Saturday, April 26, 2014

City tax rates & the FY15 budget: Hearings Monday

The city council will hold public hearings on Monday, April 28, starting at 7 pm, seeking comment on the city's FY15 property-tax rate and budget. Later in the meeting, the council will discuss changes to the city manager's proposed FY15 budget, a process called "reconciliation."

The meeting agenda is posted on the city Web site.

City Manager Brian Kenner proposes to leave the property-tax rate, .57, unchanged. That's $0.57 per $100 taxable assessed value. For almost all of us, an unchanged rate will mean paying the same city property taxes this year as last year, since few Takoma Park properties were reassessed given that we're in the middle of the three-year assessment cycle.

Under Maryland law, any property-tax rate above the constant-yield rate is considered a tax increase. The FY15 constant-yield rate, which would produce the same dollar amount in FY15 as was generated in FY14, is $0.564. Retaining the .57 rate, which I favor, would yield $118,000 in additional tax revenue.

But we need to hear from you, hence the Monday hearings, on both the tax rate and on the budget itself.

The city manager's proposed budget largely maintains city services at current-year levels. Higher personnel costs due to benefits increases (for instance, health-care costs) are offset by certain additional, non-tax revenues. Yes, it includes initial funding for dog-park development.

Council members have proposed additional spending as listed in a document that's online. Requestor's initials are : BW = Bruce Williams; FS = Fred Schultz; TM = Tim Male; TS = Terry Seamens; JS = Jarrett Smith; KS = Kate Stewart. I have not requested any additional FY15 spending myself, and I'm inclined to support the staff recommendations, except item #1, which would fund a Commemorations Commission, $10,000. Historic Takoma, the Takoma Foundation, the Recreation Committee, and community members do a fine advocacy job for community contributors who deserve recognition so I question the need for a new commission and for this expenditure. I'm willing to put additional money into a dog park, college-prep mentoring, support for a summer camp targeting kids from moderate-income families, and a visioning study for the county-owned New Hampshire Avenue recreation center.

Please testify at the April 28, 7 pm hearings, or send your comment to the council via clerk@takomaparkmd.gov or to me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov. And by the way, my next Ward 1 drop-in office time will be Tuesday, May 13, 5-6 pm, and after that, Wednesday, May 28, 8-9 am, at 7006 Carroll Ave.

Thanks!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ward 3 special election winner: Kate Stewart

Kate Stewart won the special election for the Ward 3 city-council seat, formerly held by Kay Daniels-Cohen.

The final tally was 332 votes for Kate and 324 votes for Roger Schelegel. A real squeaker! Instant Runoff Voting kicked in. Those figures include second choices of people who voted for Jeffrey Noel-Nosbaum or a write-in as a first choice. Those second-choice votes split 9-9.

A bit of history: The 1985 Takoma Park mayoral race was decided by 7 votes, with Stephen Del Giudice defeating incumbent Sam Abbott.

Early-voting turn-out was heavy: 253 people voted Sunday or Monday. Congratulations to Jeffrey, Roger, and Kate for the strong effort that led to the (relatively) high overall turn-out, and to Kate for coming out on top. I look forward to working with her on the council, and to Roger and Jeffery on community issues. I hope to have stats soon on same-day registration and voting and on voting by 16 and 17 year olds, and FairVote may release results from their exit surveys.

The council will convene this evening (Wednesday) to accept the Ward 3 election results.

[The council will meet again Thursday evening, at 7:30 pm, for the first of our budget worksessions, focusing on Communications, Library, Public Works, and Police, and on Thursday, April 17 for a budget worksession focusing on Housing and Community Development, Recreation, Non-Departmental, and General Government (Information Systems, Human Resources, City Clerk, City Manager, Finance). Kate won't have been sworn in yet but she'll be welcome to participate.]

Then, Monday evening, April 21, there will be a reception welcoming Kate, at 6:30 pm at the community center, and Kate will be sworn in at 7 pm.

Now on to June 24, the Maryland primaries!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

City budget time: Hearing & presentation Monday, April 7

City Manager Brian Kenner has released his proposed FY15 Takoma Park city budget, posted online. Your comment is invited at a public hearing, Monday, April 7, at 7 pm at the community center. The hearing provides a special opportunity to communicate your thoughts, focused on the year ahead, regarding city services and programs, taxes and fees, and the budget process itself.

Following the 7 pm public hearing, at approximately 8 pm, the city manager is slated to present his proposed budget.

Notes on the FY 15 Budget

The city manager's FY15 budget would hold the city's property-tax rate at 57 cents per $100 assessed value, same as for FY14.

And yes, it includes design and site prep for a new dog park, new Colby Park (Ward 2) and Sligo Mill Overlook Park (Ward 3) playgrounds, and new sidewalk construction to include the Pinecrest neighborhood and Boyd and Elm Avenues (Wards 2 and 3).

Kay Daniels-Cohen was impatient to see the dog park, playgrounds, and sidewalks become reality, as they will in the next fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015.

Revenues, Expenditures, and Process

The FY15 proposed budget document is 200 pages in length, a lot to take in.

There will be multiple opportunities for public comment, in April and May. The council will hold the first of several budget worksession discussions on Thursday, April 10. The schedule of sessions is given in the city's Rolling Agenda. Additional public hearings are scheduled for April 28, and there are specific opportunities for comment at the May 12 and May 19 council meetings, when the council is slated to vote on the FY15 budget. Of course, you may comment at any council meeting, or relay your testimony to the council by e-mail to clerk@takomaparkmd.gov, and I'd be happy to discuss your concerns: sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225.

The city manager writes, regarding his proposed budget, "the total operating budget for all funds for FY15 is $26.6 million, a decrease of 1.3% from last year... The FY15 revenue budget is 5.3% higher than the FY14 revenue budget at $25.8 million," due primarily, I believe, to special grant funding.

"Total personnel costs are estimated to increase by 3% from FY14. The majority of this increase is due to growth in health care, benefit, and workers compensation costs. In addition, there is a small increase in staffing proposed from FY14 to FY15 of roughly 2.8 FTEs [full-time equivalent staff], however as in previous years, we have been careful to keep ongoing expenses funded by ongoing revenue."

Programs Versus Administration

I'll conclude by stressing that budgeting for the fiscal year is a process that starts well in advance of the release of the proposed budget. This year's budget is City Manager Brian Kenner's first -- the council's confidence in his budget-related competence was a key reason we offered him the job -- and Brian has taken helpful steps to improve the process.

This go-around, prompted by councilmembers' desire for advance discussion of program proposals, council and staff held two "retreats," public, off-site discussion meetings, and Brian organized two nights of council-staff "roundtable" exchanges, at the community center and televised. (Added April 7:) Brian and Deputy City Manager Suzanne Ludlow additionally met, one-on-one, with each council member, to discuss priorities city-wide and for the councilmember's ward.

We can always improve. I'm disappointed that the city manager has shifted Housing and Community Development (HCD) staff from program categories to a catch-all Administration category -- my council colleague Tim Male pointed this out to me, in the FY15 proposed budget -- just as last year Recreation staff were shifted from program break-outs to Administration.

I believe other council members also prefer the clarity provided by allocating staff expense to programs. Considering HCD, for instance, it's hard to know the cost of code enforcement, planning, economic development, landlord-tenant matters including rent stabilization, etc., when the salaries are placed under Administration.

In the course of our hiring a new city manager, last year's push-back got lost. We'll have to try again. Do you agree regarding allocating staff positions, and what other thoughts do you have about the city's FY15 budget? Please let the council know, at the April 7 public hearing or on another occasion soon.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Takoma Junction Progress Report

Because Takoma Junction sits in the middle of Takoma Park's Ward 3, it's a focal topic for the current Ward 3 council race. It's a key interest of mine as well: I co-chaired the city's Takoma Junction Task Force along with the indispensable Howard Kohn. (If elections were based solely on experience, Howard would simultaneously hold at least 3 council seats, just himself.) The task force work was a great team effort. Notably, Kay Daniels-Cohen had been a junction booster since forever, and brought a special brand of junction enthusiasm to the task force and then to the council.

My council colleagues and I, city staff, businesses including the TPSS Co-op, and community members have worked to advance junction revitalization in the 2 years since the task force issued its report.

The junction came up in a recent Facebook discussion of the Ward 3 race. I posted a response about junction status to the discussion thread. My write-up turned out to be somewhat lengthy. I'll share it.

My report --

We're making steady, if slow, progress on Takoma Junction. The city has executed well overall, in my opinion, on the task force's recommendations, per its February 2012 report.

Food truck Fridays, the Grant Ave Market, and other activities contracted by the city to the Old Takoma Business Association have been a success. We rebuilt the sidewalk between the fire station and the co-op, and we've extracted a promise from the State Highway Administration (SHA) to locate a new crosswalk between Grant Ave and the city lot. Crosswalk installation will be in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1; it took A LOT of pushing to get the SHA to agree, and we'll check in with them next month. Finally, we've completed 2 phases of city-lot environmental assessment and issued a Request for Proposals, closing date May 28, for city-lot development or other ideas. See the city RFP site for that latter stuff.

The opening of the Historic Takoma building and BikeShare station have been a boon to the area, and prospects are good to get the vacant Carroll Avenue storefronts occupied soon. We've also boosted pedestrian safety by adding crossing-guard coverage for schoolkids. I expect we'll take on other points -- the streetscape including intersection configuration, reworking of BY Morrison Park, etc. -- once the crosswalk is in and we have an idea where we're going with the city lot. (At the city's invitation, UMD landscape architecture students created a number of design concepts for BY Morrison Park this last fall. I believe they're viewable at the Historic Takoma building.)

Kay Daniels-Cohen worked hard to advance the Takoma Junction cause, and I'm sure Roger, Kate, and Jeffrey will as well: and, not or, because I recognize all three as committed activists. We're lucky to have all three in the race, and the desire city-wide to transform Takoma Junction into a crossroads that will benefit the whole of the community!