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Monday, January 30, 2012

Daily Journal (Silver Spring Transit Center, County Debt Limit, Small Business)

Today's T&E committee started with a briefing on a new agreement to govern the Blue Plains Waste Water treatment facility, where most of our sewage is treated.

Then we moved on to discuss the terrible news about problems with the construction at the Silver Spring Transit Center. We do not know yet how this will be resolved but there will be a long delay in opening the transit center. How long? Long. We don't know.

Then the full council met to discuss legislation that is pending in Annapolis. No real news there but we are working closely with our delegation to protect the county from a proposal to change who is responsible for funding teacher pensions. The state has been responsible for that for 85 years but has managed the pension badly and now wants to foist the pension deficit onto county governments. Montgomery County would be responsible for paying over $40 million in state pension funding in just the first year alone, and according to the state projections these costs are expected to increase about 10% per year.

In the afternoon, at a joint meeting of the GO committee with the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee we discussed concerns about small businesses and redevelopment. I was pleased to hear that the County Executive is depositing $2 million into the revolving small business loan program; I requested that the council discuss policy objectives for how those loans would be made. Can we fund clean-tech startups? Child care companies? Can we target the loans to problems we want to address, such as unemployment in the Hispanic community?

I was also pleased to learn that the County Executive is exploring partnerships with community banks to make loans, perhaps helping close deals on certain loans that the banks would not be able to fully finance themselves.

These are promising developments---we can and must do better to grow our own job creator right here in Montgomery County.

The day continued with a final committee meeting to set our assumptions for the capital budget. We set our annual borrowing for that budget at $295 million and addressed some technical issues that will likely result in reducing the funds available for the $4 billion capital budget by another few tens of millions.

To polish off the day, or evening, I met with a group of activists in the Chevy Chase area that calls itself the "District 1 caucus." Included among them was former Councilmember Scot Fosler. We had an interesting conversation about the nature of the County Executive position. Did you know that Fairfax County does not have an elected County Executive? They have a county manager type position. It was a treat to meet Scot; last Friday I met Bill Scher, also a former council member.

Which reminds me that today I got a call from former Governor Parris Glendening, who is inviting me to join a select group of local officials from around the country in a program hosted by Smart Growth America, the non-profit policy organization that he founded. I was thrilled to get the Governor's call and I'm looking forward to getting involved with this effort to support and build smart growth champions around the country.

Meanwhile tomorrow at full council session I am introducing a new bill that I drafted on big box retailing issues and considering recommendations I want to make for our county cable plan operations. And tomorrow our T&E committee will return, and possibly conclude, the issue of take home vehicles for county employees that I have been working on for some time.

Lots going on!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Who We Are is Changing Fast

Census Bureau data affirms what many of us already know for Montgomery County: our demographics are changing and with it our needs.

This chart is a snapshot of the Maryland demographic changes from the past decade. As an inclusive jurisdiction that believes in the power of diverse communities, Montgomery County has responded to these demographic changes with a strong focus in the schools and continued support for public transportation and health care services, among other policies.

We need to do more to educate new populations about their government, including how to access services and participate in civic affairs.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On the Governor’s Budget and Teacher Pensions

The Governor has released his budget for Fiscal Year 2013. There is no question that the state is in a tough spot and the Governor had to make some tough choices. He and the General Assembly have to figure out how to close a billion-dollar deficit in a $15 billion general fund budget. The Governor is proposing to close the gap through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, none of which will be popular. Many state and local governments have had to make similar adjustments over the last few years, including Montgomery County.

Nevertheless, one proposal of the Governor’s warrants concern: he would like to shift part of the responsibility of paying teacher pensions from the state to the counties. This would cause great harm to Montgomery County.

For several decades, the state has assumed the responsibility of providing for teacher pensions as a way to help the counties afford competitive salaries for teachers. This system has worked well for many years, and it is partly responsible for Maryland’s public schools being named first in the nation four years in a row.

However, a few things have changed over the last decade. In 2002, the state began underpaying its contributions to its pension fund by $100-200 million a year. As a result, the percentage of future pension liabilities the state could afford to pay dropped from 101% in Fiscal Year 2000 to 79% in 2008. Then, the stock market crash drove the state’s funding ratio down even further, to 64% in 2010. The state’s overpayments to mediocre investment advisors did not help. Much of the damage to the pension fund was self-inflicted.

Nevertheless, this past year the state continued its pattern, this time raising contributions from teachers to pay for benefits while simultaneously cutting its required contributions to the fund by $120 million.

Now the state wants the counties to fix the problems it caused by passing the buck for its mistakes. They want the counties to pick up a large part of the bill.

That’s wrong, plain and simple.

Under the Governor’s plan, the counties would have to pay half of the state’s teacher pension costs: a new mandate totaling $239 million. Montgomery County’s share of that liability will start at $41 million next year and will rise steeply thereafter. The county simply cannot afford this new permanent liability. If we have to pay it, other programs – including the schools – may have to take cuts If the state forces us to raise taxes to pay it, the county’s economy will suffer. Either way, Montgomery County residents will be unfairly punished for the state’s inability to deal with its problems.

The County Executive and the County Council are unified in opposing this plan. We are working with our state legislators to stop it. If you can add your voice to ours and weigh in with our state legislators, we have a chance to win.

I’ll be in touch as we learn more.

Hans Riemer

Council Member At-Large

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Daily Journal (Capital Budget or CIP)

Today we received the county executive's proposed capital budget (called the CIP). This is a six year, $4 billion budget used for investments in new school buildings, county buildings, transit projects, roads, technology, and so forth---expenses that are not operating expenses (like compensation) but rather assets that we build.

The County Council will review the exec's proposal intensively for the next two months or so and then final passage will be at the same time as the operating budget, in May.

Needless to say, my office, as well as activists and organizations around the county, are pouring through the details and assessing how various projects have fared. I'll be commenting on these issues a lot in the coming weeks as we work through the details. This is also my first CIP, as the budget is on a two-year cycle.

One of the undercurrents of debate on this issue is the amount that the county borrows in order to fund the capital budget. I have been on the record saying that while I believe over the long term our borrowing will need to come down as our debt service costs are very high, this is not the year to start cutting back on construction spending. For example, MCPS has stated that school construction prices have dropped from more than $280 per square foot to $217. We should be taking advantage of that opportunity.

What the country and our county needs is for government at every level, Federal, state and local, to work together to boost economic activity. These projects create jobs right here in Montgomery County and of course they also create first-rate classrooms, greater mobility through enhanced transportation, stronger communities, and a better place to live.

Governor O'Malley has called for more capital spending at the state level, arguing that these projects will create jobs as well as improve the state's economic position.

The county needs to pull its weight as well.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A new market in Long Branch

I have been working hard to protect the Fenton Street Market this year, which was threatened with eviction by the County but now will return. One reason is I hope to see markets grow around the county. So I was excited to see a new market start up in Long Branch! It had a good run over the holidays thanks to many partners and the owners of Orion's Attic. Here I am with Christoper Lancette and Won-ok Kim. I got a few awesome antique books that day.

Daily Journal, MCPS School Construction (Rock Creek Forest edition)

Yesterday I joined a great event organized by the PTA and MCPS called "Reading Rocks". I got to read to a group of kindergartners, and I read Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Trying to explain my job to 5 year olds wasn't exactly easy, so I settled on saying that I worked with the government as an elected official and asked if any of them had gone with their parents to vote. Not many raised their hands – parents take your kids to the polls! It's habit forming from an early age, according to research.

In discussion with the PTA leaders I learned that the school is at the front of the line for reconstruction. We will see if the County Exec includes enough funding for it when we get the capital budget on Monday.

I was glad to see that the governor is proposing more funds for school construction this year than last year, arguing that the economic activity will generate jobs. The county should follow O'Malley's lead and stretch our limits until the economy picks up.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Daily journal: Jobs and Bag fees

This morning began in Rockville at the GCAAR/Realtors legislative breakfast. I had a good discussion with an agent, Paul, who wants the county to do more on development issues. He remarked to me that while he had been concerned about my background in progressive politics, he had been impressed by various things I have said and he believes I "get it". My reply was twofold: I grew up in a community where people would never take good jobs for granted, and I understand the value of economic development. And also, the county needs commercial development to pay for schools. What I didn't say is that progressives are the great builders and innovators and I have always believed you need a strong economy to build a good society.

Montgomery County used to be able to rely on wealthy residents moving in to the county to pay the bills for our great schools and services, but that balance is shifting. Average county income has actually declined recently. We need a stronger commercial tax base or we are going to lose the government services that we cherish and the community that they foster.

A good piece of the rest of the day was devoted to political fundraising, which comes with the job.

Then I headed to the Wheaton Library (more on that
tomorrow) and finally for a trip to the grocery store before heading home.

As I headed into the store I unloaded what I wondered might be one of my last collections of plastic bags, in the recycle bin. I've been thinking a lot about the bag fee lately as have many residents.

I was glad to vote for it but I am even more proud of that vote today.

For those who disagree I remind you that the county is spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years to clean up our waterways and we are determined to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

The five cent fee and the 1 million dollars or so it is expected to collect don't come close to covering the damage that plastic bags cause to our environment.

But the fee is a great behavior changer. Already I find myself more compelled to bring my reusable’s with me, and proud of our new civic culture as I see residents walking about with reusable’s in hand.

We are making a difference, all of us, one bag at a time

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Daily Journal, 01-04-12 (MCPS School Construction)

Back from some holiday down time! After breakfast with new Rockville City Councilmember Tom Moore and former Council Member John Britton, I headed down to Garrett Park Elementary School for the opening of a newly modernized school there. The students were actually on their first day in the new building, and we joined a few classrooms to watch the students working with their teachers in the new environment. It was gratifying to see so many happy kids... the county's funds well spent... and our community values artfully articulated there in brick and mortar, advanced classroom technology, and even geothermal energy.

School construction is certainly on my mind as we prepare for the "CIP" budget, which is our six-year capital improvements budget. Last fall the County Executive proposed to cut about $150 million over six years from that budget, and is preparing a plan based on the lower spending amount now. The Council approved that amount although I voted against the cut. MCPS, meanwhile, has requested a near 10% increase in construction spending for the new capital budget. The council will have a tough time balancing it all together and I look forward to hearing from the community about the most pressing priorities as we receive the Exec's new budget on January 17.

Photo by Patch