Thursday, December 11, 2008

Transit and Parking Policies Working Together?

Will I drive to work? Ride the bus or Metro? Bike? Carpool? When making this decision, each of us weighs the cost, how long it will take, and how convenient our commuting trip will be. When government creates programs and policies to help more commuters choose alternatives to driving alone, the term often used is “transportation demand management.”

In its review of Montgomery County’s transportation demand management, the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found that the County actively promotes transit and other alternative commuting modes on the one hand but simultaneously implements parking policies that undercut efforts to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home. In other words, by providing plentiful, low-cost and conveniently located parking, the County makes it easy for commuters to drive alone, contrary to its goals of encouraging transit and other modes of transportation.

To bring parking policies and transportation demand management in line with one another, the County could offer incentives such as cash alternatives to employee parking subsidies or payouts to businesses that eliminate vehicle trips below a designated baseline. Alternatively, the County could provide disincentives such as reducing the parking supply or raising parking rates.
Either way, there are difficult choices to make. Economic incentives would have to be funded through taxes or fees, while disincentives would cost more to drivers and/or businesses. We know that reducing single occupancy vehicle trips is our best bet for mitigating congestion and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. But how do we get there from here? Take a look at the OLO’s full report and let me know what you think of the recommendations.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Ambulance Fee on Hold for Now

We all know that the proposed ambulance fee has caused quite a stir around the County. On November 25, the Council voted unanimously to table the bill. Because the County’s economic forecast indicates we may need to reconsider the bill in the spring, I’d like to take the time to clarify some of the issues.

The County Executive has proposed a fee of $300 to $800 for emergency transport in order to raise approximately $13.8 million annually for fire and emergency services. It is important to note that no county resident, regardless of whether they are insured, would ever receive a bill for a fee, co-payment or deductible. Rather, the amount would be billed directly to insurance companies. Tax revenue received from County residents would be deemed as payment for any portion of the fee not covered by insurance. Non-county residents would be billed for co-payments or deductibles but could seek a waiver.

There are many concerns about the fee from all sides. The County Executive has stressed that his plan is designed to charge health insurers, not County residents. Citing neighboring jurisdictions that charge a fee (the District and Fairfax, Frederick and Prince George’s Counties), the County Executive says that Montgomery County is essentially leaving money on the table that other local governments collect from insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid. At the same time, opponents of the fee say that any charge would discourage residents from calling 911 for help in the event of an emergency. Volunteers, who comprise about 50% of our fire and rescue service, are also concerned that charging a fee is inconsistent with their volunteer function.

Residents currently all pay a Fire District Tax on their property tax bill which is dedicated to supporting various aspects of fire and rescue operations. The ambulance fee money is intended to be dedicated to fire and rescue infrastructure and equipment.

As always, I appreciate hearing your comments and concerns. It’s important for me to know what you’re thinking.

Monday, December 1, 2008

How Can the New Administration Help Us?

President-Elect Obama as well as leaders in the House and Senate have indicated that infrastructure and alternative energy projects will be a focus of the economic stimulus legislation. How can Montgomery County benefit from the anticipated federal spending? What projects or services would you like me and other local officials to pursue as a part of the stimulus package? Some have suggested transit constructions projects, while others have mentioned a program to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency. What do you think?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

COG Strives to Make the Region a Little Cooler

Greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change will increase 43% by 2050 in the Washington region if we don’t make changes now. This is according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ recent National Capital Region Climate Change Report. As one of the first multi-state initiatives, COG adopted stringent goals to return to 2005 emissions levels by 2012 and to reach a reduction of 80% below the 2005 levels by 2050.

As chair of the Climate Change Steering Committee, which produced the report, I applaud the region’s commitment to combat the effects of climate change such as higher temperatures, flooding and related health problems. Although COG has limited power of enforcement, local governments are taking the plan seriously. In fact, Montgomery and Fairfax Counties already basically have signed on, and we expect more participation in the future.

Because energy consumption (like heating, lighting and electronics) accounts for about 2/3 of the region’s total greenhouse gas emissions, we as individuals can have our cake and eat it too. Fixes (like choosing Energy Star appliances, changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs and reducing use) can save businesses and home owners money in the long run. And, in Montgomery County, we offer rewards for purchasing clean energy and property tax credits for installing energy efficiency devices.

Governments must do their part too, especially when it comes to the 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions that come from transportation. Suburbs are growing at the fastest rate in the region (projected 47% growth by 2030). That means potentially longer distances to work and family activities. With our choices, such as investments in transit, stricter fuel efficiency standards and encouragement of clean technology, we can look forward not just to a greener environment but to a greener economy too.

Look at the Washington Post article or the entire report, and let me know if you or your business is doing something innovative to help the region reach its climate change goals.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Plan to Invigorate Ailing Transportation Program

We are considering a plan to move forward on several State transportation projects by using County funds previously set aside to help fund State transportation projects. The plan, totaling $51.2 million, is a unanimous recommendation from the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee, which I chair.

We asked staff from the Executive Branch, the Planning Board and the County Council to come up with this plan in response to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s September announcement that it would cut more than $100 million in funds that were intended for State projects in Montgomery County. The cuts eliminate and reduce many significant transportation projects.

Under the plan, we will allocate money from the County’s State Transportation Participation program. This already-funded program provides for the County’s participation in funding State and Metro projects that will add capacity to the County’s network and reduce congestion. It is funded primarily by Montgomery County Liquor Fund Revenue Bonds, and we propose to use much of the funding to offset some State cuts.

This plan jump starts critical State transportation projects. Transportation remains the top priority for Montgomery County residents who are tired of being stuck in traffic. We need congestion relief now. That’s why I am pleased to be putting this plan forward. View the entire press release.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Group Considers Transit Funding Option

Last week I held a public work session to explore a plan proposed by the Council’s Working Group on Infrastructure Financing that would allow the County to raise up to $75 million annually by assessing employers a $250 excise tax on employee parking spaces. Revenues would be dedicated to financing transit.

A parking excise tax not only would provide a stable and long-term revenue source, the Working Group’s October 2007 report says the tax “may contribute to achieving other County goals to reduce demand for single occupancy vehicle travel (by encouraging carpools or transit) and to maintain air quality standards.”

I am well aware of the fiscal uncertainty faced by our residents and businesses, and I also know that we have several big ticket transit plans on the table that we need to be prepared to deliver. I held the work session in light of the recent announcement by Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari that $1.1 billion in transportation projects will be deferred over the next six years to compensate for a revenue shortfall.

Montgomery County’s two planned priority transit projects, the Purple Line (an east-west route that would connect the Bethesda and New Carrollton Metrorail stations) and the Corridor Cities Transitway (a north-south route that would extend from the Shady Grove Metrorail station to beyond Clarksburg), were slashed by $25 million (19 percent) and $42.5 million (47 percent), respectively, over the next six years. The proposed excise tax could help to get these projects back on track.

I recognize that these are difficult economic times for everyone, and I appreciate the thorough consideration given to the proposal. Based on input from the work session, I do not plan to pursue the parking excise tax at this time.

Still, serious needs for both roadway and transit funding remain, especially as the State’s contribution to transportation is shrinking. Some folks have suggested that we can’t afford the cost of the projects, but we really can’t afford a future that leaves employees and businesses paralyzed by gridlock. That’s why I am committed to continue trying to address these core community needs. Do you have a good idea for financing infrastructure? Let me know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Development Districts Move Forward

Yesterday, we voted to move forward with a Clarksburg development district and to clarify the process for future taxing areas. I did not take this decision lightly, especially because I appreciate how difficult it has been for the residents of Clarksburg to live through the uncertainty of the issues surrounding their community. I apologize for how long it has taken to resolve them.

I know that some folks are unhappy with the Council’s vote on development districts. I supported this initiative because I believe that we have a huge obligation to plan for the future with innovative solutions that will provide the infrastructure necessary for a thriving community. Development districts were always intended to be the way to finance the Clarksburg infrastructure, and its result, according to what our finance people have told us, will put Clarksburg residents at about the midpoint of tax burden that our county residents bear. Some pay less, and some pay more. I am concerned about taxation equity and am committed to working to find ways that spread the responsibility as fairly as possible.

Additionally, I understand that the Clarksburg plan of compliance is on the Planning Board agenda for early November. Hopefully, that will bring to conclusion all remaining issues so that Clarksburg can finally move forward again and reach its full potential.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Council Will Decide on Music Hall

Today we passed a zoning text amendment that clearly designates the County Council as the driver for arts and entertainment land use decisions in central business districts. While the proposed music hall (Fillmore/Live Nation) in Silver Spring is the most immediate project to fall within the new ordinance, it will apply to future projects as well. I proposed this amendment because the County Council, and not any other branch or agency of government, is responsible for setting land use policy in the County and makes final decisions for uses based on those policies. This amendment brings arts and entertainment uses in line with all other land use decisions and allows the County Council to consider these uses within its regular, transparent structure. I recognize that this move primarily represents a technical adjustment that is not all that interesting to most County residents, but I do want to stress that this change cleans up the unclear process that led to much of the controversy associated with the Fillmore/Live Nation agreement negotiated by the County Executive.

As our first act under the new ordinance, we are considering a resolution to accept the County Executive’s negotiated plan to build a music hall in Silver Spring. Some have questioned what they consider to be a sweet deal for the developer, especially during tough economic times. I encourage residents to remember that this deal represents an investment in downtown Silver Spring. It will spur development and generate tax revenue that ultimately will lessen the burden on individual taxpayers. We are scheduled to take a final vote on the music hall next Tuesday. To learn more, visit the Council’s website.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What Are Our Priorities?

As we look at the likelihood of furloughs for our employees and probably deeper cuts than we had previously thought, we are forced to examine our priorities. For every County program, someone benefits, and someone stands to lose when we make cuts, which we inevitably will. A cut in library hours is unacceptable to many County residents, but so is a reduction in housing assistance or the number of cops on the street. So are furloughs of hardworking employees, for that matter.

Some have suggested halting major infrastructure projects, while the State budget cuts have virtually assured delays to several transportation projects. With programs, such as summer camps, we see the benefit of spending almost immediately. With infrastructure, though, we face delayed gratification even in the best of circumstances. What’s worse, we don’t feel the pain of a poor choice until it is way too late. If a transportation project takes ten years from concept to completion, and we delay that project for a year or two or even more, then we create a bigger mess down the road, so to speak.

It’s tough spot, and we’ll be discussing it for at least this budget year, probably longer. As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m looking at some funding options. Take a look, and let me know what you think. New revenue options or cuts to service? Where do we go from here?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What Maryland's Transportation Funding Cuts Mean to Us

What can I say? This is devastating news to Montgomery County. While transportation continues to be the top priority for Montgomery County residents, we’ve been hit with huge cuts to transportation funding from the State of Maryland.

Our number one congestion relief project--the construction of an interchange to replace the stoplights at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road--will be delayed at least three years.

Our two major transit projects, the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway, represent the backbone of our transportation future, but they were slashed by $25 million (19%) and $42.5 million (47%) respectively over the next six years.

Also on the chopping block:
RideOn Grant: The $5M that was added from ’09 revenue increase has been taken away
BRAC: Was to receive an additional $45M but is now cut by $16M
Montgomery Hills Project Planning Study: The $3M was cut altogether
I-270 Watkins Mill Interchange: Cut by $6.5M

Certainly I support transit everywhere all the time, but I’m a little puzzled that the Baltimore Red Line was cut by only $17.6 million (7%) over the next six years and got additional money for fiscal years 2010-2012 to keep the project on schedule.

There’s a lot to work through, but you can bet that I will continue to stand up for road and transit funding. Tune in to the Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee on September 15 as we take on these important issues. I’m mulling some ideas based on the Working Group on Infrastructure Financing Report from last October and my June forum on the county’s reliance on the property tax. We’ve got some big decisions ahead, and this is one of those cases where choosing to do nothing is still a big choice. Take a look at these reports, and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Denver Convention Observations

It's a good thing we got to see the sights as we drove here - we are so busy going to events and meetings that we have barely had time to even glance at the glorious Colorado peaks that frame the western views from Denver!

The Maryland delegation is a fabulous group of committed politicians and activists who are reveling in being part of the grand democratic process. We've been treated to special attention by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and a tremendously thoughtful talk by Gary Hart. I have even been able to squeeze in some time on substance. I had the privilege of attending a roundtable discussion on transportation and infrastructure issues and funding with major players from every level of government across the country, as well as a great session on one of my favorite subjects - the role of race, gender and religion in politics and media coverage.

Today (Wednesday) is the big day - we vote! From the media's point of view, there is little debate about the outcome or the issues, which doesn't generate big headlines. So no doubt, they will try to manufacture something. We'll see.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reaching the Breathtaking West

It was a nice long haul (about 3000 miles worth) but we rolled into Denver and found our friends from the Mayland delegation at dusk on Saturday. I must admit that it is going to take some doing to get revved up for the excitement of the presidential convention after several days lost in the all encompassing beauty of the West. The sky. That's the essential part. From Albuquerque to Santa Fe to Taos to Mesa Verde and through the Rockies, it changed us and reduced our East Coast pace. What a tonic for the tired soul! Afraid that there is little way to bring that wide open feeling to everyone back home. (Perhaps at least a daily visit to the Ag Reserve would help.) But if you ever get a chance, drive through the northern mountains of New Mexico, do Mesa Verde and check out Telluride. Breathtaking. Highlights included our visit to the oldest Indian pueblo in the United States at Taos and an all homegrown dinner on the reservation. The buffalo was a bit salty but the veggies were to die for--everything about Mesa Verde--the moment to moment weather changes through the magnificent Rockies and the 11,000 foot Monarch Pass (try to stay away from the edge). And it is good to be reminded that Montgomery County's issues are no different from everybody else's. Telluride is embroiled in debate over the economic benefits and community costs of development and is considering bond bills and tax increases to pay for road repairs, school construction, affordable housing for teachers and medical facilities. Calmed by the views, we left them to work it out for themselves.

On the road, we enjoyed seeing some vast wind farms in Texas before we arrived in the Land of Enchantment to find welcome blue skies, mesas and wildflowers. Of course, my trip to Albuquerque would not be complete without a visit to its fledging light rail, or appropriately named "roadrunner" system being extended to Santa Fe. And as with Maryland, a special session of the New Mexico legislature ended with mixed results.

Earlier, we passed through Memphis, Little Rock, and Oklahoma City. In Memphis, the Shelby County Commissioners are suing the State of Tennessee for their fair share of education funding. I suppose it is reassuring to know that everyone has the same issues everywhere. In the same vein, the road surface in Arkansas has been awful. Infrastructure funding is equally lacking everywhere.

We went to Central High School in Little Rock, the scene of a major integration battle in 1957 requiring the use of the National Guard to keep order. It was the first day of school at this National Historic site. The visitor center had an interesting display that pointed out the tremendous effect television coverage – at that time a relatively recent phenomenon - had in drawing attention to the refusal of the City of Little Rock and Governor Orval Faubus to cooperate with court orders to desegregate.

Our travels have reminded me of Valerie's reality that many areas we have passed through remain racially divided.

I did not expect the Oklahoma City bombing Memorial to be as beautiful as it was. If it had not been for the rain, we would have lingered longer.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On the Road to the Democratic National Convention

I’m traveling across the country with my friend and colleague, Valerie Ervin. Our trip, which began on Saturday, is taking us through Memphis, Oklahoma City and Santa Fe before we reach our final destination in Denver, Colorado, for the Democratic National Convention where I am a district level delegate pledged to Hillary Clinton.

So far:

Who would have thought that you don’t have to go to England to see the origins of city planning? You can go to Foamhenge in Virginia to see a replica of Stonehenge made out of Styrofoam. Maybe when we return we will have some great planning suggestions for Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson.

Then there is the $13-dollar natural bridge. Thomas Jefferson is claimed to have said that “the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable” when viewing this. I hate to disagree with a Founding Father, but the national historic landmark once listed as one of the wonders of the natural world is nice, but it is entirely describable. Entry should be free.

Finally, what does Memphis have that Silver Spring doesn’t? Answer: Music venues (Beale Street), a trolley, a themed hotel (the Peabody Hotel and its famous ducks) and an American icon (Elvis). Montgomery County is working on the first two, rejected the third (the Ghernezian Brothers wave pool and themed hotel were rejected some years ago). As for the American icon, however, hmmm. Should we work on the Marcus Johnson concept?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Trash Talk in the Office

We’re avid recyclers in my office, so we jumped right in with our yogurt cups, butter tubs and laundry detergent containers when we got the County’s expanded recycling regulations at the beginning of July. But that brought up some questions for us. Rebecca wanted to know if she could recycle the plastic egg crates that are used to package eggs from free-range chickens. Sorry, not those—they are made of polystyrene. Jocelyn wondered if the City of Gaithersburg was accepting the same new items as the County. After a couple weeks, yes, Gaithersburg started accepting the new items, but not all cities and towns are on board yet, so you should check with your municipality if you live in one. Joyce worried she wouldn’t have enough bin space, but we found out she can get another (or larger) bin by contacting the Division of Solid Waste . We also learned that businesses can participate in the new program if they let their recycling collector know to take their recyclables to Montgomery County's Recycling Center. Have you expanded your recycling now that the County accepts more items? Have the new regs raised any questions for you?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Quiz: Best and Worst Recyclers

1. Which of the 15 largest US cities has the highest recycling rate?

A. San Francisco
B. Chicago
C. Philadelphia
D. New York

2. Which city has the lowest?

A. Jacksonville
B. Houston
C. Detroit
D. Indianapolis

3. What is the national average for recycling?

A. 22%
B. 32%
C. 42%
D. 52%

4. What is Montgomery County’s rate of recycling?

A. 22%
B. 36%
C. 43%
D. 55%


Friday, July 18, 2008

Energy Audit: Easing Up to the Reality Check

This week I got an incredibly detailed analysis of my home’s energy failures from my energy auditor. Apart from the air infiltration rate (bad), he told us things we knew–that the insulation in the crawlspace under the kitchen was not working well and that overall it is a leaky house. He also told us things we didn’t know--like that we have a pretty inefficient air conditioning system. Most importantly, what I had asked for and what we got was a list of priorities and some description of how to go about addressing them. Since it’s an old house, NOTHING is easy to fix, but it was helpful to have an idea of where to start. I don’t yet have an estimate for fixing up our cold kitchen floor but that’s my priority, and luckily, it is our auditor’s priority, too.

He also had a number of suggestions about sealing our air conditioning duct connections, attic insulation, and hard-to-reach closet spaces. Interestingly, replacing the fridge and the air conditioning system with energy efficient models were pretty low on the list. Now, the question is: how much will it cost to make some progress on the list? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Tour de France is in France, Not Bethesda

Last weekend my dog Tramp and I took a ride on the Capital Crescent Trail to check out what we’ve been hearing about intrusive speed limits and rumble strips in the Bethesda area. (You can validate my biking credentials by checking out this link to my husband and son’s blog on their amazing bike trip.)

We went at prime time (Sunday morning), a period when I ordinarily avoid this part of the trail because of the confluence of strolling families, dog walkers, joggers and bikers, but this time we joined right in. I must say that I was quite blown away by the behavior of some of the bikers I saw on the trail. Folks were drafting in crowded areas, expecting other bicyclists and pedestrians to move away. Only about a quarter of the folks who passed me (burdened with a small poodle/schnauzer mix in a dog carrier, I was not going that fast) had the courtesy to give me advance warning with a word or a ring that they were at my side. A number of bikers completely failed to slow down when confronted with a group of slower movers on the trail. I know that the Washington Area Bikers Association (WABA) is upset with the new park rules, so I encourage them to help encourage biker courtesy. Does anyone have any similar experiences or suggestions about how to make the trail a safe place for everyone?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My Energy Audit Experience

We had a crowd troop through my house last Saturday to point out all its energy flaws. What I learned was this—expect the unexpected (they peered into messy closets),–-and clean out the fireplace. (Apparently they did a blower test at the home of another local elected official who had not done so, thereby covering the interior of the home with ashes.) We were surprised to learn the fireplace is not the energy leaker we thought it was. And we sure didn’t expect to have the auditor mediate a long-term marital dispute. Turns out, you can keep the radiator cover (my win) but you have to put holes in it to allow heat to circulate better (my husband’s win).

It is not unexpected that for an old house we have complex problems. The auditor from Green Home Blue Sky is coming by for a second look and to consider some of the options. I’ve asked for a list of what we should prioritize. Should we spring for a new fridge to replace the inefficient (and partially dysfunctional) old one, or should we sink money into getting insulation into the crawl space under the kitchen, which is always cold in the winter? How much destruction do we need to perform to get insulation in our finished attic, and is it worth the trouble? Would it be better to plug up all the holes the air conditioner and cable installation guys made in the cellar? Do we need to replace the 18-year-old air conditioning system?

We’ll see how much we can afford and what gets us the most bang for the buck. And, importantly, we need to know who can perform the repairs the way they should be done. I freely admit that in my home we like to think that we are better at our jobs (writing, law and policy) than we are at home maintenance. As a result, we are totally dependent on expert advice rather than our own talent and ability.

So stay tuned. And share your stories.

Monday, June 30, 2008

What Do You Think About the Proposed Ambulance Fee?

We are now considering an Emergency Medical Services Transport Fee, also considered an ambulance fee. The charge for transportation in a medical emergency would be billed directly to an individual’s health insurer, although County residents without insurance would not pay for emergency transports to the hospital. According to the County Executive, who brought the bill to the Council, revenues generated by the fee would help the County keep pace with the public safety demands of our growing community. He adds that all of the region’s surrounding jurisdictions have implemented similar fees without reducing the willingness of individuals to call for emergency service transports. The bill assumes an average fee of about $250 per transport. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Is the County's Emergency Management Notification System Effective?

After attending Tuesday’s briefing from the Department of Homeland Security and following the ensuing press coverage about the recent WSSC water main break, I have serious concerns about the effectiveness of the County’s Emergency Notification System. I am especially troubled that information was not posted on the county’s website in a timely manner and that an electronic alert was not sent out. I believe that one of the most important responsibilities of local government is to ensure that our residents receive accurate, clear and timely information, especially during emergencies. It is essential that the public has confidence in our emergency management procedures.

That’s why I have requested that the newly reconstituted Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security brief the Council’s Public Safety Committee. It should be asked to explain its approach to keeping the community informed during emergencies, to describe its procedures for doing so, and to clarify whose responsibility it is to see that the correct information is sent out. It should also detail what outreach it will do before a crisis occurs so that residents know where and how to obtain critical information.

How do you get information about emergencies? Do you use Alert Montgomery? What questions do you think should be addressed in the Public Safety Committee briefing?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Think Tank: New Ideas to Decrease Montgomery County's Reliance on the Property Tax

You are invited to join me, along with civic, business and elected leaders, to look at ways of reducing Montgomery County's reliance on the property tax as a primary revenue source. Discussion themes include: How reliable is the property tax as a revenue stream? What options exist for stabilizing the county's funding? And what is the most equitable way of sharing the county's obligations? To see the invitation, click on "Think Tank" to the right.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Our Housing Policy in Real Life

The best thing about having this position is that we have an actual opportunity to follow through on policy, and in that regard, I want to highlight some parts of the County’s housing policy and what it means when the rubber meets the road.

According to our official policy, a safe, decent and affordable home is the cornerstone for a full, normal life. A neighborhood is the basic unit of community in which a family can grow and flourish. The vision for Montgomery County is for all of its residents to have decent housing in sound neighborhoods.

The Housing Policy of Montgomery County reflects our commitment to certain principles, identifying who we are and what we stand for as a community. These principles mandate that the County strive to maintain and enhance the quality of life of its citizens by developing a housing strategy to address housing needs in all segments of the population. The County also must provide funding and programs when necessary to supplement state and federal programs.
This Council has made it a priority to consider our housing needs on all county-owned land since 2002. We also require affordable housing in all major development, and several years ago we added a requirement for workforce housing. Our master plans identify the need for affordable and special needs housing in addition to other priorities, such as green space and parkland.
As I understand it, there are at least 150 families with children who are currently homeless in this county, whom we have a responsibility to help. Between 2005 and 2006, more than 280 families and 1,300 individuals entered the homeless system. At the present time, we have 21 families in motels (23 adults and 53 children). Over 500 formerly homeless families and 267 individuals are currently housed in scattered shelters in the County. In addition, there are 340 beds for families and 220 beds for individuals in what is known as transitional housing.
In addition to housing for the homeless, there are 277 beds in group homes with some supervision and 2,257 beds in over 400 group homes with substantial supervision scattered throughout the County. These residences are serving people with minor to intense developmental issues.

Someone recently asked me why we should go against a community’s desire when there is conflict over a property, as was the case in Hillmead. After all, it is just one piece of property, merely a drop in the bucket. But I believe that local government is about paying attention to the small stuff. Folks at the federal and state level can make housing policy a priority, but they don’t actually build it. We do. And we do it within communities and throughout neighborhoods. That’s why I cringe when folks marginalize housing initiatives by saying that they are just a drop in the bucket. Well, what is a bucket but a combination of many drops?

In the case of the Hillmead property, there was a whopping price tag of $2.5 million for one acre of parkland. When the proposal first came to the PHED committee, we were aware of the likelihood of budget problems, and we were concerned about the fiscal implications of such a purchase. The existence of a home on the property allowed us to consider other public uses as well, and that made the expense much more palatable to me.

Although I’m disappointed the Council decided to demolish the home in this case, there will be many more opportunities in the coming months and years. To learn more about the County’s housing policy, click on the links to the right. How do you think we can reconcile the County’s housing policy with community desires in future cases?

Friday, June 6, 2008

America's Carbon Footprint

According to a new Brookings Institute report on the carbon footprint in metropolitan America, “The nation’s carbon footprint has a distinct geography not well understood or often discussed. This report quantifies transportation and residential carbon emissions for the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, finding that metro area residents have smaller carbon footprints than the average American, although metro footprints vary widely. Residential density and the availability of public transit are important to understanding carbon footprints, as are the carbon intensity of electricity generation, electricity prices, and weather.” To see the enire report, click on the link to the right.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thoughts on the Mortgage Crisis and Property Tax

On May 21 I had a rare opportunity go down to Capitol Hill to testify before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on the Neighborhood Stabilization Act of 2008 (HR 5818) dealing with the sub-prime mortgage crisis. It was great to speak to former local government officials (Chair, Rep. Dennis Kucinich was former Mayor of Cleveland) and talk about the critical issue of protecting neighborhoods from the risk of homes being abandoned due to foreclosure.

Speaking on behalf of the National Association of Counties, the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies and the National Community Development Association, I had the opportunity to point out that even in a relatively affluent community like Montgomery County, the foreclosure rate had increased 800% over last year. While our numbers are nothing like those in places like Flint, Michigan, they certainly are worrying.

I also mentioned my long term concern about how the potential for deteriorating property values can affect our ability to provide necessary services due to our heavy reliance on the property tax for revenue. (This basic issue is indeed shared across the country.)

That leads me to my next question for my constituents.

Now that we have concluded our struggle with the budget, what are your suggestions for decreasing our reliance on the residential property tax to fund government services? In this last round of budget review and tax raising, I cannot, for the life of me, see how we can go any further. Certainly many Montgomery County residents have e-mailed me to say we have gone too far already. Others have said thanks for funding a service that is important to them. But finding the right balance between desired services, and our ability to pay, is the inevitable and constant struggle in the budget.

Do you have any good ideas on what policies we should pursue in the coming year to keep us from demanding any more from the residential property tax base? I personally cannot see how reducing employee compensation in order to add more services is fair or even doable, but I am all ears as to your suggestions.

Friday, May 16, 2008

What the Heck Happened on the Budget?

It’s been quite a week. And a good example of how eight people with differing points of view can ultimately come to agreement after a certain amount of pushing and shoving.

Throughout this process, I worried about the burden the proposed property tax increases would have on the average resident and kept advocating for spending less generally while some of my colleagues directed their attention to reducing employee compensation one way or the other. It was certainly true that everyone here was genuinely concerned about protecting our residents from unnecessary costs, although we may have expressed that point in different ways.

After the dust cleared, we ended up this way:

1. We eliminated Ike’s proposed 7.5 cent property tax rate increase and still were able to give every homeowner a $579 credit on their tax bill. Although the rate has not gone up, residents will still see an increase in the bottom line.

2. We adopted my carbon tax surcharge which takes some of the burden off property tax payers by generating about $11 million from ALL users of power, including those who do not pay property tax such as the federal government.

3. Our tax supported budget spends about $6 million less than Ike proposed. (At least a start towards my objective!) No employee compensation is affected by this.

4. We allocated about $18 million more to schools than Ike proposed; restored nighttime fire and rescue staffing to Glen Echo; restored community outreach officers and a recruit class to the police; added $7.5 million for Montgomery College; and added nearly $5 million to the park and planning budgets, among a myriad of other things.

It’s a good but not perfect budget; it represents a fair compromise among eight different points of view.

I’ve included the material we had to work with in the links to the right. Take a look. I’ve had my turn. How would you have balanced the budget based on the information in the links?

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Call for a 2% Cut in Spending Across the Board

Today I challenged all departments and agencies to provide us with budgets that reduce spending to 2% below the County Executive’s proposed budget by noon on Friday. A 2% reduction would save about $76 million and would reduce the County Executive’s proposed property tax increase by a little more than half.

As far as I am concerned, the proposed tax burden is untenable, particularly for the average homeowner facing increased fuel, food and health care costs. I am afraid that this budget is way out of line. In today’s economy, it is unaffordable.

The County Executive’s proposed tax-supported budget is about $3.77 billion, a 4.2% increase over last year’s approved budget. It is funded in part by an average 14.7% increase in property taxes that can be as high as 20% for commercial properties and 40% for some rental properties, according to Council staff analysis.

Mr. Leggett’s budget is currently about $138 million over the Charter Limit, which is defined as last year’s budget increased by the inflation rate of 3.6%. My proposal also would exceed the limit but by the lesser amount of $62 million, which could be partially resolved by taking the reserve down to 5.5% to save another $20 million; stretching the Other Post Employment Benefit Payments to 10 years for $11 million; and passing the carbon surtax for $11 million.

I appreciate the hard work all of the committees did in analyzing the agency budgets before them. I know my colleagues have put their hearts into trying to limit spending. But I don’t believe we have gone far enough. Our neighbors in Fairfax County, the District of Columbia, and Prince George’s County are looking at budget increases of no more than 1.3%. We in Montgomery County need to join the rest of the region in looking toward a more sustainable budget.

Friday, May 2, 2008

New Bethesda Parking Garage

Today the Transportation and Environment Committee, which I chair, approved the County Executive’s proposal to construct a new parking garage south of Bethesda Avenue at Woodmont Avenue. This approximately 1,158-space garage would replace Lots #31 and #31A (279 spaces). Although this underground garage, which will be partially funded by the developer of an adjoining mixed-use project, will net 879 new public parking spaces, parking will continue to be constrained in the area, and we will continue to encourage alternative means of access such as transit and biking. Construction is scheduled to occur in fiscal years 2011-12, although you may notice some preliminary work earlier than that. Will you use this parking garage to visit existing and upcoming retail in the area, or are you more likely to walk, bike or take Metro? To learn more about this project, click on the link to the right.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Green Business Certification

It is challenging to run a business in Montgomery County because of regulations, taxes and high rents. This County has a reputation for continually adding fees, changing the rules, or imposing regulations. The perception is out there that we are unfriendly to commercial enterprises. Well, it is time to change that atmosphere, and Green Business Certification Program takes one small step toward doing so.

Consumers are caring more and more about what they are purchasing, and we have many businesses that deserve a great pat on the back for what they are already doing. I am convinced that many Montgomery County companies would do much more if: 1 - they knew how, 2 - knew they would be acknowledged for what they would do, and 3 - knew there would be a bottom-line savings.

So I brought this idea to the Executive – that we craft a way to give our consumers the information on which County businesses are going green and give local companies that employee green practices the promotion and recognition they deserve.

This program will reward those who go the extra mile to protect our climate. I strongly believe that environmentally friendly efforts made by our companies, big and small, should be recognized. Our initiative will have three components: a logo for the certified businesses to display, a County website that will list them so consumers can find them, and promotional practices, such as County press releases, when a company achieves certification.

Our companies have long been known as the gold standard; now they should be recognized for their green standard as well. To learn more, click on the link to the right.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Realigning Priorities with a Carbon Surtax

Today I introduced a Carbon Surtax Resolution as a way of reaffirming my commitment to the environment. My plan targets our energy taxing efforts on the fuels that are most destructive to the environment while allowing us to continue to fund our energy conservation and greenhouse gas reduction goals for the future.

The Carbon Surtax would be applied in a graduated manner with the dirtiest fuels being taxed at the highest rates and the cleanest fuels being taxed at the lowest rates.

With Montgomery County residents and businesses tightening their belts in the face of increased State income and sales taxes, increased gas prices and a proposed property tax hike, there are some who would say that now is not the time to ask residents for more. I agree.

My plan would result in about $11 million in revenues for the County while costing the average homeowner less than $10 for the entire year. I am working hard to lower the County Executive’s proposed 7 ½ cent proposed property tax so that, essentially, we can keep ourselves on track with environmental preservation without doing harm to residents’ pocketbooks.

I am not recommending new programs to be funded by the Carbon Surtax right now. Rather, I am suggesting we will realign our revenue structure to be more consistent with our priorities. By placing our tax burden on energy consumption rather than real property, we give people more control over their own obligation, and we pave the way for future revenue to pay for some of our most important conservation and efficiency initiatives, such as the Clean Energy Rewards program, free Ride On trips on code red days and tree planting programs.

To learn more, click on the links to the right. I look forward to your guidance on this issue.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Is the Growth Debate Over?

A recent Washington Post article points out that the economic downturn has slowed growth to a point where it has affected local government revenue sources. While some folks had argued that we must slow growth in order to catch up on infrastructure, we now are in a position of scaling back our capital projects because decreased transfer, impact, recordation and income taxes have left us with a big budget shortfall, an estimated revenue loss of $78 million in FY08, in fact.

According to the County’s Department of Finance, there are three economic indicators of particular note. First, the County continues to have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, but job growth in payroll employment remains anemic with businesses adding fewer jobs in the past twelve months. Second, while home prices are still increasing at a low rate, home sales have declined nearly 34% during the fiscal year to date. Finally, because of the decline in home sales and the increase in the inventory to sales ratio for existing homes, the outlook for any improvement in residential construction is not encouraging.

I also find it interesting to note that the County's Department of Economic Development reports: from the second quarter of 06 to the second quarter of 07 (the most recent data available) private payroll jobs in Montgomery County dropped by 4,653 bringing the total number of private sector jobs to the lowest level in two years.

In a December column in the Gazette about our recently adopted growth policy, I worried that bringing growth to its knees would have an adverse effect on the county’s fiscal bottom line. As we now face school and transportation impact taxes about 1/3 lower than anticipated, we’re looking at delaying high school modernizations, deferring construction funding on five fire stations, delaying land acquisition for the Montrose Parkway East and cutting the Ride On bus fleet expansion. We’re falling behind, not catching up, on infrastructure and necessary programs and services.

In my April 4 post, I encouraged more discussion on the base budget issues. Here I solicit your views on the bigger picture. Do you agree with the Post that the “growth” debate is over? Do you have any thoughts on whether we should think about revisiting any current policies?

To read the Post article, my Gazette piece, the Department of Finance’s economic indicators, or the Department of Economic Development's Montgomery's Pulse, click on the links to the right.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Working Out a Budget

In his proposed FY09 Operating Budget, the County Executive lays out a plan to maintain most services in the face of decreased revenue projections, including what is likely to be only minimal State aid (I’ll let you know when we find out how much we will get from the State). His budget reflects an overall 3.9% increase over last fiscal year, including a 4% increase for Montgomery County Public Schools.

To achieve this budget, he proposes to abolish about 225 County positions and add an ambulance fee. He also proposes to increase property taxes by 20.7% for commercial property and 23.7% for rental property. A variable scale for residential property would mean a 6.2% increase for homes assessed at $343, 200, and an 11.9% increase for homes assessed at $500,000, and a 15.8% increase for homes assed at $1 million. Given that these increases would be in addition to the State’s bump in income taxes and the sales tax, I’m not convinced the community can bear them. On the other hand, the alternative would be significant cuts in service, which I’m not sure folks are willing to do either.

We will hold public hearings all next week and then start committee worksessions. We’ll pass a final budget at the end of May. Let me know what you think. To see the entire proposed budget, click on the link to the right.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Use for Property at Hillmead Park

This week the Washington Post details the ongoing controversy about the potential use of an existing house on the County’s newly acquired parkland in the Hillmead neighborhood. While the County proposes placing a 14-member homeless family in the house or using it as special needs housing, neighbors argue that such plans represent an inappropriate use of County resources. At this time, we don’t know the cost of making the house habitable. You can learn more by visiting the links to the right. “Post: Hillmead Property” chronicles the history of the controversy while “HOC Strategic Plan” provides details of affordable housing needs and strategies in the County.

Folks may not be aware that currently Montgomery County has over 21,000 families on waiting lists for housing help of one sort or another. With the foreclosure crisis, this number will no doubt grow. While affordable housing issues have been studied every which way for many years, we really have not made tremendous progress in addressing the basic needs--increasing the supply of new affordable housing and protecting existing affordable housing. But one thing all the various reports and studies have recommended is that the government use public land to support the effort.

The proposal to save the existing home on the property that the County has just acquired for an extension of Hillmead Park is a small step in that direction. Certainly, there are a lot of variables to work through. But, the need for more housing that is affordable (or at least a stop-gap solution for families and individuals in crisis) is huge. The Hillmead solution could be a win/win--saving a lovely piece of green space in perpetuity for public use and using a small part of it to serve folks who need a hand.

What do you think? Here are examples of the emails I’ve been receiving on this issue:

Excerpt 1: “I am writing to you to express my support for the joint DHCA and DHHS proposal to use the recently purchased Hillmead House to provide a home for a family exiting homelessness. As you know it is extremely difficult to find suitable housing for large families; in many cases their homelessness is prolonged for this reason alone. It seems like a perfect solution to put a family in such a wonderful neighborhood, utilizing a home already owned by the county. I know that you have traditionally supported inclusive communities throughout the county and hope you will do so in this case as well.”

Excerpt 2: “Since when is the county in the business of buying and developing some of the most expensive real estate in the country for housing homeless at the expense of taxpayer money when those funds can be more effectively used to provide services for a greater number of needy families? The house on Hillmead could generate revenue of about $10,000 a month. That is enough to cover the rental of FIVE to SIX single family homes for homeless families--a far more effective use of taxpayer money. What is next? Do we start housing homeless families at the Four Seasons, when there are more affordable options out there that will serve more needy families with the same funds?"

Friday, March 21, 2008

Time With Family for Spring Break

As the Council starts its spring recess, I’m looking forward to spending time with my 91-year-old mother-in-law who unfortunately has not been in the best of health lately. I’m also looking forward to seeing my two sons. Since they live in San Francisco, I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like. I hope you also will have the opportunity to enjoy time with your family. The Council will have its plate full when we return on March 31.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Action on Transportation CIP

While I was disappointed that the County Executive’s recommended FY09-FY14 Capital Improvements Program for transportation included the smallest increase in 8 years when adjusted for inflation, I feel good that the Council has approved $100 million over the next six years for a number of much needed projects.

So far, the Council has tentatively approved action to fund construction of part of the North County Maintenance Depot to house Ride On buses. Currently, the County has room to park only two more Ride On buses. This plan will ultimately provide room for 250 more.

We also are funding the construction of the Bethesda Metro’s southern entrance (at Elm Street). While we need it whether or not the Purple Line gets built, it is a key connection for that line, just like the Silver Spring Transit Center at the other end.

We also are funding the Montrose Parkway East, a four-lane road with parkway features between Parklawn Drive and Veirs Mill Road. This project will be a next step in completing the full Montrose Parkway between I-270 and Veirs Mill Road and is the only project in the County’s transportation budget that will actually address congestion. (Montrose Parkway West has recently opened, so take a ride and try it out.)

To learn more about these and many other projects, including neighborhood enhancements, street trees, bikeways and sidewalks, click on “Transportation CIP” to the right.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

One Step Toward a Music Venue in Silver Spring

Our approval of $2 million for the project takes us one step closer to a music venue in downtown Silver Spring, although it is by no means the last step. The deal still needs concurrence from the Planning Board, and further negotiations are needed among the County Executive, the Lee family and Live Nation. We don’t know exactly where the plan will go from here, except that the landowner is being asked to make the property available to the County. We do know, though, that businesses in Silver Spring are counting on a major splash from the music venue to generate foot traffic. I had a terrific lunch at Nicaro on Georgia Avenue today. More needs to be done to encourage shops and restaurants like it in the area. And one more thing--I’m really disappointed that NPR is not in the mix anymore. What a great addition that would have been.

The Silver Spring Music Venue economic development project provides for the J.C. Penney site on Colesville Road in Silver Spring to be converted into a Live Nation Fillmore brand entertainment venue. Lee Development Group will donate the land to the County and the County will own the concert hall. Live Nation will lease the hall from the County. The J.C. Penney facade is historic and will be maintained. This week's funding brings the project to its final total of $4 million. For more information click on the Silver Spring Music Venue link to the right and scroll to page 5.

Communities Recognizing Their Best

I want to thank the Greater Olney Civic Association for inviting me to their awards ceremony on Sunday. They did a great job in recognizing the members of their community who have made the most impact. My hat is off to GOCA and the other civic associations who celebrate civic leadership in this way. Congratulations.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Getting Started

Here goes. The point of this blog is to allow us (not just me) to have an extended conversation about the issues that come before the Montgomery County Council. I really want to find ways to improve our ability to work with one another. In order to keep us all on the same page when it comes to information and context, I will try to keep you updated as to our ever-changing schedules, and I'll include links to related staff work so you can know what I know around the time I know it. No doubt you know way more than I do on many subjects, and I'm looking forward to learning from you.

Understanding the Forest Conservation Bill

The first issue up is forest conservation. We've already heard the "seeing the forest for the trees" joke, so we can skip that one. The Planning Board has proposed changes (mostly cleanup) to the current Forest Conservation Law, and Councilmember Elrich has proposed various changes to that. We had our first work session on the subject on February 19, which was spent largely on trying to understand the whole thing. What does the current law entail? Who is subject to it? What is a "forest"? That sort of thing.

The law acknowledges that trees and forest cover constitute an important natural resource because they filter groundwater, reduce surface runoff, help alleviate flooding, and supply necessary habitat for wildlife, among other things. The law, therefore, is designed to prevent the loss of forest as a result of development and other land disturbing activities through procedures, standards and requirements for afforestation and reforestation as well as tree conservation projects and other forest conservation methods.

While the law supposedly applies to "forests" (wooded areas of 10,000 square feet or more) on lots 40,000 square feet or larger, it apparently is applied to smaller land areas under certain circumstances, such as with champion trees. While I am a lawyer, and have spent many years parsing this land use stuff, I am not sure the Planning Board's and/or Marc's changes help to clarify where the law applies and where it does not. It has been suggested that a separate tree ordiniance may help to straighten things out.

Do you also find the law unclear? What would be your advice for dealing with this? Because we are so busy with budget, I am not sure when we will return to this, but I'd love to have your comments now, so we can think on them.