Activists who believe the fix is in and the Arlington government already has rolled over for Amazon used what limited opportunities they had at the Nov. 17 County Board meeting to demand more accountability and transparency from elected officials.
“You care more about your own authority than you do about the input of the community,” local resident Daniel Gajewski told County Board members to murmurs of support from a large crowd in the board room.
“I do not believe this is a good-faith effort,” said Gajewski, calling county officials’ attempts to avoid a full-throttled discussion of the deal at this stage of the game “a cowardly and desperate attempt to limit debate.”
The confrontational stance taken Saturday by a coalition of left-leaning groups on the issue ended the five-day high Arlington officials had been on since Amazon announced it would relocate a portion of its “HQ2” facilities in Crystal City and Potomac Yard. The rest of the offices and personnel will be headed to the New York City borough of Queens.
Arlington officials say they plan to hold a required public hearing, probably early next year, on the local economic-incentive package dangled to lure Amazon. That was not enough for those who think the county government should play hardball to wring concessions from the firm.
Those who organized the gathering at the County Board meeting – Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America and Our Revolution Arlington – say they want the county government to embark on a full cost-benefit analysis of the Amazon deal.
“This is a chance to give the community a voice,” said Tim Dempsey, a member of Our Revolution Arlington, which in recent months has pressed the county government to demand concessions on everything from housing to infrastructure from Amazon.
(Ironically, the County Board member who has been most in favor of instituting cost-benefit analyses on major projects – John Vihstadt – was voted out of office Nov. 6 and will depart the job on Dec. 31, before a vote on the Amazon deal is taken.)
Shortly after the Nov. 12 announcement of Arlington’s selection, county officials released what they say is the complete package offered to Amazon. But on Nov. 17, they acknowledged that non-disclosure agreements mean some information, particularly that transmitted to Arlington from Amazon, has not been released.
Arlington’s mostly (except for Vihstadt) Democratic leadership, which seldom enjoys seeing itself called to the carpet by progressive groups, parried the thrust in a largely united front, saying the county government in general, and they in particular, were only minor players in the overall deal.
• “It was all being driven by the state [government],” said board member Erik Gutshall.
• Most of this was done on the state level,” said board member Libby Garvey.
• “If you have an issue with it, there is a venue to take that up – it’s not in this room,” said board vice chairman Christian Dorsey, intimating Richmond might be the better spot.
Even County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac professed ignorance of full details of the incentive package offered by Gov. Northam.
“The state has been very close to the vest on a lot of this,” he said. “We’re not in possession of the documents.”
Arlington’s proposed direct financial incentive to Amazon, as sketched out the day of the announcement, includes a 15-year payout of $23 million, coming from expected new revenue generated through the county government’s tourism-occupancy tax.
In addition to direct financial incentives, the county government also is proposing to use a portion of new incremental revenue generated by Amazon’s arrival within the existing tax-increment-financing (TIF) area to make “strategic infrastructure investments” in and around the area Amazon will occupy.
The estimated new TIF revenue is projected to be $28 million over a 10-year period, county officials said.
While critics are skeptical that the full story is being told, one County Board member predicted there were no bombshell revelations waiting to be uncovered.
“While there’s a tendency to believe where there is smoke there is fire, that’s just not the case here,” Gutshall said.
“There isn’t some treasure trove of information” that would cast the deal in a different light, Gutshall said in a comment that, despite its earnestness, drew derisive laughter from the agitated audience.
In order to ensure there would not be a long line of speakers about Amazon at the board meeting, County Board Chairman Katie Cristol enforced rules that allowed just one speaker per topic during public-comment periods.
“That is out of fairness – fairness to your fellow citizens” who came to speak on other topics, she said.
Cristol said there would be a number of ways for the public to have its say on the Amazon deal in coming months, focusing on the eventual public hearing as “an opportunity for as many people to comment as fully as they wish.”
History suggests that may be too late: County Board members have never in the past turned down an economic-development deal following a public hearing.