John Baer: Your tax dollars in flames on the way to Valhalla

Greenfield
Greenfield
Posted: September 15, 2010

REMEMBER that $20 million for an Arlen Specter library in Philly and a Jack Murtha center in Johnstown?

Well, there's another $20 million project pending - "Valhalla," a luxury spa/hotel and golf course in Wallace Township, Chester County.

Tee 'em up, boys, first round's on the taxpayers!

Yep, your Legislature, despite (maybe because of) its reputation, is about to send a capital budget to Gov. Ed that includes a $20 million matching grant to help fund a 600-acre private project by mega-real estate/development firm Albert M. Greenfield & Co. Inc., of Center City.

Albert M. Greenfield III, president of the 105-year old company and grandson of the founder, is a Rendell pal and campaign donor who also gives to other pols.

Greenfield, nicknamed "Moose," gave Rendell $6,500 during Ed's '02 run for governor, according to state records. Since only the governor can release capital funds, I asked about Greenfield and his project.

Rendell press secretary Gary Tuma responded with an e-mail saying that the Guv "spoke with people about the project, and it sounded worthwhile to him."

Tuma added: "Albert Greenfield is a friend and has given the Governor moderate campaign contributions. . . . should the legislature include an authorization for it, he would consider releasing the funds, but he has not made a final decision."

The House already authorized the project. The Senate is expected to soon. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County, says, "Normally we don't take anything out of the bill."

Nice. So, maybe a gift from Ed before leaving office? More public dollars to private interests? You know, like for Comcast or pro-sports stadiums?

A colleague calls this "golfing- around money" (a play on the notorious "walking-around money" that legislators set aside for pet projects).

A project opponent says that Valhalla is Old Norse for "hall of the slain," and asks, "Taxpayers?"

To be clear, the capital budget is a wish-list of billions of dollars worth of stuff that mostly never gets funded. But that doesn't mean this won't.

Rendell's argument for such projects is that the money is borrowed, doesn't come from the general fund and doesn't diminish state programs.

But these projects run up annual debt service and fees, which are paid from the general fund. When Ed took office the annual payback cost was $80 million. Today it's $250 million.

The other argument is that such projects create jobs and growth. Greenfield tells me, for example, that "Valhalla" is a $360 million "shovel-ready" deal that means 1,200 jobs and $25 million in state and local taxes.

"This is what stimulus packages are for," he says.

OK, then why do we spend millions of tax dollars on state workforce-development programs ($22.7 million this year) if we're also giving money to private entities for local workforce development?

And wouldn't the place pay taxes with or without state aid?

"Valhalla" (full name "Valhalla Brandywine") is designed as a five-star resort along the lines of Arizona's famed Canyon Ranch. It would include a theater, a country-club house, a golf-club house, equestrian trails, hiking and biking trails, 10 restaurants, a hotel and residential housing.

Is there no better use of $20 million? Is a new resort what the state needs?

A local environmental group, Guardians of the Brandywine, is pushing a petition to stop the funding; its website is watchourwaters.org.

One mystery is who put the project into the budget in the first place. The process is controlled by legislative leaders and the governor.

Tuma says that the Guv didn't do it. An aide to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dwight Evans says that Evans "never heard of it." Corman says that he didn't do it and doesn't know who did.

Republican Sen. John Rafferty represents the district where it would be located, and got a $500 contribution from Greenfield last year. He says that it wasn't him, and adds, "In this economy it's certainly not a project that should be at the top of the funding list."

GOP Rep. Tim Hennessey, who also represents the district, said that he did not sponsor the project, either, and doesn't know who did.

Rep. Mike Gerber, D-Montco, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, is a longtime friend of the Greenfield family, and has gotten at least $3,250 in contributions since 2004.

Did he do it? "I am supportive of it. And I weighed in in favor of it during the process," Gerber says. He says that he hasn't solicited Greenfield for House Democratic money but "it's possible he'll be a contributor."

Greenfield and family also gave to other lawmakers, Democratic State Committee and the Chester County Democratic Committee.

So who put it in? Maybe it thumbed a ride to Harrisburg, ambled up the Capitol steps, found the right closed-door meeting and hopped into the bill.

Stranger things happen under the dome.

Question is, what happens now? Does borrowed public money with payback costs go to a posh private project for a pal of the Guv who gives to pols?

Or should somebody with guts and common sense stand and say stop running up debt, start making these projects public before they're authorized and invest tax dollars only in efforts with the broadest possible common good.

That might help restore at least some confidence in government.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

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