Monday, February 25, 2013

How to report traffic-safety incidents to the SHA

Neighbors, if you wish to report a traffic- or pedestrian-safety issue on a state road in Takoma Park such as 410 (Philadelphia Ave), 320 (Piney Branch Road), or 195 (Carroll Ave), I suggest these steps:

Use the State Highway Administration form at marylandsha.force.com/customercare/request_for_service. Choose the topic "Traffic / Intersection Safety Issues" and the appropriate sub-topic, perhaps "Pedestrian / Crosswalks" and report the incident. If you provide your e-mail address, you should get a message with subject along the lines "Maryland SHA Case # SR-0130381." It won't include the descriptive text or details you provided, so copy that information before you submit your report.

Then forward the message you received, with the descriptive information, to Christopher Bishop (cbishop@sha.state.md.us), the SHA's District 3 Community Liaison, and Anyesha Mookherjee (amookherjee@sha.state.md.us), who is Assistant District Engineer - Traffic (Montgomery County). Copy your message to Police Chief Alan Goldberg (alang@takomagov.org) and Acting City Manager Suzanne Ludlow (suzannel@takomagov.org) City Manager Brian Kenner (BrianK@takomaparkmd.gov) and to me if you wish, if the incident was in Ward 1 (sethg@takomagov.org).

To check the status of an SHA service request or add a comment or question, visit marylandsha.force.com/customercare/public_search.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Let's Enfranchise Takoma Park Renters and Strengthen the Right to Vote!

Takoma Park has 8 registered voters in its homeowner-dominated wards for every 5 voters in the wards that concentrate the city's rental apartment buildings. City wards are drawn to have near-equal population counts. In November 2011, according to the city's certified election results, there were 6,744 voters registered Wards 1, 2, and 3 versus 4,024 registered in Wards 4, 5, and 6.

This wide disparity reflects low renter civic engagement. If you're not registered, you can't vote. The disparity has repercussions for every city, county, state, and federal election.

We can right the imbalance. The city council, backed by residents, has the power to change the rules. Let's reweave the civic fabric to include renters in community and city affairs and strengthen the Right to Vote for everyone. Let's take steps to boost election awareness and grow registration rates. It's our job to encourage the electoral participation, as voters and perhaps as candidates, of our city's renters, 44.7% of our neighbors, and of all of our fellow citizens.

Electoral change is an enabling step that, coupled with outreach efforts and with volunteer initiatives such as Takoma United, will change our city for the better. On the legislative front, here are steps we can take, steps the city council will discuss at its Monday, March 4 meeting and further consider in a public hearing and subsequent council meetings:
  1. Enact a city Right to Vote resolution.
  2. Modify the city charter to create Election Day voter registration for municipal elections.
  3. Modify the city charter to allow 16- and 17-year-olds, who are already eligible to register to vote, to vote in city elections.
  4. Require the city's landlords to provide a city supplied electoral and civic information packet to new tenants. This packet would include voter registration forms -- the state form for us by US citizens and the city form for use by non-citizens -- and a Web link for online registration, and it would include information about city government and city elections. New tenants have just moved so we are certain they need to change voter registration to the new address or to newly register.
  5. Require landlords to allow candidates -- and elected officials, voter-registration canvassers, and representatives of political parties and civic and community organizations -- to door-knock in multi-unit apartment buildings.
We can and should do more. On the information front, the city could do a one-time packet distribution, via mail, to all tenants and to all homeowners as well, and we should use other available channels -- for instance, a repeat of our work last fall with school PTAs to get 2012 general-election information to parents -- to engage residents about city elections.

These elements are all pieces in a larger community-building puzzle that aims not only to broaden the voter rolls but also to promote neighborliness, participation in community groups and city committee, and electoral candidacies. Information and steps to make voting easier are a start, but they are not enough. The hard part of inclusion is outreach. I'll try to do my part.

For now, please support the electoral items before the council. Communicate your comments and suggestions to your council representative, or to the council as a whole via clerk@takomagov.org.

Thank you!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

City council actions on Route 410


All, Tuesday evening (February 19, 2013), after council discussion and public comment, the city council voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution authorizing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the State Highway Administration (SHA) and 7-0 in favor of a resolution supporting state legislation precluding the SHA from adding motor vehicle lanes to 410 in Takoma Park.

The dissenting vote regarding the MOU was cast by Councilmember Terry Seamens, who saw the MOU as unnecessary given that the SHA has acknowledged its responsibility for maintaining 410 and given that the SHA has not sought to widen the 410 roadway in Takoma Park. I agree with his reasoning. I also pointed out that the MOU falls far short of the written commitments made by former SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen in an April 12, 2011 letter. Nonetheless, I voted For the MOU resolution because a) city staff wants the MOU, in order to have a city-SHA protocol regarding permitting and maintenance laid out in an official document and b) I wish to acknowledge that I am accountable, as a city official, for the city's SHA relationship. By voting For, I am stating that I share ownership of the results.

I'll add that c) the enacted version of the resolution is stronger than preceding drafts, adding, for instance, recognition that 410 runs through a historic district and that state law, "absent a capital improvement project for the adjacent highway, the local jurisdiction is responsible for securing rights of way for the placement of a new sideway," and d) I see minimal risk of an initiative to widen the 410 roadway.

Thank you to everyone who turned out to speak at the council meeting or phoned me or wrote to the council. Thanks also to Historic Takoma Inc. -- especially Vice President Lorraine Pearsall -- and HTI attorney Michele Rosenfeld, without whom the council would have accepted a much weaker MOU last spring.

Several February 19 attendees questioned the linkage of the MOU to the proposed state legislation. I proposed a motion, which failed by a 5-2 vote, to delay the MOU-resolution vote until after enactment of the proposed state legislation, so the council proceeded with the vote.

Attendees took issue with the proposed legislation language. They asked variously that we eliminate the word "through" or the word "motor" from the reference to "a new through lane for motor vehicles." I didn't see any difference removing "through" would make. Given the outcome, my council colleagues agreed on that point and that we should retain the possibility of bicycle lanes on 410. Note that the city has long planned bike lanes on 410 east of New Hampshire Avenue.

A couple of attendees asked city endorsement of in-principle restrictive language. That is, they asked that we not specificy wording in our resolution. The council was unwilling to move forward without specific language, however. Who knows what we might have ended up with?

What's next? My understanding is that Delegate Heather Mizeur will submit the legislation soon. Because this will be a late filing, it will have to be approved by the House of Delegates' Rules Committee, whose members include Delegate Sheila Hixson, who also represents us in District 20. The language may be changed by the committee the bill is assigned to but I'm guessing it won't be since it has the imprimatur of SHA non-opposition. We'll see what happens. I'll plan to keep you posted.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Feb 19 2013 at the council: 410 resolutions & a police update

Happy Presidents' Day!

Given the holiday, the Takoma Park City Council will be meeting tomorrow evening, Tuesday, February 19, 2013. Two resolutions about Maryland 410 -- Ethan Allen Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue in Takoma Park -- wrap up several years of city-State Highway Administration wrangling on road ownership and maintenance. The resolutions would Authorize Execution of a Memorandum of Understanding with the SHA and support state legislation Precluding SHA from Adding Motor Vehicle Lanes to MD 410 in Takoma Park. If you have anything to say about these two resolutions, now's the time. Please comment at the meeting or let the council know your views by phone or e-mail. Messages sent to clerk@takomagov.org go into the meeting record. I'll be listening but don't have anything to add to what I posted last week.

The meeting will also feature a Police Department annual report and discussion with Police Chief Alan Goldberg.

Please let me know if I can help with questions or concerns.

Seth, 301-873-8225

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why a 410 MOU with the State Highway Administration?

The Takoma Park City Council is in the final stages of considering a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), concerning State Route 410. But is an MOU truly necessary and helpful? A Ward 1 resident wrote in an e-mail list exchange regarding the MOU, "Sometimes it turns out that doing nothing is the lowest-impact option," and after I replied, he offered the personal view that "we should not be assuming that the MOU, however it is written, won't be harmful at some point in the future." There's a lot of truth in his observations; I agree with them and will share my two responses.

To the question, "Why do we need a 410 MOU?" and a suggestion of a chart comparing outcomes given a) no MOU, b) the MOU as currently drafted, and c) the MOU, if it were modified according to suggestions from Historic Takoma (HTI), my reply was --
I do not believe we need an MOU, but that doesn't mean I'll vote against it on Tuesday evening. I will consider voting for it because I see the current draft as adequate and not likely harmful and staff think it will help them.
I'll do the chart for you:
No MOU: SHA resurfaces 410 between Park Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue. When future work is needed (signs, stormwater, utility work, signal work), there will be no protocol in place for SHA interactions with the city. This doesn't mean the SHA won't interact with the city and listen to our comments and requests, however.
MOU as currently drafted: SHA resurfaces 410 between Park Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue. When future work is needed (signs, stormwater, utility work, signal work), SHA interactions with the city will be guided by the MOU... and likely ignored by SHA operational staff who don't know the MOU exists and SHA contractors who don't care, like the ones who did the overnight patching on Philadelphia in the fall.
MOU with Historic Takoma modifications: Pretty much the same as without the modifications, but with more response time to submit comments and greater weight to comments, which would delay certain routine work and could allow the city to block certain undesirable work. 
[But] the situation is that the SHA will not [we are told] accept key HTI mods, and the council is very likely to vote in favor of the MOU without those mods.
Regarding the concern that an MOU could be harm the city's longer-term position, I wrote --
There are 3 parts to my response: 1) 410 ownership is moot, 2) some see the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the State Highway Administration (SHA) as advantageous to the city, and 3) these MOU/no-MOU exchanges are academic because a council majority favors enacting an MOU. 
1) The following is an interpretation: At some point around a year ago, a new attorney at the SHA came on to this case and the SHA reversed position, saying the state owns, and is responsible for, the roadway even if the state doesn't own the land. That actually make sense to me! So the clauses in the current draft city resolution, agreed by the SHA, include "WHEREAS, MD 410 through the CITY has been identified as part of the State highway system since the 1930s and the SHA and the CITY acknowledge that because some of the MD 410 right-of-way through the CITY was originally dedicated to public use and/or to the CITY..." 
2) City staff and the council like that the MOU gives a formal role to the city in work on 410. Historic Takoma is fine with accepts it, but believes the role granted is weaker than it should be, and I agree -- the MOU is weaker than the written commitment we received in a letter from former SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen -- but staff and a council majority think the MOU we're now considering is the best we're going to get. 
3) It appears that majority of the council thinks "the best we're going to get" is better than not signing an MOU. It's a judgment call. The MOU will likely be voted by the council, by 4-2, 5-1, or 6-0. (I haven't decided yet how I'll vote, and Terry Seamens may vote No.) The council will likely also vote in favor of a state-legislative request barring SHA spending for 410 construction "that will involve the addition of a new through lane for motor vehicles" (subject to wording adjustment) by a similar majority.
The matter won't be concluded until the city council vote, Tuesday evening, February 19, 2013 and, if the vote is in favor as I expect, the SHA and city sign the MOU. Between now and Tuesday, you do still have a chance to weigh in with the council and with the state.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What to Do with $1.4 Million in Excess City Funds?


Picking up on a thread from a couple of weeks ago --

There was general agreement at the January 28 council meeting to return money to taxpayers, something around the unanticipated $653 thousand we got from Montgomery County last year. I expect the council will vote, in the spring, to use the funds to hold down the FY14 tax rates. The council had discussed a mid-year tax rebate, but the city attorney found that this would not be allowed by state law.

The total in excess FY13 (July 1, 2012-June 30, 2013) city funds was $1.4 million, however, currently being held in reserve. It is likely the council will decide to dedicate some of the balance to mid-year programs and to do some mix of three things with the rest: 1) continue holding money in reserves, 2) dedicate funds to early pay-off of city debt, and 3) deposit funds toward the city's unfunded pension liability. On pensions, in particular, we have been annually paying in the actuarially required amount, but our unfunded liability is significant, making extra payments desirable.

The choice will depend in large part on the FY14 (starting July 1, 2013) financial picture.

We should know by February 15 what the FY14 "constant yield tax rate" is. The CYTR is the rate, applied to the FY14 taxable assessed base, that would generate the same revenue as the city took in in FY13. The city's FY13 rate is $0.58 per $100 assessed value. But the FY14 assessed base will likely decrease by something like 5-6 percent due to lowered assessments. This would mean an increase in the FY14 CYTR to something like $0.61. To hold the rate at $0.58 -- which Mayor Bruce Williams sees as desirable, and I agree -- if we don't have excess revenues, we'd have to draw from reserves rather than paying down our debt, adding to pension funding, or using the money for new/expanded programs.

Regarding spending, I believe a majority of the council favors a trial of Sunday afternoon library hours. I floated the idea of a community-service coordinator, to help connect seniors, at-risk youth, disabled, and disadvantaged residents to county, state, and charitable services. I can't say this proposal was enthusiastically received. Nonetheless, I will be fighting for at least seniors funding -- to support organizing a Takoma Park "village" structure -- even if the council won't support full community-services support coverage.

The council will see how the CYTR shapes up, and maybe what state & county funding prospects look like, before making any decisions on city tax rates, expanded spending, and paying down city debt early or putting extra into pension funding. Of course, I'll keep constituents posted.