COURTHOUSE – City Councilmember Bobby Dyer on Tuesday, Aug. 22, announced he has drafted a resolution calling for a moratorium on public-private partnerships following the council’s approval earlier this month of a development project near Town Center that includes a $10 million tax break.
The council’s vote in support of the CityView II project came after some criticism by citizens during a hearing – and amid concerns that a member of the development authority voted in July to support the project despite a possible financial conflict with one of its players.
The Virginian-Pilot’s Alissa Skelton has reported that a special prosecutor will review the July vote.
The council’s support for CityView II came on a 7-2 vote, with Dyer, who represents the Centerville District, and City Councilmember Jessica Abbott of the Kempsville District opposing it. Councilmember John Moss, who has argued against some public-private partnerships, characterizing them as “crony capitalism” in a recent social media message, did not vote because he was away.
During the council work session a week after that vote, Dyer said he would seek input for the draft resolution and hoped to discuss it with his colleagues – some of whom expressed clear concern that what Dyer suggests could chill investment and job creation in the city – during an upcoming city council retreat.
A desired outcome of an effort to study the issue, Dyer said, would be “an equal, level playing field” for business in the city.
Dyer, in announcing his resolutions, said a moratorium would give a “blue-ribbon” commission appointed by the council a chance to review benefits and pitfalls of partnerships and inform a sometimes skeptical public about how and why these things work in the city.
“Virginia Beach is a wonderfully run city, but I think, like all cities, towns and hamlets we run into problems with some public-private ventures,” Dyer said during the meeting at City Hall this past week.
There is a perception of an uneven playing field, he said.
“I think this is a thing that we have an obligation to correct and address,” he added.
Dyer passed out copies of the resolution and read it aloud. Some of his colleagues expressed concern that this idea, particular putting an economic development tool on hold, might hurt some efforts to lure business and jobs to the city.
“Public-private partnerships are used in every city in the United States, so essentially what you’re asking us to do is tie one hand behind our back in terms of economic development,” said City Councilmember Ben Davenport, who holds an at-large seat.
Davenport addressed one implication of Dyer’s draft resolution, that the use of such arrangements might prevent some businesses from coming to the city due to a perceived unlevel playing field.
Davenport said he had not heard examples of a business staying away from Virginia Beach because it sometimes engages in partnerships with other businesses.
“I guess they wouldn’t choose to expand to any city in the U.S. under that conventional wisdom,” Davenport said.
“Ben, I appreciate that,” Dyer replied. “That’s why we’re talking about this.”
Dyer noted frustrations of some small businesspeople in dealing with processes of establishing themselves and discussed a “theater of perception” fueled by “when we see certain developers seemingly getting everything.”
Even if much of the issue is one of perception, Dyer offered, “The point is we’ve got a problem. Let’s fix it.”
“I disagree that there is a problem,” Davenport said.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, said she was concerned by responses by members of the community during the recent public hearing.
“So many of the folks that spoke came up and said, ‘I’m here to register my opposition to incentives for private development,’” Henley said.
“I think there’s a lot of misperception, and I think we’re furthering that by stating some of the things that are stated in this resolution,” she added.
Henley said she has requested background on policies about incentives and grants, and she noted that the city has looked into this in the past. She worries that some businesses who might invest here could be put off. “I think part of it is we have gone out and created this misperception,” she said.
“The word that really jumps out at me is moratorium because we have things that are in the pipeline, things that we already are working on,” said City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat.
“It would be difficult to cut them off,” said Vice Mayor Louis Jones, who represents the Bayside District and oversaw the work session while Mayor Will Sessoms was away.
“I think moratorium is a really poor choice of words,” Wilson said.
Perception, however, may be informed by philosophical differences between those who either believe in or reject the need for public incentives — which can range from grants to breaks on property taxes generated by investment.
Said Henley, “You’re either for them or against them.”
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