Friday, November 13, 2020

Results of the 2020 Takoma Park Election Contest

All hail Ward 6 resident Peggy Walker, winner of the 2020 Takoma Park election contest!

Peggy's predictions versus actuals:
  • Mayor: Kate Stewart 63%, Roger Schlegel 37% -- spot on! -- 63.2% to 36.8%
  • Ward 3: Kacy Kostiuk 72%, Olly Swyers 28% -- 67.23% to 32.77%
  • Ward 5: Jarrett Smith 68%, Sawa Kamara 32% -- 63.95% to 36.05%
(Certified election results are posted at

Peggy predicted 5,329 ballots cast versus 6,549 actual. Her overall score was 23 -- low is good -- based on how far she was off in each contested race plus how accurate she was in predicting the number of votes, total and in each ward. (All entries were submitted before the Board of Elections started posting vote totals.)

In second through fifth places, out of 26 entries:
  • Seth Grimes, score 27
  • Alan Zibel, score 28
  • Sara Hoverter, score 31
  • Eric Saul, score 33
Best predictions by category were:
  • Mayor: Peggy Walker, Sophie Bethune (64-36), and Sean Tipton, Keith Berner, and Lauren Van Tol (65-35) -- actual was 63.2% to 36.8%
  • Ward 3: Lucas Taratus (67-33), Kara Monahan (68-32), and Claire Dean (69-31) -- actual was 67.23% to 32.77%
  • Ward 5: Mike Lastort (65-35), Seth Grimes (62-38), and Peter Dowling (61-39) -- actual was 63.95% to 36.05%
  • Total ballots: Alan Zibel (6,800), Claire Dean (5,900), and Peggy Walker (5,329) -- actual was 6,549
Thanks to all who participated and to everyone who ran for office!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

How to Ease Takoma Junction Congestion and Create Usable Public Space

This is mostly a repost of a letter I sent the Takoma Park City Council regarding --
An ordinance you will consider on October 14, 2020 [that] includes a provision that "authorizes the removal of the deteriorating mural at B.Y. Morrison Park and returning it to the artist."

Really what I saw was an opportunity to bring up a solution to Takoma Junction traffic congestion and the desire to create usable junction public space. Credit Eric Saul for the approach! The remainder of my letter to the council -- the remainder of this post -- describes what the city should do in close cooperation with the Maryland State Highway Administration --

Looking at the larger context: I believe that the best answer to Takoma Junction traffic concerns is reconfiguration of the intersection in front of the TPSS Co-op. While I don't personally share these concerns, I note that Community Vision for Takoma in particular has pushed them to the forefront, and the Takoma Junction Task Force, which I co-chaired, did look at the possibility of intersection reconfiguration.

The State Highway Administration should realign Carroll Avenue to cross Ethan Allen Avenue (SR 410) in a squared-off intersection with Sycamore Ave on the other side. We could then eliminate part of the traffic-signal cycle and provide more time for pedestrian crossings and more green-light time to vehicles on 410 and on Carroll Avenue, decreasing congestion and boosting pedestrian safety.

The city would relocate B.Y. Morrison Park, possibly including the gazebo structure (which is not historic), to an area in front of the Carroll Avenue storefronts. This relocation would transform B.Y. Morrison Park into usable public space, which it isn't currently, and would thereby address Councilmember Kovar's and Community Vision's concern about junction-development public space.

Many community stakeholders support intersection reconfiguration. Given the possibility that we'll move forward with that, I would not spend public funds on restoring the gazebo mural in-place, and that does indicate mural removal as the best course.

I do wish to add: Intersection configuration must not involve elimination of the crosswalk at Grant Avenue. The NDC project's layby lane should stay in the location currently planned for it.

Image: Eric Saul

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Takoma Park is in the process of reconstructing our antiquated city library. A city page on the project describes that in 2014, "When discussions about renovations began, the assumption was that we would work within the existing building and modernize and improve the space." The 2013-5 city council decided on a modest expansion of the footprint, to allow the library to maintain its long-standing services while meeting ADA standards for accessibility for persons with disabilities.  The design was subsequently reworked to meet flood-plain requirements, but a later council also significantly expanded it, delaying construction and adding significantly to the price tag. This last April, the council authorized $499,835 contract for additional design services, and the city put out a survey asking people to vote on three design concepts.

Are there other library approaches that some think would better serve current-day and evolving community needs? Resident Wayne Sherwood put one forward, an alluring alternative vision that would reconstruct the building at a modest scale, as the centerpiece of what he calls a Takoma Park “distributed learning network.”

Here is Wayne's July 2, 2020 letter to the Takoma Park City Council...

Dear friends,

The city recently announced that the Takoma Park City Council is seeking feedback about the library design in its present form.

I think that as currently proposed, this is a seriously misplaced investment of scarce city funds.  

When this project was proposed originally, it was proposed as a modest renovation and upgrade of the existing library, for about $3 to $5 million.   I totally supported that.   I continued to support it when we were told that the total project cost was going to be $7 million.

But the costs have steadily escalated since then, and the last estimate I saw was close to $11 million for a total tear-down of the existing library and complete new construction.

The architect is the same architect who designed the new downtown Silver Spring library, which I consider to be impressive, but that is a full-scale county library.

As the cost of the proposed Takoma Park library has continued to escalate, I think it is time to reconsider the concept of our library.   I don’t think we need to have a full-service library on the present site, particularly not for this cost.

So I propose we scrap the current concept, and instead redesign it as a children’s and young adults library and learning center, emphasizing computer and online learning, and that most of the space be devoted to those purposes, and that the amount of stack space devoted to “ordinary books” be greatly reduced.   Instead, the great majority of books could be sent to storage, either on site or nearby, and people who wanted them could submit a card to the front desk, and they would be retrieved.

Libraries across the country are moving in the direction of scaling down in physical size, and moving to electronic service centers, where people can come in and use computers to get access to the local collection as well as a wide variety of resources on the Internet.  

I have walked through the stacks and seen whole shelves devoted to popular fiction such as romance novels and mysteries – titles that appear briefly in the newspapers’ best seller lists and then fade away and aren’t remembered again.   Keeping such books in open stacks is to me a waste of precious library space.

Many parts of Takoma Park are poorly served by a single centrally-located library.   I am thinking about the greater densities of people living along Flower Avenue and also in the northeastern sections of Takoma Park, such as along New Hampshire Ave. and near Langley Park.  

I think it would make a lot more sense for the city to develop a “distributed learning network” that would include mini-library outposts in those neighborhoods, perhaps attached to or incorporated within the apartment buildings themselves, or within the proposed new Rec Center on New Hampshire Avenue, where adults and youth could access a variety of learning resources closer to home – not all the way across the city.   

Reimagining our library as primarily a children’s and young adults library would seem to me to make a lot more sense, especially since a lot of young people pass the present site on their walks to and from school.   It’s a natural.

I think the present conceptual model for the new library is already obsolete and a poor use of resources – especially if you take into account racial and economic equity, which I think Takoma Park should.  

Slightly less than half the city’s population is now white, but it seems to me that this has not yet been taken very much into account in the city council’s decision-making about how to use scarce resources.  

I anticipate that the city’s property tax revenues are likely to go down over the next couple of years, as the city and county feel the economic impact of the pandemic.

In addition, it looks like the State of Maryland will be cutting back on a variety of forms of financial assistance to local communities.

So it’s not as if the city will be able to go out soon and start creating additional kinds of learning resources in other neighborhoods of the city.    Unfortunately, I think there will be a long ‘pause’ before the city thinks it will have enough money to consider doing that.

In a way, the current pandemic could be giving us an opportunity to reimagine the Takoma Park library/learning center and make it even more valuable to young people (and others) who will be using it over the next 20 years.


Wayne Sherwood

Friday, June 12, 2020

11 Police reform, public safety, and equity ideas for Takoma Park

Former Takoma Park City Councilmember Tim Male initiated and drafted the analysis I'm posting here, 11 Police reform, public safety, and equity ideas for Takoma Park, and invited several community members to contribute, which we did in an exchange over the course of ten days. We hope this document will accelerate city-community work toward rationalizing and improving police, public-safety, and community services here in Takoma Park, with a focus on addressing racism and inequality and advancing us toward a more just society.

To further dialogue, I'm sharing the e-mail Tim sent to the mayor and city councilmembers on June 12, 2020 followed by the 11 Ideas document...

Dear Mayor Stewart, and Councilmembers Smith, Dyballa, Searcy, Kostiak, Seamens, and Kovar,

We appreciate the events being hosted and actions already being initiated by the City in response to the recent killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

The following ideas offer some steps for the City of Takoma Park to address systemic racism, injustices, and inequities that have been part of policing and local government for too long.

We offer these humbly, knowing that there are far more recommendations for police reform and more equitable government than those we have offered here and look forward to those ideas that come out of community conversations the City has already begun.

I have cced Roy Austin, Rizzy Qureshi, and Seth Grimes who helped develop these with me over the last week.



11 Police Reform Recommendations
for a More Just and Equitable Takoma Park

We share a desire to assure public safety, equitably and respectfully, via mechanisms that reflect communal values, redress long-entrenched wrongs, and effectively apply public resources.

The following ideas offer some steps for the City of Takoma Park to address systemic racism, injustices, and inequities that have been part of policing and local government for too long.  We offer these humbly, knowing that there are far more ideas for police reform and more equitable government than those we have offered here and look forward to those ideas that come out of community conversations the City has already begun. 

The City must invest in a thorough outreach and listening campaign, to reach all the City’s diverse residents in ways that work for them, in places, languages, and with facilitators that make successful interaction possible.  That campaign should also include education and ‘teach-ins’ because some of the hardest and most likely areas for reform take time for people new to policing issues to learn about and to understand how options for changes might work. 

1.     Share more data on use of force and complaints about officers.  It's not enough for annual reports to detail crimes and arrests.  The city should also be detailing the number and nature of complaints – especially those involving alleged violation of an individual’s civil rights on file per officer (not identified to person) and strategies taken to resolve complaints.  The city should report on and summarize all incidents involving use of force (e.g. handcuffing, unholstering a taser/firearm, pointing a taser/firearm at a person, discharge of a weapon) and proactively make dispatch, body-cam, and other recordings available for public inspection, redacted to conform with general orders and practices.  The Council should establish the requirement that all instances that trigger a use of force review by the department, also be reported to the City Council on a monthly basis so that the city’s elected leadership is aware of the level of and trends in use of force by the department.   Currently, use-of-force reviews are handled only within the police department.  This isn't good enough.  We should also change the definition of use of force to be more expansive.  For example, the current definition is triggered when a gun/taser is pointed at a person, but a better standard might be to report on any instances where guns/tasers are unholstered on duty.  Another immediate step is to join the Police Data Initiative created by the Obama Administration, as Montgomery County has done but not Takoma Park.  To model behavior, that data should also be submitted to the FBI within our required crime reporting.   

2.     Expand accountability on hiring a police chief.  It is time to amend our charter and subject the hiring of a police chief to Council confirmation, revisiting a similar effort that failed in 2011.  Having this senior position that supervises one-third of city staff accountable only to our senior bureaucrat and never to elected leaders is inappropriate.  Having the Council confirm the city manager’s hire would provide a modest amount of oversight and shared responsibility for the choice.  Takoma Park has had experience with a marginally performing police chief hired without council input in the recent past.  Having the City Council vote on future hiring of police chiefs will make the department and city stronger.

3.     Publish data on the diversity of our police officers and other police department staff and information on recruiting, hiring, and promotion criteria.  The public has an interest in knowing the sources the department draws on to recruit officers and staff, the hiring decision criteria applied and their weighting, including how the department evaluates and factors in an experienced candidate’s past misconduct reports, and how promotion decisions are made.

4.     Understand internal affairs capacity.  It's unclear from established police policies whether the police department has any sophisticated and independent way to investigate allegations of officer misconduct.  Officer-involved shootings and fatalities are referred to the state's attorney, but what about issues of police corruption, misconduct, or excessive force?  The Council should explore how such investigations are handled today and be certain that those practices are effective in building and maintaining the right culture within our police department.

5.     Ensure training requirements emphasize restorative justice, bias recognition, and non-violent policing and conflict resolution strategies.  Requirements for promotion to senior positions must include extensive and appropriate training in social work, violence prevention, hate crimes, social justice, conflict resolution and other skills that support the guardian model of policing as opposed to the warrior model.  

6.     Ensure peer intervention policies and practices.  Peer intervention and active bystandership training are essential.  Think of it as an ‘if you see something, say something’ approach that trains and empowers all officers to intervene when a fellow officer does something wrong.  It’s also critical that the city has policies that ensure that police leadership supports and doesn’t punish peer intervention.  Our police department needs to adopt and publish policies that make this strategy into a central one that becomes a bedrock in police response to incidents.

7.   Examine police department staffing.  An examination of crime and staffing data, in light of regional and national trends, and study of Takoma Park service needs will tell us whether we have too many or just the right number of officers and will also reveal unmet community needs.  We pay a lot for our police department. Some of that money might be better spent on social programs, or the city might choose to decrease taxes.  There is a point at which more guns on police belts do not make us more safe and is disproportionate to the level of need in the community.  Crime in Takoma Park is down more than 70% over 15 years, uncorrelated with the size of our police force.  This is a strange comparison but for scale, in 2000, we spent roughly $5,400 on policing for every crime that occurred here.  In 2018, that number was $17,184 per crime.  This is both because crime has consistently gone down and because policing costs have gone up.  One specific area that we should consider is whether we truly need a K9 unit in Takoma Park.

8.   Consider establishing a resident commission on policing.  The City should study the possible establishment of a commission that reports to the Council on policing.  The current Police Chief’s Advisory Board is selected by the police chief at his sole discretion and reports only to the police chief, further isolating the department from independent civilian control.  Consider creating a committee of residents with a mission to focus on key aspects of policing, just like other committees in the City.  One function of this committee could be to serve as a civilian complaint review board with the authority to review case files and bring about actual change.  As immediate policing issues and concerns are resolved, the commission’s role could change to one focused more broadly on public safety.

9.     Consider hiring social workers .  Social workers exist in other police departments as unarmed experts in helping people and communities deal with many of the issues residents have (e.g. Madison, Houston, Portland).  Our public safety response does not just have to be composed solely of patrol cars, firearms, tasers, and body armor.  Our department can be staffed by people whose training is focused exclusively on social and health issues, crisis intervention training and support, and by staff who are aware of the broad array of state, county, and nonprofit services available to Takoma Park residents.  We are uncertain whether social workers would be better placed in the department itself or reporting to the deputy city manager, but integrated into police patrol and dispatch operations.  We suggest the Council pick an approach and evaluate how well it works after a few years. The Council should also consider policy language that provides direction on the types of calls to which patrol officers versus other staff respond.
10.  Should we have a Public Safety Department?  The Council should study whether the city should remake the current police department into an office that has more social workers to focus on food, shelter, drug dependency issues, and conflict resolution; cybercrime response capacity to protect residents from soaring digital and identity crimes; and mental health case workers to focus on the high volume of current police activities that involve individuals with mental illness.  It is a big change, so we just recommend studying this idea, but it has potential to completely reframe how to approach public safety. 

11.  Research what functions could be assumed by the Montgomery County Police Department, moving to a shared-coverage model like Rockville’s and Gaithersburg’s.  Rockville and Gaithersburg provide (i.e. pay for) enhanced patrol services beyond what the county covers, but primarily rely on the county police department for patrol services and investigations.  Takoma Park also depends on the county for many services.  For example, Takoma Park uses the county jail system, which is part of what makes us a sanctuary city (because the county operates under sanctuary policies that govern sharing of information with ICE) and takes part in county-led gang initiatives.  The total cost of police in Rockville and Gaithersburg are much lower, per capita, than in Takoma Park, looking at county/state payments and general fund costs for policing combined.  Their approach frees up funding to reduce taxes or invest in social programs.  In contrast, Takoma Park’s police department makes up almost 30 percent of our budget and pension liabilities from the department are more significant than those from the rest of city staff.  The city should commission a study to be completed in 2 years to evaluate whether Rockville and Gaithersburg have equally just, capable, respectful, and community-supported policing services as our city and do so more cost effectively.  The study should analyze cost savings that are possible through a bigger county role, and assess Rockville, Gaithersburg, and Takoma Park’s police chiefs’ perspectives on this issue.  The principal goal of this recommendation is to understand whether we can maintain or improve our public safety services, while freeing up funding for critical social programs by sharing some or all patrol and investigation services with the county. 

Takoma Park, June 7, 2020. Photo by Alan Zibel.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Takoma Bev on closing Laurel Ave to vehicles + seating for restaurants in other areas

We're all eager for restaurants to reopen safely, and the safer way to reopen is via expanded outdoor seating. I think it's great that David Arkush started a petition calling, among other things, for the city to facilitate reopening by repurposing curb parking spaces and other public spaces for seating.
Closing Laurel Ave to vehicles is a possibility we've been discussing for a few years. I asked Takoma Bev about this and got this reply from Chris Brown, shared with his permission:

"This would be so huge for the businesses on our street. There is plenty of space in the back lot for drop offs, pick ups etc. I know our delivery drivers and Kin Da delivery drivers already use the back lot. If there is anything I can do as a business owner on the strip to show my support for the partial closing of Laurel please let me know!"
Regarding the impact on take-out delivery drivers, neither Takoma Bev nor Pizza Movers is listed on Uber Eats or Grubhub. I asked Takoma Bev about this. I found Chris's reply on that topic quite interesting so I'll share it as well, with his permission:
"We don't use any third party vendors for delivery for a couple reasons. We were able to keep a few employees on payroll by pivoting them to delivery drivers. After everything goes back to normal we are going to have to figure out who will be doing the deliveries as these employees will likely be back behind the bar. Another reason is that we chose to go with higher quality products at competitive prices as the basis for our business model which keeps our margins very tight. The third party services take too much off the top and we would be losing money on those orders."
Finally, regarding businesses in other locations: In addition to what David calls for in the petition, I'd recommend the city's working with commercial property owners to provide restaurant seating in shopping curb driving lanes and parking spaces adjacent to restaurant storefronts. I'm thinking in particular about restaurants along New Hampshire Avenue and in Takoma-Langley Crossroads shopping centers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Tim and I Write a Budget Letter

I'm posting a letter former Takoma Park Councilmember Tim Male and I sent to Takoma Park city officials on April 22, 2022, following his cover note --

From: Tim Male


Sharing ideas that former City Councilmember Seth Grimes and I put together on the budget that offers more than $2 million of ideas for reductions in the proposed budget, more than $2 million in budget policy changes and other shifts that could free up $2 million in 'revenue' to count in this coming year.  And recommendations on emergency assistance to help those most in near this coming year. And a lower property tax rate that effectively results in a small net inflation-adjusted tax burden for all residents.

Tim on Woodland

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Tim Male <>
Date: Wed, Apr 22, 2020 at 9:43 AM
Subject: Budget Letter
To: Kate Stewart <>, Cindy Dyballa <>, Talisha Searcy <>, Jarrett Smith <>, Kacy Kostiuk <>, Peter Kovar <>, Terry Seamens <>
Cc: Jessie Carpenter <>, Suzanne Ludlow <>, Seth Grimes <>
Dear Mayor Stewart and Members of the City Council,
We wanted to share our thoughts on the budget you are now grappling with.
Our concerns are three: a budget structured to effectively use city resources to best serve Takoma Park residents, businesses, and other stakeholders; financial sustainability in a time of crisis; and capacity to appropriately and humanely respond to the health, family, social, and economic stress created by that crisis.
Given the unpredictable severity and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shocks that will endure beyond it, we've tried to put together ideas that reduce expenses.  The crisis will affect – has already impacted – multiple city tax, fee, and program revenue sources, and it is sure to diminish FY21 and future years’ income-tax and intergovernmental revenues. Residents and our treasured small businesses are also feeling an impact, and the effects – high unemployment, degraded food and housing security, shuttered businesses, will – may be felt for years. We know that no cut is easy and every program of the city feels essential, but the reality is that not all of them are and that in a time of tough choices, there are some that are easier than others.
We offer approximately $2.5 million in recommended changes. These ideas involve the use of reserves, reductions in reserve deposits and shifts in how and when vacant positions are accounted for. Having spent years of work on the Council and done the same kind of exhaustive work you all must go through, we know there are policy calls you can make associated with the 'cushions' you keep in the general fund and around reserves that are yours to make. The City Manager may have one view on these issues, and may argue strenuously for it, but they are your decisions, and we believe you are closer to the pain that your constituents are experiencing in this crisis to know whether the choices to help those constituents outweigh the risk that you might make your FY22 budget choices harder.
We recommend that the city keep property taxes flat (no intended increase in revenue) by lowering the tax rate. Yes, the city can collect money from residents and distribute it to the people you think most need it.  We argue for that below. But we think you should acknowledge that everyone is feeling pain right now – people whose incomes or social security payments once felt secure and sufficient no longer do- and even this little bit you could do for all families would be both a help and an acknowledgement of their worry, and financial distress and hardships.
It's said that a budget is a reflection of our values. We ask you to enact an FY21 Takoma Park city budget that reflects sensible caution, fairness, community, and compassion. You can do this by finding budget savings, addressing revenues, and creating capacity to meet community needs unprecedented in our generations.
Recommended savings:  $1.9 - $2.8 million
The following 13 changes could save between $1.9 and $2.8 million:
1.     The draft budget includes a number of new positions and partial positions.  Freeze FTEs from FY20 (at the level of filled positions, i.e. not including those unfilled positions above).  Potential savings: $120,000 for eliminating 2 FTEs from proposed budget plus $200,000-$400,000 for leaving unfilled FY20 positions unfilled through FY21.  Savings: $320,000-$520,000.
2.     We know you have reached an agreement (with one or both?) unions to freeze wage increases for now, but you should really look at the wage numbers in the budget because some are shocking:

  • Under ‘General Government’ there are 18.5 positions with a $320,000 wage increase.  That is $17,297 per employee in increase (approximately 20% raises).
  • The Criminal Investigations Division of the Police Department would see a $20,798 per position increase for the 12 staff in the division (approximately 32% raises).
  • The Public Works Vegetation Management Division would see an $18,750 per person average wage increase for 4 people (approximately a 50% raise).
Wage savings through FY21 could save you $400,000.
3.     Ask the Finance Director to provide Council with a total – across all city departments – for current wages and fringe benefits and for budgeted FY21 proposed wages and proposed fringe. These numbers are not in the budget, and so it might be helpful and allow you to get an understanding of any percentage increase in fringe costs per dollar of wage.  In some departments fringe costs appear to be 25% of wages while in others it increases to 45%.  If Council doesn’t yet understand why it varies by department, you might ask.  Regardless, assuming a 25% fringe cost, cutting wages by $400,000 would save you another $100,000 in fringe costs.
4.     Eliminate $80,000 increase in Council and Mayor wages.  We hope you already plan to, but it would just be an awful time to change Council compensation.
5.     In the legislative Division, there is a $59,000 increase (940%) in special event costs.  Savings: $59,000
6.     Delay the Community Survey by a year, possibly redirecting a portion of the funds.  Savings to a systematic and on-going assessment of community and business needs arising from the covid-19 crisis: up to $80,000
7.     In Public Works, freeze the $100,000 in additional building maintenance proposed over last year’s total and stick with only allowing a 5% increase in this budget (which appears to be billed to the General Fund, not equipment or other reserves).  Savings: $100,000
8.     For all departmental operational budgets, seek flat expenses (i.e. subcontracting, supplies, new equipment, etc.) to save perhaps $100,000 across the whole budget.
9.     Non-Departmental Expenses rise by $550,000 (40%) including $300,00 for special events and programs.  And there is a $110,000 increase for office expenses (360%).  Saving: $400,000-$510,000
10.  There are $557,696 in projected replacement costs from the Equipment Replacement Reserve.  Delay 50% of these expenses by 1 year, and similarly add one year to 50% of the expenses in the next year.  Savings: $275,000
11.  Cut the $175,000 in new sidewalk planning costs and commercial center improvements.  Savings: $175,000.
12.  There is a $150,000 increase (22%) in General Government ‘Services and Charges” as an expense (not income). If you don’t know why this is increasing this much, it might be helpful to ask.
13.  Evaluate Police Department staffing. The Takoma Park Police Department reports that crime here has trended down over 10 years, from 739 crimes in 2008 to 483 last year, in 2019, tracking national trends, with no interruption during long stretches of understaffing. Just last year, the TPPD was at 36 sworn officers for 43 authorized positions. We expect that the city can safely reduce the number of sworn officers authorized, with budget savings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. At minimum, the added position to the police Operations Division should not be added – we have gotten along well, safety-wise, without that officer.
Recommended Revenue Increases:  $2.3-$2.5 million
The following three changes could increase the funds you have available to cover General Fund expenses by $2.3 to $2.5 million
1.     In the past years (15) for which we have compared anticipated General Fund balances at the end of the fiscal year from the budget with the audits that show what the actual fiscal year General Fund balance was, the difference is about $2 million. That means that in an average year, you can assume that at the city will get a little more revenue and spend a significant amount less, such that you will have about $2 million more in the General Fund at the end of the year. For example, you end up with a lot of ‘savings’ because positions are vacant. It is pretty safe to assume that you will (once you have the audit) have $2 million more at the end of FY20 than the budget said you would have and that the same will be true at the end of FY21. Thus, there is potential revenue here that you could count on.  Conservatively assuming this might be $1.5 million.
2.     Ask the Finance director and HR director for summary of all the currently vacant positions and how much money the city has not spent on salary through vacancies this year.  Suspend hiring for all those positions. The savings from unfilled positions throughout FY20 is something that gets booked at the time of the audit, but if you estimate it now, you will have information on a predictable increase in unassigned general funds that could be counted as revenue for FY21. Potential ‘revenue’: $200,000-$400,000
3.     An Equipment Reserve is almost unheard of for Maryland municipalities; only a few have them.  You are not required to have one: a reserve is a policy, not a law. When we last looked at more than 25 cities in this area of Maryland, Takoma Park had exceptionally more money in reserves than any other. You do not need to allocate $600,000 for the Equipment Reserve this year. Think about it. Your balance in that fund is already enough to buy 5 years of replacement equipment without a single deposit. On a personal level, it would be like buying a new car (100% in cash) and already having enough money set aside in the bank to buy the replacement for that car in 5 years. Keep this $600,000 in your General Fund revenue for other expenses. General Fund Revenue increase: $600,000
Predictable Revenue Shortfalls and Property Tax Reduction
If you were able to cut expenses by an amount like the $2 million proposed above, and count those three opportunities above for revenue, you free up $4 million to cover predictable declines in Speed Camera Fund Revenue, in Income Tax Revenue, and from smaller contributing sources including the Hotel and Motel Tax and Amusement Tax. Intergovernmental revenue, from the State of Maryland and Montgomery County, may also be significantly impacted.
We believe you would also have enough to hold property taxes at this year’s estimate of revenue (i.e. forego even an inflation adjustment to property tax receipts).
Redirection of Spending to Meet Emerging Emergency Needs
We suggest you budget for on-going local response to the covid-19 crisis via steps that include:

  • Carrying out an on-going assessment of the city's response to residents' health, food security, and housing security needs, working with the county and state and local nonprofits, including by creating an Emergency Aid Commission that includes business, faith and community leaders to guide support for residents and businesses.
  • Providing an FY21 budget allocation of funds in anticipation of sustained, pressing community needs. The city has programs in place. We suggest you maintain the city manager’s proposed FY21 contributions to the city’s Emergency Assistance Program ($40,000), Housing Reserve Fund ($110,000), and Community Partners Program ($135,000), and allocate an additional $600,000, in place of the budgeted FY21 Equipment Replacement Reserve contribution or directed from another source, among those programs, to help Takoma Park residents and businesses in need of help weather the crisis.
The steps we have detailed are not exhaustive. Many additional ideas, and variations on the ideas we present, have been suggested via public comment, and we have additional ideas and advice ourselves that are outside the budget process. We recommend that you:

  • Direct the city manager to institute an immediate freeze on hiring for all but positions essential for public health and safety.
  • Initiate a systematic assessment of the city's ability to respond to residents' health, food security, and housing security needs, working with the county and state and local nonprofits. Do this now, continuing the monitoring and assessment through FY21 as suggested earlier in this letter.
  • Pay special attention to state and county relationships, working as indicated with the Maryland Municipal League and influencers who support Takoma Park’s interests, to ensure maintenance of promised, appropriate levels of intergovernmental funding.
  • Maintain environmental sustainability programming at recommended levels. The covid-19 crisis has eclipsed, for the moment, the existential threat posed by climate change. The city’s Climate Emergency response has been exemplary. Let’s keep up that good work.
Of course, we are at your disposal to discuss all points raised in this letter.
We thank you for your work on behalf of Takoma Park residents, businesses, and other stakeholders and for your consideration.
Tim Male and Seth Grimes

Monday, April 20, 2020

The proposed FY21 budget -- Equipment Replacement Reserve vs. funding the city's Covid-19 response

I suggested that the city council put (more) money to helping residents and businesses struggling because of the Covid-19 crisis in an April 20, 2020 letter, rather than unnecessarily into the already-well-funded Equipment Replacement Reserve...

Mayor, Councilmembers,

We share a deep concern for everyone affected by the Covid-19 crisis. I know that you are exploring how to deploy city resources to best aid residents and business most in need of help. I have one specific suggestion.

The proposed FY21 budget includes "Contribution of $600,000 to replenish the Equipment Replacement Reserve." The 30 June 2019 ERR balance was $3,927,428 and the projected 30 June 2020 balance would be $3,786,712. However there is no compelling reason to maintain a high ERR balance. The current balance is quite adequate to cover anticipated spending for at least a year or two without compromising the city's financial position.

I suggest you redirect the $600,000 to address pressing community needs. The city has programs in place. I would maintain the city manager's proposed FY21 contributions to the city's Emergency Assistance Program ($40,000), Housing Reserve Fund ($110,000), and Community Partners Program ($135,000), distributing the additional $600,000 among those programs, to help Takoma Park residents and businesses in need of help weather the crisis.

As an aside: I do know that there's pressure to keep property taxes at 2019 levels. That $600,000 does represent 2.4 mills of the city manager's proposed 2.6 mill property-tax rate increase. I am confident that you can find budget economies elsewhere in order to both avoid a tax increase and respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

Finally, I'll repeat my suggestion that you amend the city charter to facilitate use of Emergency Reserve funds to address longer-duration emergencies. This amendment will provide you flexibility to consider transferring Emergency Reserve money to the city's assistance programs later in FY21, without having to replenish the Emergency Reserve on July 1, 2021, long before city revenues -- which depend heavily on income-tax revenue that will surely decrease in 2020 and Maryland and Montgomery County intergovernmental revenues that will be under a lot of pressure -- recover to FY19 levels (anticipating that FY20 revenues will come in well below expected numbers).

Thanks very much for considering these suggestions and best wishes,

Seth Grimes