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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Justice for Students in America and the MD DREAM Act

A presentation I recently heard from a group of young activists with Justice for Students in America (@thejsamovement on twitter) was one of the most powerful ten minutes of dialogue about politics I ever witnessed.  These students, each of them undocumented, described their struggles as high achieving young people who wanted to go to college and could have that door closed to them if the DREAM Act does not pass.

The MD DREAM Act, to remind those who aren't familiar, allows undocumented students who are succeeding in public school in Maryland to attend college here without having to pay out-of-state tuition, which would be prohibitively expensive for many.  A referendum on the Act will be on the ballot in November.

The JSA movement, which I know is involved in educating voters on the issue, looks similar to me in many ways to the kind of youth movement I saw three years ago when I served as President Obama’s National Youth Vote Director. I think about those high school students in Iowa who spent every weeknight and every Saturday and Sunday in a campaign office, going out knocking on doors, making phone calls, talking to their friends, wearing t-shirts, wearing buttons, making the idea of getting involved in President Obama’s campaign to change the world – a cause. A true cause for young people in that state; and when the young people in that state won, the President won.

I would love to see Justice for Students in America chapters getting organized on the high school campuses all around Maryland, and I believe that JSA is working on that goal.

This Dream Act campaign is about education and the values that the younger generation is bringing to our country today. It would not really be possible to have a chance for victory if the demographics of our country were not changing so rapidly and our community's values changing right along with them.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mega Gas Stations and our Neighborhoods

I recently asked to co-sponsor Zoning Text Amendment 12-07, drafted by Councilmember Marc Elrich. This measure would prohibit new gas stations dispensing more than 3.6 million gallons of fuel per year from being located less than 1,000 feet from any public or private school or any park, playground, or hospital, or other public use, or any use categorized as a cultural, entertainment and recreation use.

I support the intent of this amendment. There is no reason why mega-gas stations should be located next to playgrounds, parks, pools or any recreational facilities used by children. That said, the amendment would not rid the county of any existing gas stations. It would only prevent new ones from being so located. That’s a reasonable thing to do.

One parcel that would be covered by the amendment is the proposed Costco gas station in Wheaton. If built, this station would be the biggest in the county. It would have 16 bays with multiple lines of cars waiting to fill up. According to my estimates from discussions with Costco, it would result in about 1,000 people a day driving strictly to the gas station. It would be right next to the Kenmont Swim andTennis Club, an important community recreation center. And it would be in the same vicinity as 27 other gas stations that already serve the local area.

My concern is that any added value of the gas station is more than offset by the resulting problems inflicted on local residents; as well as increased auto traffic in an urban core where walking should be a higher priority.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why I Voted for the Ambulance Reimbursement

Today, I voted along with 5 of my colleagues (6-3) in favor of collecting reimbursements from insurance companies for emergency transportation, services which are now supported by Montgomery County taxpayers.

Ambulance service is commonly covered by insurers. Medicare and Medicaid cover it. So do major private insurers including the BlueCross BlueShield Service Benefit Plan, CareFirst, Kaiser Permanente, UnitedHealthcare, Government Employees Health Association, the Maryland Health Insurance Plan and many more.

If you have any of these plans, you are paying for ambulance coverage now, in your premium. But the county isn’t billing the insurers for it. The insurers are just keeping the money that they collect by charging you for the coverage.

Most surrounding jurisdictions bill insurers, including Prince George’s County (which collects $11.5 million a year), Fairfax County ($15.5 million) and the District of Columbia ($20 million).

Our county government estimates that we are leaving more than $17 million on the table by not charging a reimbursement. It is simply unfair to ask our taxpayers to pay for ambulances while we give insurance companies a free ride.

Click on the images above for larger views

Opponents of the reimbursement argue that residents will be so frightened by the prospect of paying for service that they will not call for help in an emergency. The Fire Chief of Prince William County, which charges a reimbursement, rebutted this allegation in testimony to our County Council. He said,

“This is simply unfounded and I can tell you that Prince William County has not experienced any decline in EMS incidents. In fact we’re having an increase in EMS call volume consistent with our population.”

The Fire Chief of Anne Arundel County, which also collects a reimbursement, testified,

“There has been no reduction in call volume consistent with the introduction of the Fee for Service program. In fact, our call volume continues to increase at the steady rate of approximately 5% per year. In the three years since the program started, no County Resident has paid any money out of pocket for an ambulance transport when transported by a County ambulance.”

Nevertheless, many Montgomery County voters believed residents would be directly billed for ambulance service when they rejected a reimbursement law in 2010, when I was first elected to the council. That is why I added the following language to the new law:

Section 21-23A(f)(1) and (2)
County residents must not be required to pay any out-of-pocket expense relating to any emergency medical services transport because residents are deemed to have paid any co-payment, deductible, or uninsured portion of the cost of each emergency medical services transport through taxes paid to the County. Tax revenues the County receives must be treated as payment, on behalf of County residents, of the balance of each resident’s portion of the emergency medical services transport reimbursement charge that is not covered by the resident’s insurance.

This language guarantees that county residents will never pay out of pocket - only insurers will pay.

With this protection in place, I believe the primary question is: who should pay the approximately $17 million in fire and rescue services this fee would cover? Should it be residents? Local businesses? Or insurance companies?

Residents who are in tune with the tax increases and spending cuts we have had to make in recent years know that the County Executive and County Council are not crying wolf about our fiscal difficulties.

I understand that the voters rejected a reimbursement law at the ballot box two years ago. Supporting this new law is not a position I take lightly, but I believe fully that I am doing just what I was elected to do – make sound decisions to benefit the whole community and not back down in the face of adversity.

This bill may also go to referendum, where the voters can reconsider the issue. I am confident that when voters understand that this new law protects them from paying any bills or fees, they will support it.

I hope you will, too.

Connecting With Your Community

President Obama's coming out in support of same sex marriage has only emphasized what we in Montgomery County already believed: dignity and equality are values meant for all of the members in our community. Who you love or where you were born should not determine your status or treatment in this country or in our County.

This week, I had the opportunity to engage with members of our community whom are practicing their English conversation skills while exploring their rights and responsibilities as Montgomery County residents. This is an East County class called "Connecting with your Community". I was surprised when told that I was the first Montgomery County Councilmember they have ever met! I look forward to continuing my communication with the students and am eager to see them actively engaged and connected to our community. Below is a picture of me with these great students.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We Passed Bill 11-12 (Land Disposition)

The council recently passed Bill 11-12, which is important legislation that affects how public property is sold and leased by the county. I co-sponsored this bill and was one of six Council Members who voted to pass it.

Under the procedures outlined by this new law, the County Executive must declare a property to be "surplus," or no longer necessary for the county to own, before selling or leasing it. The County Council must approve this decision or the property cannot be sold or leased. If the Executive intends to sell the property for less than full market value, he must obtain a waiver from the council. Only after receiving these approvals may the Executive proceed to negotiate a transaction.

The law contains some important exemptions. Properties excluded from this process include those intended to be used as residential projects with more than 30% affordable units; those sold to the Housing Opportunities Commission for affordable housing; right-of-way to be used for road and transit projects; and properties valued at less than $100,000. For these kinds of properties, the Executive retains authority to lease or sell.

I worked hard to ensure that this law enhanced government accountability while at the same time not unduly burdening the county's ability to do business or impeding construction of affordable housing. I hope you agree that its passage accomplishes those goals.