benefiting this newspaper that was an awful one nonetheless, costing $2 million, solving no blight, creating not a single job except for a day or two of demolition. Heck, even the Brunswick School Department took a flyer on that one — and we know how well they assess their buildings.

And that’s not even the worst example of the queer pecuniaries of quasi-municipal development in Brunswick.

Next we have Councilor Benet Pols asking the BDC to pay to raze an abandoned home near his to increase his property value. The proposal was rejected because it didn’t fit “the BDC criteria” — not because a sitting councilor was asking for financial favors from his peers.

Are we seeing the problem yet? Projects that “benefit the public” also tend to benefit a few select players — some of whom just happen to have ties to the Town Council or who actually sit on the Town Council — and there’s nothing to prevent it from happening again, nor has there been an open willingness to change it.

We fretted on this page last week that development benefiting private, for-profit entities is increasingly being funded by taxpayers. We put the BDC in this category.

TIFs, secret deals, grants from government agencies … there’s almost no reason for a businessperson to put up cash anymore when you have a group like the BDC saying, “Here, have $247,000. Create four jobs or pay us back” (Hint: A company that can’t make four jobs out of a quarter million dollars is not paying you back).

We’re told this is not public money. Defenders say since projects are being funded with the proceeds from earlier BDC deals, these are no longer public funds.

Bull. The BDC would not exist without seed money directly from public tax collections that were then parlayed into a fund. If anything, Brunswick taxpayers are owed annuity payments as a dividend for their initial investment.

Meanwhile, BDC projects go off with hardly any public scrutiny or input, since the vast majority of these negotiations take place in BDC executive sessions.

This should sound painfully familiar. Over in Bath, officials believe executive session legally shields their deliberations from dumb-minded citizens as they throw around millions in publicly-generated funds.

The BDC has brokered some excellent deals. It acted as go-between for the Coastal Enterprises purchase that will bring 55 great jobs here, and swapped a crumbling school with Bowdoin College for a new three-story town office. It helped Gelato Fiasco and Cool as a Moose expand. The BDC does improve the town’s economy — even net of some of the really, really bad deals it has done.

But the BDC needs to stop the charade it is privately funded or unconnected to town officials. It does its work as an arm of the town, on behalf of the town, often with town officials sitting on its board, some of whom are appointed by the Town Council.

If public entities like the BDC, the city of Bath or any other is going to spend, invest, collect, disburse or vouch for public monies on behalf of private developers, they better have good financial reason for doing so; they better remove, in the Brunswick case, town officials from relevant boards; and they better be able to provide evidence of public benefit.

Otherwise, officials who do public deals with public money outside public scrutiny are just running privately-held slush funds.

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