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