Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday Schedule for Christmas and New Year

Enjoy the holiday season, everyone. Here's our holiday schedule for your convenience:

County Offices -- closed December 24 and 31
Libraries -- closed December 24, 25, 31 and January 1
County liquor stores – open on December 24 and 31 until 7 p.m.; closed on December 25 and 26
and January 1 and 2
Ride On – Sunday schedule with service ending at approximately 10 p.m. on December 24;
regular Saturday schedule on December 25 and January 1; Sunday schedule on December 31
Metrobus – Sunday service on December 24, 25, 31 and January 1
Metrorail – Special Sunday service with 3 a.m. closing on December 24, 25, 31 and January 1
TRiPS Commuter Stores (Silver Spring and Friendship Heights) – closed on December 24, 25,
31 and January 1
Refuse/recycling pickup – regular collection
Transfer Station – facility drop-offs open until 5 p.m. on December 24 and 31; closed on
December 25 and January 1
Parking at public garages, lots, curbside meters – free on December 24 and 25; and December
31 and January 1
MCPS Administrative Offices – closed
State offices & courts – closed

New and Improved Snow Map

Check out the Department of Transportation’s new snow map. The new online tool will make it easier for residents to decide when to safely venture out following a snowstorm. The map tool will show the progress of snow plows throughout the County and indicate when emergency roads, primary neighborhood streets and neighborhood streets have been cleared. A zoom feature allows residents to focus on the plow status of their immediate neighborhood and surrounding streets and then zoom out to check on an entire trip route. This improved map comes after residents asked for better information following last year’s storms.

Each road category, whether an emergency/main route or neighborhood street, is designated on the map by a different color. Patterns are used to show whether plowing has begun or not, is in progress or complete. Residents are encouraged to consult the map before concluding their street has been missed.

The map includes a handy icon that allows residents to see road views from any of the County’s nearly 200 traffic cameras. Also shown is helpful information about the location of bus stops and Metro stations. The online map system allows residents to easily report an intersection that needs additional sand or salt, a missed street, or a damaged mailbox.

Since many roads in the County are not cleared by the County’s Department of Transportation (MCDOT), it can be confusing for residents. All State-maintained, numbered roads (such as Georgia Avenue, Maryland Route 97 or Rockville Pike, Maryland Route 355) in the County are cleared by the Maryland State Highway Administration (MSHA). A link to information from MSHA about their plowing progress is also available.

Other departments, outside agencies and governmental jurisdictions also have responsibility for plowing. They include the Montgomery County Board of Education; the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission; the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro); municipalities; and homeowner’s associations. Commercial parking lot owners plow their own properties and are prohibited from moving snow into the street.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Report Part II: Options for Long-Term Fiscal Balance

Reducing future salary increases; raising the employee share of health benefits; restructuring retirement benefits; reducing the size of the workforce; reducing debt service; and increasing revenues are among the options we might consider, according to Part II of the Office of Legislative Oversight’s report on the County’s structural deficit.

I asked the OLO to undertake this study during our operating budget deliberations earlier this year as it became increasingly apparent that quick fixes aren’t going to resolve our long-term, built-in problems. In June, we adopted a six-year fiscal plan that outlines the spending limits needed to achieve balanced annual budgets. That plan gave us clear warning that there are structural problems we are going to have to address or it will never work. The options presented in this report will allow us to start a really meaningful conversation about where we go from here.

In regard to employee salaries, the report presents options such as salary rollbacks, calculated at 1, 3 or 5 percent. A 1 percent rollback implemented in FY12 across the four agencies (Montgomery County Government, Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) would save about $23 million. Other options address ways to reduce the rate of salary growth by modifying the current structure of general wage adjustments and step increases. For this and other options, it is important to note that MCPS represents two-thirds of the total workforce.

Options to lower the projected increases in locally paid retirement benefits include approaches to replace defined benefit retirement plans with lower cost defined contribution or hybrid plans for newly hired employees; increase the share of retirement costs paid by employees; and reduce benefit levels.

Options that could lower health care costs for the County include setting a uniform employer cost share at 70 percent for all plans; charging employees who enroll dependents a higher cost share; and setting a uniform employer cost share of 60 percent for part-time employees. The report says implementing these options (as of January 2012) could produce savings for the four year agencies that range from $7 million to $46 million in FY13, and from $19 million to $123 million by FY16. The report shows how phasing in changes over several years also provides cost savings, but at a slower rate.

The report recognizes that eliminating positions is one way to reduce personnel costs. The report calculates that, based on current average employee pay and benefits, approximately 110 workyears (110 full-time employees) would need to be eliminated for every $10 million in annual savings. Illustrative examples of what $10 million in personnel costs currently buys include: 100 percent of the staff in 11 libraries; 153 newly hired MCPS teachers; 26 percent of all Montgomery College staff at the Rockville campus; or 83 percent of all Planning Department staff. I note that Part I of the report states: “Between FY02 and FY11, the primary driver behind higher personnel costs was not an increase in the size of the workforce but rather the increase in average costs per employee.”

The executive summary of Part II of the report recognized that difficult decisions are ahead. “For the many governments currently struggling to align revenues and desired expenditures, it certainly would be desirable if some options existed that magically provided win-win solutions. However, as with so many other jurisdictions, the reality of the County’s fiscal picture, at least for the foreseeable future, requires decisions that involve asking some to pay more and/or others to make do with less. In other words, the reality is that none of the options promise an outcome where everyone wins.”

It is clear we have our work cut out for us with the upcoming FY12 budget as well as further into the future. As we work through the complex issues, we will have to balance our need to control spending, provide services and treat our employees fairly. This will be a long and ongoing conversation, so please let me know what you think.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Inauguration of 17th Council

As the 17th Montgomery County Council and the County Executive were sworn in, I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the new Council. My comments were about you (who read blogs like this one) and others who remain unaccounted for in our public discussions, and I reflected on our challenge as elected officials to make sure we consider the views of all of the nearly one million people we represent. Here is the complete text:

The opportunity to serve Montgomery County on this Council is a tremendous honor and privilege. On behalf of my colleagues, I want to say thank you to all of the voters here and throughout the county for your participation in the democratic process and for placing your trust in us.

I also want to thank our families and friends and ask their forgiveness for our frequent absences. Perhaps sometimes we made you feel that you are not our first priority. Please believe me when I say you are.

Anyone who has participated in a political campaign knows it isn’t glamorous. It consists of long hours filling out questionnaires, knocking on doors, shaking hands at Metro stations, fundraising, asking friends and family for help, planting yard signs, participating in community forums and a whole lot of “other duties as assigned.”

So, why do we run for public office?

I believe it is because, as Woodrow Wilson said, “there is no higher religion than public service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” By taking the oath today, we commit to serving the residents of Montgomery County to the best of our abilities. We mean to do it with compassion, care and a very deep sense of responsibility.

County Executive Ike Leggett, being sworn in for his second term today, has made it his mission to include more voices in public debates. He has committed to “making a bigger table,” in order to invite participation from residents and groups who have not participated before. He has done a terrific job encouraging inclusiveness, and I congratulate him on that.

I hope the 17th Council will build on this in the coming term. It has been said that if you are not at the table, then you are on the menu. We cannot let that be true. We must think bigger. We must think beyond the table and those savvy enough to find a chair. We must remember that our service for the common good includes taking into account the needs of those who are not at the table.

The last Council broke new ground in its efforts to reach out to the community. We embraced new media, and you can find us now on Facebook, in the blogosphere, on YouTube and on Twitter. We improved accessibility for those who speak other languages. We added a dedicated budget hotline, improved our Web site, and enhanced our presence on cable television.

Yet, I fear it has not been enough. When I look around the room during public hearings, I do not see a true reflection of our County’s diversity, be it ethnic, racial, economic, generational or geographic. I see an improvement, without a doubt, but many are still not represented.

How do we engage more people in their government?

Here’s a reality check provided courtesy of the Newseum. Twenty percent of Americans know the five members of the Simpson family; only three percent know the five freedoms protected by the first amendment.

So that you don’t spend the rest of the morning counting on your fingers, the five members of the Simpson family are Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. The five freedoms are speech, religion, press, assembly and petition.

We like to think we are different from the national trend here in Montgomery County, but consider this. In our primary election, 80 percent of registered voters failed to exercise the sacred privilege of democracy—their right to vote. The General Election wasn’t much better with 44 percent failing to show up.

Recently I joined a Scout Troop to help them earn their civics badge. When they asked why people didn’t vote, I had a difficult time coming up with a good answer.

So what can we do?

I call on the 17th Council to make every effort to consider the needs of our constituents who, because of family obligations, work, lack of information or whatever reason, remain unaccounted for in public discourse. We are not just about the voices in the room – or even just those at the polls.

I hope we can agree:
· That our definition of the common good will be all-inclusive;
· That we will listen, not just to what is said but also for what is not said; and
· That we will consider the voices of tomorrow as well as the voices of today.

If we can do that, our county will be the better for it.

Samuel Johnson said “the true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” And so, we must keep in mind the varied viewpoints of the nearly one million women, men and children of this county as we take on the big issues of transportation, education, the environment, public safety, services for the most vulnerable and the biggest budget challenges the County has ever faced.

As I close, I want to share a poem entitled “Leadership” by Mary Lou Anderson.

Leaders are called to stand
In that lonely place between the no longer and not yet
And intentionally make decisions
That will bind, forge, move
And create history.

We are not called to be popular,
We are not called to be safe,
We are not called to follow,
We are the ones to take risks,
We are the ones called to change attitudes;
To risk displeasures,
We are the ones called to gamble our lives,
For a better world.

On behalf of returning Councilmembers Valerie Ervin, Phil Andrews, George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and myself, along with new members Craig Rice and Hans Riemer, I pledge that we will do everything in our power to be the leaders Montgomery County residents want and deserve.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Financing Plan for White Flint Approved

At the end of the last day of my term as Council President, we approved a plan that would help pay for major infrastructure improvements required by the White Flint Sector Plan. The action will spur a revitalization effort transforming the North Bethesda area around Rockville Pike into a more urban and denser community strongly supported by public transit and designed to make residents and workers less dependent on automobiles. We had approved the White Flint Sector Plan in March.

This is a very ambitious and complex plan that will transform the White Flint area along Rockville Pike into an exciting destination. Property owners in White Flint have committed to a financing plan to speed up creation of infrastructure that would support growth. With everyone working together, as they have throughout the planning process, this will remake the strip shopping malls along the Pike into a new, urban community that will make Montgomery County proud.

Tuesday’s bill establishes a White Flint Special Taxing District. The bill authorizes the levy of an added property tax on commercial properties that would go toward funding specific transportation infrastructure improvements in the area. Existing residential properties would be excluded from the tax district. The improvements would include creation of street grids, streetscaping and bike lanes for the area.

Under the financing plan, the County would provide advance funding—through the sale of bonds—to ensure that the improvements are made early in the project rather than relying on piecemeal development to drive the delivery of the needed improvements. The County investment would be repaid through funds collected from the taxing district. The plan calls for the tax district to expire when sufficient revenues have been raised to pay for all of the infrastructure items on the list.

Major roads that will be improved through the financing plan include Old Georgetown Road (Maryland 187), Nicholson Lane, Rockville Pike, Executive Boulevard, Marinelli Road and Nebel Street. Identified infrastructure improvements could cost an estimated $200 million if all are built.

The plan targets future growth along the Pike with development clustered around about 430 acres near the White Flint Metro Station. It will allow replacement of aging low-rise commercial properties in the area with mixed-use buildings as tall as 30 stories. The revitalized new urban neighborhood would include residences, offices, service-oriented businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues. The neighborhood would evolve through creation of a grid of streets to promote walkability for residents and employees.

It is expected that as the plan is implemented over a period of about two decades, approximately 9,800 new residences will be added (there are approximately 2,300 residences currently within the plan area). There will be approximately 2,600 affordable housing units.

A key element of the plan will be the way it incorporates the Bethesda North Conference Center and Hotel into the transformed neighborhood. The plan provides for public gathering space and local parks. The long-term vision suggests civic or entertainment uses, such as a community playhouse or theater.

White Flint was proposed as an urban, mixed-use community as the center of North Bethesda more than 30 years ago as the influence of Metro’s Red Line was starting to take hold. The sector plan covers an area bounded by the CSX train tracks and White Flint Mall to the east, the merge point of Montrose Parkway and Old Georgetown Road to the north, Old Georgetown Road to the west and an area just below Edson Lane to the south. The Georgetown Prep school and the Strathmore Performing Arts Center are south of the plan. All of the plan is within a walkable three-quarters of a mile from the White Flint Metro Station.

My Thoughts on the 16th Montgomery County Council

It has been an honor to serve as Council President in the last year of the 16th Council, and I thank you for entrusting me with another term. In the past four years, we made decisions that will shape the County for generations to come, and I'm proud of that. Here is the complete text of the remarks I gave on my last day with the gavel:

This is the time to reflect on the 16th Montgomery County Council. When you stop and think about it, I am hard pressed to think of any other Council that has worked through the experiences we have had and at the same time were so successful on their substantive initiatives. Since we took office in 2006, two of our members passed away, we lived through two special elections, experienced an earthshattering water main break, snowmageddon, an earthquake, unprecedented power outages and breathtaking budget challenges. What a time it has been!

Councilmember Marilyn Praisner set the gold standard during her 17 years in office with her strength of character and work ethic. Her contributions to this County will never be forgotten.

Councilmember Don Praisner took on the challenges of public office because he thought it was the right thing to do, and he took his responsibility to his constituents very seriously.

Let's pause for a moment of silence in remembrance of Councilmember Marilyn Praisner and Councilmember Don Praisner.

It was Charlie Brown who said, "in the book of life, the answers aren't in the back." The 16th Council knows that better than most. While we faced quite an onslaught of incredible challenges, we have truly shaped the future of Montgomery County with a tremendous list of accomplishments, and I''m going to go through some of those today.

Particularly in the area of transportation, we made decisions that will last for generations. We opened the Montrose Parkway, and we'll soon celebrate the opening of the Intercounty Connector. We broke ground on Silver Spring's Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center, and we resolved the alignment of the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway. We advocated widening I-270 for reversible HOT lanes to ease congestion. We even completed revisions to the Road Code which will make roadways safer and friendlier to all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

The 16th Council continued to make education a top priority, funding between 93 and 99.8 percent of the Board of Education's request in each of the past four years, and opening one new school plus 151 new classrooms even as County revenues dropped sharply. Thanks to Valerie Ervin's leadership, more children have access to preschool, and we're making progress on closing the achievement gap.

This Council also continued to make public safety a priority. Our goal of instituting four-person staffing on fire and rescue response units is well underway. We opened new fire stations--the first in more than 25 years--at Kingsview and Milestone. And we made our roadways safer by prohibiting large trucks and recreational vehicles from parking on residential streets.

And to the curses of some, we instituted the Safe Speed (speed camera) program. One man told me that the County has more pictures of him than his wife does. Even though the cameras are the butt of a lot of jokes, they have significantly reduced both speed and accidents.

I am extremely pleased to report that while our population increases every year, we have experienced three years of decreasing crime rates. Crime, including homicide, robbery, home invasions, and auto thefts, are all down. In fact, last year overall crime was down seven percent.

The 16th Council took action to protect residents in other ways, too. Thanks to Phil Andrews, we now offer a hiring preference for persons with disabilities. We focused on fairness and equity by requiring County contractors to pay their employees the prevailing wage and to offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners. We added protections for whistleblowers; clarified the disability rules; required clear contracts for domestic workers; added support to the Inspector General; and set limits on lobbying. As a result of the work of Duchy Trachtenberg, we passed legislation to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, and we provided families with a safe haven from domestic violence--the Family Justice Center.

We've been extremely progressive in advancing health, safety and housing needs. Thanks to George Leventhal, we now require that nutritional information be posted on menus.

We also banned the use of trans fats; prohibited the use of brick pavers in public spaces; required pregnancy centers to disclose their scope of work; and required home sellers to disclose complete property tax obligations. And to protect our very most vulnerable, we adopted a policy of Housing First--making housing the top priority in addressing the needs of the homeless.

Despite Mother Nature's unrelenting harshness towards us, we have chosen to be remarkably kind to her. Roger Berliner put forth legislative initiatives ranging from the Home Energy Loan Program to a tax on major carbon emitters and a series of other environmental protections. We approved a green building tax credit. We continued to preserve agriculture and open space, through the new Building Lot Termination program and improved child lot rules.

Of all the areas that will have a lasting impact, planning stands out in the crowd. We took on mansionization; completed the Germantown and Twinbrook Sector Plans; and approved rules to accomodate the Fillmore Music Hall. At the urging of Marc Elrich, we took a hard look at the needs of tenants in the County. We abolished the Clarksburg Development District, and are setting a plan in motion for improving the area’s infrastructure.

Shortly after receiving an Office of Legislative Oversight Report comparing Montgomery and Fairfax Counties, we approved two master plans that establish vibrant, transit-oriented hubs for economic development. The Great Seneca Science Corridor and the White Flint Master Plan set the stage for jobs and amenities for decades to come.

The planning Board itself lost two dedicated public servants--Gene Lynch and Jean Cryor, both of whom we deeply miss. But we were lucky to find great replacements and now, with a newly appointed Planning Board Chair, we're on the move.

As we worked through all of these decisions, we kept a keen eye on improving the way we communicate with our constituents. Mike Knapp started weekly media briefings with the Council President, and Phil and I followed the new tradition. We embraced new media, and you can find us now on Facebook, in the blogosphere, on YouTube and on Twitter.

Nancy Navarro took the lead on improving accessibility for those who speak other languages. And we have added a dedicated budget hotline, improved our Web site, and enhanced our presence on cable television. Best of all, we opened this terrific new room that accommodates more people, allows for better television coverage and provides reporters with better access.

But by far, the top story for the last four years in Montgomery County is the economy. They say a 500-pound gorilla sleeps wherever it wants, but we've taken serious action to try to tame this beast.

Although our unemployment rate didn't come anywhere near the state or national average, it was still by far the highest we have ever seen in the county. It caused a dramatic decline in revenues while at the same time creating a demand for more services. On top of that, we were smacked with a negative watch from the Moody's rating agency.

We were forced to make tough calls on our contract obligations, to freeze pay, to furlough employees, to reduce service and to increase some taxes. Each year, we tightened the budget further, and last year we passed the first overall decreased budget in 40 years. It has been a sea change for Montgomery County.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. The recession has given us the opportunity to re-examine our priorities and to strengthen our policies. For example, we now require economic and fiscal impact statements for all legislation. We started offering a biotech tax credit to spur economic development in the bio-sciences, thanks to Mike Knapp. And we have established a Business Development Corporation to harness the strengths of the private sector and use them to enhance our economic development efforts.

I am proud to have commissioned the Office of Legislative Oversight to examine our structural deficit. They analyzed the cost drivers that create spending pressures as well as the policy options to address them. Information from this comprehensive report will help us make strategic decisions about our financial future.

We strengthened County reserve funds, which greatly improves our ability to handle future downturns and confirms the historical excellence of our financial management.

I believe the best decision we made in this Council was to implement a six-year balanced fiscal plan. While the plan does not constrain future Councils in their year-to-year decision making, it provides valuable information and guidance for sustainability over the long term. The plan not only will guide Councilmembers but also will give communities and the County's four agencies--Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and County Government--a realistic view of what they can expect in the upcoming years. It will be a great tool for everyone.

And those are just the highlights of the past four years. There is more I would like to talk about and people I want to thank but we have a lot on our agenda today, so I plan to do that next week. For now, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to reflect on all that's happened.

As we look forward to the 17th Council, I'll keep this quote from Christopher Reeve in mind: "So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable." I think that's a good place to end, and an even better place to start.