Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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.

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