At a time when District leaders are considering drastic cuts to programs and services, as the city faces a $200 million shortfall this year and $500 million next year, some DC councilmembers just voted to give Blockbuster and Waste Management Inc. founder Wayne Huizenga and his pals a big tax break.
You didn’t see this vote on the DC Council’s schedule? Neither did we.

Yet last Wednesday, the Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue approved not just one tax break bill’for OTO Development, in which Huizenga is a primary investor’but also for another mixed-use project nearby at 3rd and H Streets NE. The bills may be considered by the full Council at Tuesday’s legislative session. We urge councilmembers to vote against the waiver to fast-track the legislation.

The Council’s actions are troubling for several reasons.

Certainly the economic downturn has impacted everyone, including real estate developers and investors. But at a time when city leaders are telling us to tighten our belts more than a few notches, and threatening to trim programs that help youngsters and our most vulnerable residents, should hotel and shopping mall investors like Huizenga be moved up to first in line for DC taxpayer dollars?

We’and we believe many of our fellow DC residents’have a different ranking of priorities.

The bills give tax abatements to Huizenga’s OTO Development for a hotel in Constitution Square in NoMa and to a large mixed-use project at 3rd and H Sts. NE. The H Street development would include 210 condos or apartments, a 250-270 space garage, and 42,000 square feet of retail, mostly occupied by a grocery store.

The thing is, both projects already are receiving financial help from the city. The H street development qualifies for the District’s supermarket tax breaks’including a 10-year property tax abatement. And the Constitution Square development is receiving $ 6 million in property tax breaks.

Why isn’t that enough?

But there’s another reason we are bothered by these bills. They were approved with little public notice. The vote of the Finance and Revenue Committee’known as the markup’did not appear in the Council’s schedule last week.

Tax breaks given selectively to individual developments shouldn’t occur without plenty of public scrutiny and examination. That’s why we support “The Exemptions and Abatements Information Act of 2009″ introduced by Councilmember Michael Brown. This bill would require the District’s Chief Financial Officer to conduct a financial analysis of any tax abatement proposal, something that already occurs for some economic development programs, like tax increment financing.

Unlike the 20-plus development tax breaks considered last year by the Council, this bill has yet to have a hearing in front of the Committee on Finance and Revenue.

It’s time for the Council to take action on this bill, and we urge finance and revenue Chairman Jack Evans to hold a hearing soon.