Thursday, December 1, 2016

Time to Make Takoma Park Business Taxes Fairer

How is it that Takoma Park's S&A Beads paid $2,064.14 in city taxes in 2016 but nearby restaurant Kin Da, occupying a similar space, paid only $614.73? And that SunTrust Bank, just steps away, paid just $364.41? What sort of system charges a small, locally owned business 450% more than a megabank that occupies a larger commercial space?

Takoma Park's business-tax system is not fair, and it has been that way for decades. The inequity results from city levy of personal-property taxes on commercial inventories, obviously not paid by service businesses including my own Takoma Park consulting firm. It is worsened by a special exemption granted by Maryland state law to financial institutions. The good news is that we — that is, the Takoma Park City Council — can set the city's tax system right without sacrificing the revenue that funds city programs benefiting local businesses.

Either of two proposals would address business tax inequity. Each would offer relief to small retail businesses. One, a local-ownership exemption on inventory taxes, would cost the city only a modest revenue loss. The second, replacing the inventory tax (or perhaps all personal-property taxes, also paid by businesses on equipment and furnishings) with higher real-estate taxes, and would redistribute the tax burden and entail no revenue loss at all.

The backstory is complicated but captured in a pair of articles published earlier this year. Start with my May Takoma Voice column A tax break for Takoma Park businesses?, and then consult S&A Beads' owner Larry Silverman's Inventory tax an unfair burden.

A Local-Ownership Exemption

Takoma Park's goal should be to raise revenue sufficient to fund needed city services, via progressive taxation. By "progressive," I mean balancing fairness — Larry is right that the inventory tax means that retail businesses pay far more than service businesses for the same city services — with policy goals that include promotion of locally business ownership, which recycles profits back into the community.

This sort of policy goal led to the creation of homestead credits for real-property taxes. If you own the Maryland home you live in, the growth in real-property taxes you pay due to higher reassessment is capped at ten percent per year. That is, Maryland grants favorable tax treatment for owner-occupied residences.

The City of Takoma Park could likely offer similar favorable tax treatment for locally owned businesses, in the form of an inventory tax exemption. S&A Beads would be exempted from inventory taxes, as would the TPSS Co-op (perhaps in proportion to Takoma Park or Montgomery County ownership) and locally owed Takoma-Langley Crossroads retail businesses. (The city's ability to create a local-ownership exemption — an exemption for owner-operated businesses is an alternative, to accommodate DC and other non-Takoma Park residents with small businesses here — would need to be verified by the city attorney.)

As an aside, I disfavor a top-line inventory exclusion granted to all businesses. The inventory tax is not a significant burden for the city's largest inventory-tax payers — Advance Auto Part, Walgreen's, Aldi, and the like — and none has sought, nor deserves, tax relief.

A Shift to Real-Property Taxes

Elimination of the inventory tax, or perhaps of all city personal-property taxes on businesses, offset by higher real-estate taxes on commercial properties, is an alternative that would be a step toward business-tax equity. Property owners would pass their higher costs on to their business tenants, and Takoma Park would join those Maryland jurisdictions that offer a full or partial inventory-tax exemption.

How would this work? The city would create a new real-estate tax class, based on geographic location and use.

For comparison purposes: Rockville has four tax classes. Commercial properties within the Town Square boundaries, Class 1, are currently taxes at $0.622 per $100 assessed value, while commercial and residential properties outside Town Square, Class 50, are taxed at less than half that rate, at a $0.292 rate.

The City of Takoma Park could similarly create a class for commercial properties in commercial areas city-wide. It would include Carroll and Laurel Avenues, the storefronts at Maple and Sherman Avenues and Flower Avenue at Erie Avenue and near Piney Branch Road, and the New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard corridors. The council would task staff to calculate a rate that would offset elimination of the inventory tax, or of all personal-property taxes paid by businesses. I would suggest a phase-in over several years because to avoid punishing landlords whose tenants have multi-year leases.

The system would be progressive although not completely fair: property owners in more-desirable parts of town already pay more for city services based on valuations higher than those in less-desirable areas. I would keep it simple, however, and not apply different rates to different parts of the city.

Time to Act

I have described two approaches that address Takoma Park business tax inequity. That this bit of unfairness should be addressed, I hope all will agree. The state and county, which handle property tax assessments and payments, will need to be help. The system has been unfair for years. We can and should act now to set it right.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Jeanette Dixon and Shebra Evans for School Board; No on Term Limits

Board of Education candidates Shebra Evans and Jeanette Dixon
Your 2016 down-ballot choices matter — your votes on state and county questions and for school board.

This year, Montgomery County voters will choose three of eight Board of Education representatives and decide ballot questions that include term limits for county elected officials. Voters state-wide will decide whether to modify the procedure for filling state-office vacancies.

My recommendations:
  • Jeanette Dixon for Board of Education, at-large
  • Rebecca Smondrowski for Board of Education, District 2
  • Shebra Evans for Board of Education, District 4
  • For on Question 1 (state vacancy appointments)
  • For on Question A (special election for county executive vacancy)
  • Against on Question B (term limits for county offices)
  • For Question C (partial-term definition for county offices)
I offer no recommendation on the ballot's judicial races, and the 2016 federal races require exactly and only one sentence: I support Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine for President and Vice President and Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate, who will carry Maryland, and Jamie Raskin, who will win his race for U.S. House of Representatives, Maryland District 8.

Board of Education

Disparities in student accomplishments and resources that result from wide differences in family economic and social circumstances. Disparities are linked to race, ethnicity, neighborhood, parent educational attainment, and language skills. Yet many classrooms and schools are overcrowded, and some facilities are substandard. We aspire to equity, but we have fallen short.

Every school-board member and every candidate talks about these issues and uses words such as transparency, accountability, budgeting control, and parent engagement. The major candidate differences are elsewhere, so my 2016 electoral choices reflect an evaluation of the candidates' school involvement, energy, independence, listening and communications skills, and political and diplomatic abilities. Which candidates will make the most compelling case for additional state funding? Which will prioritize inclusion and best represent students who most need a BOE advocate, respect teacher voices, and offer sensible results?

The District 4 school board race features two newcomers who seek to replace retiring incumbent Chris Barclay. Of the two, Shebra Evans communicates strong understanding of achievement and opportunity disparities and has put time and effort into understanding community voices and building relationships. Her opponent Anjali Reed Phukan offers facile, feel-good reliance on technology and parent-child programming as solutions to overcrowding and disparities, solutions most likely to work for those who least need them. I endorse Shebra Evans.

I support Jeanette Dixon for Board of Education, at-large. Dixon will bring an educator's perspective to the board — she retired in 2013 after eleven years as principal at Paint Branch High School — with a keen understanding of east county and minority needs. Dixon's combination of knowledge, conviction, independence, outspokenness, and personal warmth adds up to compelling candidate. My only reservation, based on a house-party encounter, is an impression that she might have more to learn about local needs — in Takoma Park-Silver Spring and, I'd suspect, in other parts of the county where she doesn't have direct experience — than she realizes. Yet the promise is there, and so is my endorsement.

For another perspective on the at-large race, please consult activist Dan Reed's March 2016 essay, Why Montgomery County school board is the race to watch in 2016. And you may find myMCMedia 2016 MCPS Board of Education General Election candidate videos of value.

I endorse Rebecca Smondrowski, as the better school board District 2 choice, without comment.

Ballot Questions

Ballot Question 1 would modify the Maryland Constitution to require a special election for Attorney General or Comptroller, should a vacancy occur early in a four-year term, and to require the Governor to appoint a member of the former official's political party, or from a list provided by that party, otherwise. Direct elections to fill vacancies makes sense, as does preservation of the voters' previous party choice. I recommend a For vote on Question 1.

Questions A, B, and C are specific to Montgomery County.

Question A would allow the County Council to schedule a special election to fill a County Executive mid-term vacancy. I am For Question A.

Question B puts forward a three-term limit for County Council and County Executive offices. If it passes, voters will lose the right to choose preferred candidates. I recommend a vote Against Question B and For Question C, which should term limits pass, would not count office occupancy of less than two year as a term.

Vote Early

Montgomery County has eight days of early voting. Visit any of the ten county voting centers — they're listed online and include the Silver Spring Civic Building — October 27 to November 3, 8am - 8pm.

If you miss early voting, make sure to head to the polls on November 8, 7 am to 8 pm. Happy voting!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Parking or Public Space?

"Reclaim your City!" That's the aim of PARK(ing) Day, "an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks." Takoma Park and Montgomery County 2016 observances, on September 16, were small scale, but then turning parking to public use  I'd characterize parking as temporary personal use of public space — is not a new idea. Locally, in Takoma Park, think farmers markets, Fourth of July parade, Street Festival, Grant Avenue Market, and JazzFest, all of which displace cars, actually in those examples from both curb and street spaces. What's different about PARK(ing) Day is that it's a Friday, a weekday rather than a weekend or holiday. That's significant. Our only local weekday closure is Anne Street in Takoma Park, for the weekly Wednesday Crossroads Farmers Market that runs June to November.
PARK(ing) Day 2016, Fenton Street, Silver Spring. Photo by Eric Rasch.

Fact is that many jurisdictions have an ample supply of commercial district parking, enough to cover weekday and weekend needs. Metered street and lot parking, adding in private lots, ranges from adequate to plentiful in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Bethesda, and Rockville, the parts of Montgomery County I most often frequent, and the county and city are taking progressive steps to boost transit use, biking, and walking. Further, the growth in Uber and Lyft and the like mean reduced parking demand everywhere, as does the prospect of self-driving cars that would drop you off, park a few blocks away, and fetch you when you're ready to go.

We're reclaiming some of that supply for productive uses, for housing, businesses, and recreational space. Urban design consultant Dan Reed described one local project in a 2013 Greater Greater Washington article, "Rebuild of the Blairs will turn Silver Spring parking into parks." Reed reported that redevelopment of the Blairs parcel off East-West Highway, now underway, "would double the amount of housing and triple the amount of commercial... The shopping center, office building, and older apartment buildings would be replaced with acres of new parks, courtyards, and buildings with green roofs." That's 2,800 residential units, 450,000 square feet of commercial space and six permanent parks, according to July Bethesda magazine reporting. I'd love to see revitalization on this scale in Takoma-Langley Crossroads, where large strip malls sit behind acres of surface parking. (Here: a 2013 Urban Land Institute study of the area.) If only we could get Crossroads property owners such as B.F. Saul motivated!

A different Silver Spring project is reclaiming an obsolete Montgomery County parking garage, at Colesville Road and Spring Street, for an office building. The county sold the garage to United Therapeutics last year. The new project will include an 11,000-square-foot public plaza and 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, according to Bethesda magazine.

In Takoma, how many readers miss the Carroll Street NW surface parking lot that was replaced by Takoma Central and Busboys and Poets? I'll donate $10 to the Action Committee for Transit for each person who contacts me with an honest "I miss it."

Takoma Park's most visible current project is redevelopment of the city-owned Takoma Junction parking lot. New construction will yield around 14,000 square feet of ground-level retail space; however, developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) is bound only to "use its Best Efforts to create an accessible outdoor space devoted to year-round public use or enjoyment. By contrast, a number of community members had advocated Takoma Junction building less modest than is planned. They would dedicate lot space to community use. PARK(ing) Day writ large?

I have to say, the Main Street public-space vision is alluring. Ideas and illustrations presented by community advocate Welmoed Laanstra, at the March 2, 2015 city council meeting opened eyes to creative-reuse possibilities. The city went in a different direction, however, with the thought that doubling-down on retail space, with second-story residential or organizational use, would best serve the community, in the Junction context. The new NDC building would include TPSS Co-op expansion space. Construction will preserve public parking sufficient for the whole of the Takoma Junction commercial district. And even if plans allow only modest outdoor community space, at least we can hope for, and advocate, a deep building set-back from the street with a wide sidewalk, with a garden area that would serve pedestrians and business patrons.

I'll offer a different, better Old Takoma community-space candidate. Laurel Avenue (between Eastern and Carroll Avenues) has a light traffic load, wide pedestrian median, and close-by commercial parking lots and metered street parking. We already close the traffic and parking lanes for seven or eight hours each Sunday for the Takoma Park Farmers Market. All it takes to close either traffic side or both are saw horses and signs. Picture something Takoma-scale comparable to the blocks of Broadway in New York, cars banned since 2010, converted to pedestrian public space, and think of Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring.

An extended Takoma Park trial, on a partial, temporary, seasonal, or occasional basis, would cost very little while promising much. I can see immediate uses, for instance for expanded seasonal outdoor restaurant seating for Thai/sushi restaurant Kin Da, currently limited to a few sidewalk tables; as a place to munch your Pizza Mover's take-out or just hang out; and to support the planned Takoma Beverage Company, a cafe that is slated to open in late 2016 or early 2017. Laurel would be an ideal venue for food trucks displaced from the former Trohv location, now home to a Starbucks and the Big Bad Woof. All that's needed is tables and chairs. And the block has potential as a performance and meeting space that the Takoma Junction lot lacks. Laurel Avenue performers and speakers wouldn't be vying with the noise from four lanes of Route 410 traffic that often includes emergency vehicles.

Elsewhere in Takoma Junction, on a smaller scale, we could give over a couple of street parking spaces on Grant Avenue to Spring Mill Bread, which the business explored during a few of the Grant Avenue market street closures. Same with Dolci Gelati, if the business wishes, or the Italian restaurant planned by Dolci Gelati's owners for the adjacent Carroll Avenue storefront, and the Black Lion restaurant and Peter's Sub Shop at Maple and Sherman Avenues. Any other suggestions? Nothing permanent, just repurposing à la PARK(ing) Day, but everyday rather than one day.

It has been many years since developers, planners, and engineers laid out our streets. Times have changed — transportation choices, public priorities, and our sense how to best use shared community resources — so we revisit streetscape choices made decades ago. We add traffic calming, Bikeshare, bike lanes, and raised crosswalks, and we redevelop and downsize excess parking to create commercial opportunity and new housing and to boost community vitality. Montgomery County efforts have transformed Silver Spring. Takoma Park can also move forward. Progress will take persuasion in Takoma-Langley Crossroads, perseverance in Takoma Junction, vision in Old Takoma, and actually only a small experiment at at Maple and Sherman.

"Reclaim your City!" Let's make that PARK(ing) Day mantra ours, every day.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Does Starbucks Signal a New Takoma?

Starbucks is coming to Takoma, to a storefront location at Carroll and Maple Streets, NW. Expect the company's latest outlet — number 24,000-and-some — to open this fall.

Starbucks will arrive soon in Takoma soon, at Carroll and Maple Streets, NW
We've debated benefits and concerns. Negative responses to a late-2015 Old Takoma Business Association poll were illuminating, but didn't deter Starbucks. Preferences for independent rather than chain businesses, expressed for instance in POPville blog comments, are noble but ultimately moot.

We're now beyond speculation substantiated only by construction-worker chatter. A June 9 construction permit application, posted online at, reveals plans for a 2,055 sq.ft. space with (up to) 50 seats and 94 "occupant load."

I asked the company about plans. Received July 21: "We are happy to confirm that we will be opening a new location in the Takoma community, at 232 Carroll St NW, Washington DC, this fall. While we don't have an exact opening date just yet, feel free to check back in the coming weeks."

What does Starbucks' arrival mean for Takoma?

Urbanizing Takoma

Starbucks will offer Takoma residents and visitors a new third space — neither home nor office, less formal than a restaurant, large enough to serve as a drop-in place to meet or work or just hang out. Takoma is short on this sort of community space. We have only one, the very popular Capital City Cheesecake. Based on CCC's draw, I expect Starbucks to similarly attract a strong daytime crowd.

La Mano Coffee Bar has obvious cause for concern. La Mano is a small, independently owned business, down the block from the Starbucks site. La Mano does have a couple of significant assets. La Mano's coffee and food are far, far better than Starbucks'. I'm confident local fans will remain loyal. We'll do our best to make sure that La Mano survives.

Reality is that a few chain outlets won't harm our community, particularly when contained within a neighborhood friendly shell, as the Carroll Avenue Starbucks will be. Contrast with the CVS directly across the street, and with the nearby 7-Eleven: Both surrounded by parking, with out-of-place suburban-sprawl designs. The existence of those poor-fit chain outlets hasn't destroyed Takomaness, nor will Starbucks.

Fortunately, new Old Takoma construction, in recent years, has respected our urbanizing business district. The Takoma Central building, with Busboys and Poets sidewalk seating, is a positive addition to the neighborhood. The proposed Neighborhood Development Company building in Takoma Junction, despite the possible undesirable compromise of streetscape space for truck unloading, will revitalize the junction as an attractive commercial destination.

I'd welcome more of the same, business-district commercial and mixed-use development, that is. I suspect that we're going to see it in the coming years, in Takoma DC in particular. Quite a few low-density commercial parcels are in very close proximity to the Takoma Metro station, a transit hub, therefore attractive targets for redevelopment.

Candidate #1, for me at least, would be the properties directly behind the commercial strip stretching from new Starbucks locations to the railroad right-of-way. Check out this photo, with the Elevation 314 apartment building, shown from the rear, to the left. Imagine a new, multi-story, office/commercial/professional building — think new local employment and business-opportunity space, steps from a transit hub, utilizing the 50-foot height allowed by the site's C-2-A zoning — replacing the current low-grade, low-density use.

Low-density, low-grade commercial use a block from Takoma's Main Street, Carroll Avenue

There are other candidates. The current Barac rental office on 4th Street NW, a single-story building with a surface parking log, underutilizes close-to-transit commercial space. So does the Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home on Carroll Street Street NW, which seems to host very few funerals.

Slow to grow

Takoma commercial-district growth has been slow.

Rumor has it that Starbucks' or similar designs on Takoma Junction led the City of Takoma Park to buy the property there that's now slated for redevelopment. The site's high volume of vehicle traffic would surely have been an attraction. I shudder to think that the business might have included a drive-up service window in their building, to harvest all that traffic. If so, that's a bullet we dodged, and now we have a site-appropriate redevelopment project underway.

Supposedly Starbucks looked at the former Taliano's restaurant space on Carroll Avenue — Old Takoma Ace Hardware opened there in 2009 —but shied away because of low daytime traffic. But that was nearly a decade ago.

Since then, Takoma has added many hundreds of new residential apartment units. The 99 Willow & Maple units are steps from the new Starbucks location, and Takoma Central, with 150 units, is directly across the street. (The planned Takoma Metro development project appears to have stalled, however. Developer EYA did not respond to my request for an update.) The addition of new residents provides the daytime numbers that justified a Starbucks bet, I'd infer.

Yet many Takoma storefront locations remain vacant. They include Takoma Central retail space and large spaces in the Willow Street NW building owned by Douglas Development.

Otherwise, Old Takoma storefront vacancy rates are generally low, excepting spaces in Takoma Junction that are in transition. Some businesses do face patronage challenges. The restaurants in the stretch from Horace & Dickie's and Evolve on 4th Street NW, to Republic and Roscoe's on Carroll Avenue, by way of Busboys and Poets, Mark's Kitchen, and the Middle East Cuisine, aren't doing anything close to the weekday lunch and afternoon business they could. That's because employment-wise, Takoma Park — Washington DC's first instance of transit-oriented development — is a "bedroom suburb." Residents commute elsewhere to work. Business-district urbanization, focused on Takoma DC, close to the Takoma Metro station, will change the equation.

New commercial/office/mixed-use development would be a strong positive, boosting local businesses and providing local, transit-friendly employment and business-creation opportunities. I read the Takoma arrival of Starbucks, a business that relies on daytime patronage, as a bet on that future. I'd prefer our new business neighbor were other than Big Coffee, but I welcome Starbucks' vote of confidence and the future it signals.


For the record: Starbucks' construction permit filing, downloaded July 18, 2016 from Click to view the full image —

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Tax Break for Takoma Park Businesses?

Should Takoma Park eliminate its tax on business inventories? 

An Old Takoma business, S&A Beads, has made just that request to the city council. The council deferred the question to a future worksession, but let's get a jump on the council and consider it now.

Let's start with facts --

The inventory tax is part of the personal property tax (PPT), paid by businesses on their furniture, equipment, computers, and inventory.

Do strong businesses need low taxes?
All companies that operate in Takoma Park must pay PPTs on their equipment and inventories, if any, that are located here in Takoma Park. That includes companies incorporated outside Maryland -- Walgreens, Aldi, Advance Auto Parts, and Starbucks, for example -- and incorporated home businesses. Businesses, including my own consulting company, must file annual returns with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

PPTs are the only city tax levied directly on every incorporated city business.

I mined PPT data from the Montgomery County Personal Property Tax Web site -- business PPT assessments and bills are public records -- and count 557 fiscal year 2016 (FY16) payers.

Of the 557, 180 businesses paid inventory taxes in FY16. Their inventory taxes contributed an estimated $152,323 to the city's general fund. That's about 39% of the total FY16 business PPT liability, $387,521 by my calculation if you exclude PPTs paid by public utilities.

Focusing on the inventory tax --

Five Takoma Park businesses paid inventory tax of over $5,000 in the current fiscal year:

  • Advance Auto Parts: $24,419
  • US Medical Innovations (at Carroll & Eastern): $14,333
  • Walgreens, $13,439
  • RS Legacy Corporation (Radioshack): $5,611
  • TPSS Co-op: $5,547.61
One more fact --

If the city eliminates or reduces the inventory tax, the council will have to either cut programs or make up the revenue through other means.

Where does the money go?

Business property taxes -- PPTs and real property taxes paid by commercial real-estate owners -- funds city operations and programs that benefit the businesses and their patrons and employees: police, roads and sidewalks, parks, street lights and street cleaning, and so on. They fund city business and economic development activities including the city's annual subsidies to the Old Takoma Business Association (OTBA) and the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority (CDA).

OTBA received a $37,000 subsidy in FY16. The CDA's FY16 subsidy was $30,000.

Is the inventory tax fair? Is it wise?

Here's where we get into value judgments.

Does Walgreens get fair value from the $16,320.57 the company paid in Takoma Park PPTs in FY16, and for the $15,330.40 (net of a $12,572.35 enterprise-zone tax credit) that landlord JBG Retail paid in real-property taxes? Does the House of Musical Traditions fairly benefit from FY16's $1,086.40 city PPT payment (of which $1,061.13 is inventory tax) and $2,144.03 in city real-property taxes?

My unquantified reaction is yes.

Personally, my wife and I paid the city $2,860.65 in property taxes on our home, this past year. Most residents pay city taxes, and I'm not dissatisfied with the type and level of services delivered. But should homeowners pay more, another 3/4 cent in real-property tax rate, in order to compensate for elimination of the inventory tax? I'm not feeling that I, personally, should pay to lighten the tax burden of large businesses such as Advance Auto Parts and Walgreens.

Historically, the city council has agreed. This year isn't the first the inventory tax has come up for discussion.

In 2010, when I was on the OTBA board, I headed an ad-hoc committee that looked into the question. Again mining county tax records, I found that in 2009, the Takoma Park inventory tax totaled $104,544. OTBA used that figure -- and real property taxes and non-inventory PPTs -- to argue for the annual subsidy that OTBA has now received for several years, and that the CDA now also receives.

There is no convincing argument that the inventory tax harms local businesses. As evidenced by Takoma Park's low retail vacancy rates -- in Old Takoma, along New Hampshire Avenue, and in other, smaller commercial districts -- businesses here are generally thriving. Of course there are exceptions, but we should not make policy that applies to hundreds of city businesses based on a handful of exceptions.

Are there alternatives to eliminating the inventory tax?

Yes. The city could cut its personal property tax rate, $1.55 per $100 assessed value in FY16. Councils since FY09's increased the rate in steps from $1.45/$100 that year which cutting the real-property tax rate from $0.605 per $100 assessed value in FY09 to $0.585 in FY16. I believe the council should realign the PPT rate with the real-property rate.

The city could exempt a certain amount of business inventory from taxation. I wouldn't do it. A $50,000 exemption would have cost the city $49,623 in FY16. A $100,000 exemption would have cost $75,515. The chief beneficiaries would be the large payers. Personally, I oppose any sort of tax cut that favors Advance Auto Parts, Walgreens, and Aldi... particularly one they haven't sought! Nor have the vast majority of locally owned businesses.

My call

Certainly, the city council should proceed with an inventory-tax discussion, but any councilmember who proposes reductions should also proposal off-setting service cuts or replacement revenues. That linking of tax cuts and off-sets is fair and reasonable and sound city government. My bet is that councilmembers will reach the same conclusion I did: A near-term inventory-tax reduction is not desirable or justified.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Donna Edwards for U.S. Senate

I recently asked my wife whether we could put a "Black Representation Matters" sign in our yard, alongside the "Black Lives Matter" sign we got last year. But what would my sign actually read? It would say: Donna Edwards for U.S. Senate.

U.S. Senate candidate Donna Edwards. (AFGE photo.)
Edwards is a black woman, running for a seat in a 100-member body with only two African American members and only twenty women. Senator Barbara Mikulski, one of the twenty, represents Maryland and is retiring.

Only nine African Americans have served in the Senate, ever. Barack Obama is one of the nine. Would Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley treat the president's appointments and initiatives with such disdain, were minorities represented in the Senate in proportion to their numbers?

The problem is us. Consider that Maryland has elected only one African American to statewide office in the state's entire history. In Maryland and nationwide, blacks are most often elected to state office and Congress from majority-minority districts. These districts are too-often the product of gerrymandering designed in some cases to promote a minority representative's election, in others to wall-off minorities (read: Democratic voters) to maximize the number of Republican seats.

Actually, I can think of only four woman ever elected statewide in Maryland. We're not doing so well, are we?

I have more to say on race and representation, but I will break to note that:
  • Donna Edwards is an experienced, able legislator who has represented Maryland's 4th district in Congress since 2008.
  • "Independent analyses often find that the Prince George's County lawmaker is among the most liberal members of the [House Democratic] caucus." (Baltimore Sun)
  • 64% of Maryland registered Democrats view Edwards favorably, according to a recent Washington Post-Univ. of Maryland poll. (Washington Post)
Marylanders believe Edwards cares about them and will work for them on their issues, on issues that include Social Security and Medicare, gun violence and police misconduct, and poverty, hunger, education, and opportunity. These are pressing matters.

No elected official lacks flaws. Edwards has weak points and so does her opponent Chris Van Hollen, a distinguished legislator who represents me and whom I respect immensely. The Baltimore Sun describes controversy about Van Hollen's past stands on Social Security cuts. Maryland-specific: Rep. Van Hollen was instrumental in obtaining tens of millions of dollars in federal funding for the Intercounty Connector (ICC), former Governor Robert Ehrlich's widely derided pet project, revived after Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Governor Parris N. Glendening, killed it. Better the funding had gone to transit -- the Purple Line and WMATA -- than a boondoggle highway.

How do Maryland registered Democrats see the U.S. Senate
candidates? (Washington Post)
The positions-effectiveness question is not a slam-dunk for either Senate candidate.

Overall, Van Hollen has been a model legislator, but considering the spectrum of Maryland needs, he is not the better choice. It is telling that when it comes to addressing the needs of women and of African Americans, Edwards outpolls Van Hollen by 78-56 and 74-54, respectively, according to the Post-UMd poll. These needs outweigh other priorities for me at this time, with the Democrats poised to retain the presidency and retake the Senate majority. So again I find:

Donna Edwards is the progressive candidate who is the best choice to represent the diversity of Marylanders in the U.S. Senate.

Back to the race issue. It runs deep and wide.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports, "African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.9 percent of top Senate staffers," as of April 2015.

I learned about that report from a Daily Beast article titled The US Senate: The World’s Whitest Deliberative Body. Author Keli Goff offers that view that "[b]eyond idealism, there is a very real policy deficit we face as a country when we have people who have never experienced problems firsthand, tasked with crafting solutions for those problems." She cites a lack of federal action on racial profiling and police brutality and cites the work of Senator Tim Scott, who is African American, to secure federal funding for police body cameras to address the latter problem. Goff believes "it is not a coincidence that President Obama has made college accessibility and affordability legislative priorities during his time in elected office."

Another observation, from columnist Thomas Edsall in the New York Times: "The Democratic debt to black voters is immense, and the party has not paid up." Edsall's column asks, "Will the Democrats Ever Face an African-American Revolt?" Edsall's indictment: "Public officials — and the Democratic Party — have, in point of fact, failed to deliver housing, employment, or education programs that convincingly remediate the problems of poor black families."

Edsall sees a solution in "different 'deliberate policy choices'." I'm surprised he didn't bring up the complexion of the Democratic elites. The ones we have (per Keli Goff) have never experienced the most pressing problems firsthand. They are not representing. Let's change that via our votes in the 2016 Maryland U.S. Senate race.

My wife hasn't said yes to a yard sign, but I know how I will cast my Democratic primary vote: Donna Edwards for U.S. Senate.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

For Better Police-Community Relations, Listen

Police-community relations is a sensitive topic, racially charged, critical to individuals' feelings of safety and belonging in any diverse and crime-challenged community. I wouldn't say the crime or relations situations in Takoma Park and Silver Spring are bad, but community members do have well-founded concerns about police interactions, particularly those that involve minority youth. What can the City of Takoma Park and the community do to improve relations here? Takoma Park Councilmember Terry Seamens has long pushed for police involvement in city recreation programs, and Mayor Kate Stewart, as a councilmember, promoted city funding for police-community relations consulting, currently pending. Many community members have advocated meaningful community oriented policing (COP). I'll say only that public and police understandings of COP seem to differ.

Charleston Illumination Project
Given this backdrop, I was intrigued by the Charleston (South Carolina) Illumination Project, which I learned about during a spring break vacation visit. According to the project Web site,
"The City of Charleston began a year-long project to further strengthen relationships between the citizens and police by respecting the importance of Public Safety and Individual Rights... We all want and benefit from a respectful relationship between the police and the communities they serve. We are seeking your voice to help create a plan that will help insure greater teamwork and the long-term success of our communities."
Illumination and mutual respect are essential, as is the focus on teamwork. The project includes a series of police listening sessions:
"We are looking for your hopes, concerns and plans to build open and long-lasting relationships between the police and the citizens they serve."
"We" is a foundation called the Charleston Police Fund. It's unclear when the fund was founded, but I'll note certain special circumstances in Charleston and nearby: Last June's Mother Emanuel (the Emanuel AME Church) murder of nine worshipers and the April 2015 fatal shooting, by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., of an apparently unarmed man, Walter Scott, after a scuffle following a traffic stop. Incidents of this sort don't just happen; they're the product of circumstances that foster violent, hateful, racist responses to differences.

Fortunately, we've had nothing like these incidents in Montgomery County. Our local governments have worked to avoid them. Also locally, Safe Silver Spring, a community initiative, has contributed to community-police understanding.

The City of Takoma Park issued and then reissued a request for proposals for a police-community relations consultant. The proposal deadline was January 28, but I understand that the city did not receive a strong response. Puzzling.

Regardless, the city could and should conduct listening sessions like Charleston's, actively promoted and moderated by an independent facilitator. These community relations sessions would complement the neighborhood crime meetings the police department participates in. You don't need a consultant to tell you that people like to be asked their views and to be heard. There is no better way to start learning than to listen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

County Funding Now! ... Budget Advocacy for Takoma Park Interests

It's time to speak out about Takoma Park priorities for Montgomery County budget funding!
County Executive Ike Leggett. Photo by Ed Kimmel

What are your city priorities? Me, I listed four of mine in a letter to County Executive Ike Leggett: 1) Paramedic coverage at the Takoma Park fire station; 2) Piney Branch Elementary School pool funding; 3) school capacity study funding; and 4) steps toward smooth implementation of the county's Healthy Lawns Bill.

Whether these are your county funding priorities or you have others, please do contact the county executive yourself. He is currently preparing his budget for FY17, the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2016. He needs to hear from you. I'll paste in my letter below, which you're free to adapt, or write your own. Do it soon. Mr. Leggett will present his operating budget to the Montgomery County Council by March 15. The council will then make adjustments and enact a budget in late spring.

City-County Budget Background

For those not in the know, I'll provide a bit of city-county budget background.

Takoma Park is a "full-service city"... almost. Montgomery County delivers essential services to Takoma Park residents and businesses. The county runs the public schools – education accounts for around half the annual county budget – and delivers fire & rescue services. The City takes care of the rest of the big stuff: police, public works, recreation, and more. The City does this quite effectively I'd say, for the $.585 (58.5 cent) current property-tax rate (per $100 assessed value). By contrast, Takoma Parkers pay Montgomery County property taxes at a $0.9962 (99.62 cent) current rate.

Fact #1: Fire Station 2, in Takoma Park, is one of only seven fire stations county-wide that lacks paramedic coverage. We deserve coverage and need it soon because pending Carroll Avenue bridge reconstruction, slated to start this year and to require bridge closure for at least 12 months, will cut off quick access to Washington Adventist Hospital from much of Takoma Park.

Fact #2: The Piney Branch Elementary School pool is immensely popular locally, for good reason: It's the only public swimming facility, used widely by school kids and seniors and everyone in between, in the southeast corner of the county. Yet each of the last several years Mr. Leggett has declined to fund the pool, and each year the county council restores operational funding.

Add in Fact #3: Elementary schools in our corner of the county are projected to be severely overcrowded in the coming years. The Board of Education has recommended Capital Improvements Program funding for a study to reopen a Silver Spring elementary school.

I cover Facts #2 & #3 in a December Voice item, School crunch threatens pool. And why is my fourth point a Takoma Park priority? Because Montgomery County's Heathy Lawns bill, banning non-essential, cosmetic use of synthetic chemical lawncare pesticides, was based on Takoma Park's 2013 Safe Grow Act.

On you on board with any or all of my four items? Use my text if you wish, or draft your own. But do write your own –

Letter to the County Executive

The Honorable Isiah Leggett
Montgomery County Executive
101 Monroe Street
Rockville, MD 20850

Dear Mr. Leggett,

Please accept the following comment about a few funding priorities that I hope you will consider in formulating your FY17 Montgomery County budget proposal.

1. Paramedic coverage for Fire Station 2 in Takoma Park. You have stated plans to add paramedic staffing, in the coming years, at the seven uncovered county fire stations. Please make Fire Station 2 staffing a priority, for FY17 staffing.

2. Piney Branch ES pool operational and maintenance funding. Respectfully, I believe your understanding of the pool’s physical condition is incorrect. The pool is in good operating condition and can continue operating, pretty much as-is, for several years, until a direction is decided regarding school-capacity expansion.

This pool is heavily used by lower- and moderate-income community members, especially children, who have no practical access to a public swimming facility. Further, Takoma Park property owners pay far more in Recreational Tax than the county spends on recreation services in/for Takoma Park. The needed funding is approximately $160,000; prospects are that the County Council will add the funding if you do not include it. Could we please avoid the past two years’ funding game?

3. MCPS Capital Improvements Program funding to cover evaluation of reopening of Parkside ES to relieve school overcrowding in the southeast sector of the county, as recommended by the Board of Education.

4. Adequate funding for county transition to lawncare without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, per Bill 52-14, the Healthy Lawns Bill. As you know, restrictions on county-owned property go into effect July 1, 2016. I hope you will also fund planning for public and professional-applicator education given that restrictions on private-property use go into effect on January 1, 2018

Thanks very much for considering this funding advocacy.


Seth Grimes

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Medical Marijuana, Under Attack in Takoma Park

What to make of proposed ZTA 15-13, a Montgomery County zoning bill that would restrict the location of medical marijuana dispensaries in Takoma Park?

Photo by Neeta Lind,
The proposed zoning text amendment was introduced by Councilmember Tom Hucker. It says that a medical marijuana dispensary -- dispensaries are now sanctioned by Maryland law -- may not be located, if in the Takoma Park/East Silver Spring (TPESS) overlay zone, within 500 feet of a school. (An overlay zone modifies more-general zoning rules for a certain area.)

We have been fighting for years for reform of harmful marijuana laws. Would ZTA 15-13 put in place a justified restriction, or is it an alarming recrudescence of the discredited War on Drugs?

I'm inclined to say the latter. Enough with throwing people in jail for drug offenses that shouldn't be offenses in the first place. We should be dismantling our failed marijuana policy rather than enacting new restrictions based on fears of Reefer Madness.

I don't fault Councilmember Hucker for introducing this bill. He was responding to constituent requests. I do, however, implore the Montgomery County Council not to advance the bill. Oh, and the councilmembers should note that the Takoma Park City Council, at its October 19, 2015 meeting, discussed a proposal to locate a dispensary in the Takoma Junction area. I was a councilmember at that time. We declined, by a 5-2 vote, to pursue zoning restrictions on dispensary locations.

It doesn't help the ZTA 15-13 cause that the text is a bit strange. Montgomery County Planning Board staff report, "geographic information system data depicts no CRT or NR zoned properties within the overlay zone and within 500 feet of a school." Unless there's a disagreement about measurement -- shops at the corner of Maple and Sherman Avenues in Takoma Park can't be much more than 500 feet from Piney Branch Elementary School -- the ZTA, as written, would have zero current effect. I'll add that I know of no move, underway or contemplated, to either expand Takoma Park areas zoned Commercial Residential Town (CRT) or Neighborhood Retail (NR) or within the TPESS overlay zone.

Medical marijuana is for therapeutic use. I have in mind a neighbor who approached me a few years back, when I represented Ward 1 on the Takoma Park City Council, with the concern that he could be arrested for using marijuana as a palliative for the symptoms of a degenerative disease he suffers. My neighbor and others like him in the community need a safe, reliable, convenient medical-marijuana source. There is no justification for stigmatizing these patients, for the suggestion that a dispensary is undesirable because it will be somehow sleazy, dangerous, or corrupting. Fortunately, we do have advocates on our side who include Takoma Park's own Senator Jamie Raskin, who is behind Maryland medical-marijuana legislation and other steps to reform marijuana policy. Delegate David Moon, also a Takoma Park resident, first elected to the General Assembly in 2014, has also been a strong policy-change advocate.

Policy change is needed, to end the disastrous War on Drugs, which has led to the incarceration of millions of non-violent offenders -- disproportionately African-Americans -- for drug infractions that should never have been enacted, given that the significance of the harm caused by marijuana use was never conclusively, scientifically established. The War on Drugs -- the War on Marijuana -- is little more than a suppression and control tool.

There has been strong backing state-wide for Maryland legislation to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in the last few years, and approach I favor, but initiatives have been blocked by House of Delegates Judiciary Chair Joseph Vallario. Let's hope that Speaker Michael Busch brings future bills to the floor for vote, or that Delegate Vallario is replaced following the 2018 elections.

For now --

After a January 19, 2016 public hearing, at 1:30 pm in Rockville -- you may testify or submit comment to the council -- proposed ZTA 15-13 will likely be sent to the Montgomery County Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee, which I hope will give it a negative report. Your voice matters. Please testify on January 19 or relay your view to