Category Archives: Montgomery County Council

Grading the County Council

By Adam Pagnucco.

Regular readers know my views on the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich by now, but let’s turn to an equally important entity: the Montgomery County Council. The county’s charter gives the council enormous powers, especially over land use, legislation and the budget, and its decisions are at least as important to the county’s direction as the activities of the executive.

The current council has four freshmen, the most at any one time since the council of 2006-2010. The freshmen include a former county department head, a former senior state government official, a former Obama White House official and one of the county’s most seasoned civic activists, so they came well-prepared to serve. In fact, they have become so ensconced at the council that they don’t seem like true freshmen any more. Overall, while the council has some internal rivalries that occasionally can be seen, it has been devoid of the open infighting that plagued many prior councils. Like them or not, they have mostly stuck together during the trials of governing.

The council’s portfolio is vast and it has made dozens of decisions in its first year. In my view, eight consequential events rise above the others. The council’s performance on these events is the determinant of its overall grade, which appears at the end. Let’s get to it.

Mid-year savings plan (January)

The new council members had hardly adjusted their dais seats when they were confronted with a $41 million budget hole, prompting a mid-year savings plan from the executive. The council – and especially the new members – could have complained, delayed and otherwise squirmed. But instead they got down to business and made the cuts in short order.

Grade: A

MCGEO agreement (March through May)

After Elrich negotiated a set of raises with the largest county employee union that included a peak raise of 9.4%, the council had to decide on their affordability. This was not easy as the union had a long history of torturing defiant politicians. But the council stuck together and unanimously forced Elrich to negotiate slightly lower raises. Expect this issue to return if Elrich negotiates more mega-raises in the face of the county’s financial problems.

Grade: A

MCPS and Montgomery College funding (March through May)

When Elrich released his first recommended budget in March, two of the losers were MCPS and Montgomery College. MCPS received a stingy 0.9% local dollar increase while the college got an absolute cut. Council Member Craig Rice, who chairs the council’s Education and Culture committee, called the budget “an education last budget.” But the council didn’t do a lot better. Yes, it cashed a big state check containing Kirwan money to help MCPS. But local funding for MCPS went up by just 1.2% and the college still took a cut.

Grade: C

OPEB raid (March through May)

One of the biggest problems with Elrich’s budget was that it relied on a $90 million raid on the county’s OPEB fund, which pays for retiree health benefits. The council grumbled about it, but approved the raid on an 8-1 vote with only Council Member Andrew Friedson dissenting. The result was a comment from Wall Street credit agency Moody’s labeling the move “a credit negative.”

Grade: D

Accessory dwelling unit legislation (January through July)

Council Member Hans Riemer’s zoning text amendment to liberalize county restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) provoked fierce opposition from Elrich and some civic activists. In other years, the legislation would have been either killed or watered down into oblivion. But this time, the council tweaked it and passed it unanimously. The legislation probably won’t result in huge waves of new ADUs, but the council took an important stand on the need to build more affordable units. The issue of affordable housing will come back over and over again during this term.

Grade: A

Public safety communications project (May through July)

When Elrich vacillated on placing the final two towers for the county’s long-standing public safety communications project even after a crippling outage, the council sprang into action. After the council threatened to override Elrich and write the towers directly into the capital project, Elrich ultimately conceded. The council would have received a better grade on this if it had not had its own history of delaying this project, but the council did the right thing in the end.

Grade: B+

Police chief search (July through September)

After the retirement of long-time police chief Tom Manger, Elrich nominated former Portsmouth police chief Tonya Chapman to succeed him. Chapman had more baggage than an airport terminal. Once the council made clear that Chapman did not have the votes for confirmation, the administration considered another nominee who had a pension benefit issue that probably required a legislative fix. That nominee did not fly either, so Elrich ultimately nominated an acceptable choice to many on the council, acting chief Marcus Jones, whom Elrich had previously rejected. This was truly historic stuff. Never before has any council imposed its will like this on an executive to ensure a high caliber nomination for one of the county’s most important positions.

Grade: A+

Fox subsidy (November)

I have written about this again and again. It could take a while, but this decision is going to come back to haunt the council.

Grade: F

Overall

Setting aside OPEB and corporate welfare for Fox, the council’s record is pretty decent on a number of issues. And the council was magnificent in forcing Elrich to hire a competent police chief. Year two should be more challenging, especially if the county’s lackluster economic performance forces tough choices on the budget.

Overall grade: B

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Navarro Doth Protest Too Much

Council President Nancy Navarro wrote a response to my blog piece, “Council Drive for Racial Equity Hits Budget Rocks,” which I published on Friday. Apparently, I hit a nerve by pointing out that the Council led by Navarro, who touts herself as a champion of racial and gender equity, has treated MCGEO, the majority female and majority minority county employees’ union, much worse than other county unions.

In her reply, Councilmember Navarro states that “Actually, the Council did approve generous raises for all of our employees (approximately 6 percent)—that achieve parity among all our negotiating groups. . .” Navarro omits the critical detail: the Council under her leadership has now awarded two deferred step increases to IAFF, FOP and MCEA but not to MCGEO—the only union in which women and minorities compose a majority.

Councilmember Navarro goes on to declare “to tie the Council’s approved raises . . . to racial inequities and social injustice, as Mr. Lublin does, is a baffling stretch.” Actually, it’s Councilmember Navarro who made the link in her declaring closing the racial income gap a matter of racial inequity. As the Council has now given two deferred step increases to three unions with white majorities but not the majority-minority union, the logic is very straightforward. Conversations held since I published the piece indicate that at least some of her colleagues agree.

The other rationale Councilmember Navarro highlights is agreement with my own concern about the growth of tax revenue relative to spending. She even highlights my point that most county residents haven’t received pay raises to makeup for stagnant wages during the economic crisis.

One could argue that this renders her support for not just one but two deferred step increases for MCEA, IAFF and FOP along with a major property tax hike perplexing. It also doesn’t explain why, having gone down the road of awarding deferred step increases, that two were given to MCEA, IAFF and FOP but none to majority-minority and majority female MCGEO.

There may well be other excellent policy reasons, such as pay differentials in the private sector for equivalent work, for awarding increases to all the unions except MCGEO. But Councilmember Navarro doesn’t make the case. Nor does it mean that it doesn’t still result in greater racial inequities. Rolling back MCGEO’s raises was the major budget decision made by the Council this year. Governing often entails tough choices.

Finally, Councilmember Navarro highlights a number of positive measures related to equity that the Council approved as part of the budget. A more complete discussion would have mentioned that many of these measures were already in County Executive Marc Elrich’s budget, which the Council essentially approved in toto.

The Council also made a number of positive additions, but these were possible solely because Elrich took the highly unusual and generous step of leaving $10 million unallocated for the Council to use. He was then more than happy to approve the additions as wholly in line with his priorities. While some councilmembers attacked Elrich for his pains, a little credit sharing along with the credit claiming would not only be more honest but make all involved look more gracious and like leaders.

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Council President Navarro Responds

Good to see that even after time away from Seventh State that I can still touch a nerve with powerful officials. Today. I am pleased to present Council President Nancy Navarro’s response to yesterday’s post on how the “Council Drive for Budget Equity Hit the Budget Rocks.” I hope to have mine up on Monday.

The Seventh State’s May 30 post by David Lublin, “Council Equity Drive Hits the Budget Rocks,” incorrectly describes where the County Council is, in creating a Racial Equity and Social Justice Policy for Montgomery County. We do not yet have a policy. In 2018, I spearheaded Resolution 18-1095 that was adopted unanimously by the Council to start the process of the policy, which we plan to adopt later in the fall, after community input.

The post also leaves the reader with the erroneous impression that by not fully funding the salary increases originally negotiated by County Executive Elrich with MCGEO that we are somehow not committed to racial equity. Actually, the Council did approve generous raises for all our employees (approximately 6 percent)—that achieve parity among all our negotiating groups and that are sustainable for our county. Most MCGEO employees will receive salary increases of between 5.75 to 6.75 percent. Racial equity and social justice are urgent moral and socio-economic endeavors for our community and county leaders, however, to tie the Council’s approved raises of about 6 percent for each employee, to racial inequities and social injustice, as Mr. Lublin does, is a baffling stretch.

In fact, beyond the raises, the fiscal year 2020 operating budget makes several investments needed to assist our more than one million residents and focuses on initiatives and programs that will help to dismantle inequities. Some examples of these priorities, many of which I championed, include: fully funding the Board of Education’s request; adding $3.1 million to Montgomery College’s budget to provide $314.7 million for higher education; providing $84.1 million for Head Start and pre-k programs; earmarking $7 million in resources for the Early Care and Education Initiative, which I initiated; providing $327.8 million for the Department of Health and Human Services; earmarking $65.2 million for the Housing Initiative Fund; providing an additional $1 million to make Kids Ride Free an all-day service, as recommended by Councilmember Glass; and increasing Recreation Department programs that serve youngsters after school. We were able to make these strategic investments, while also providing our outstanding county government employees with substantial salary increases.

Finally, Mr. Lublin makes the following observation. “The increases are well above growth in our relatively stagnant tax revenues. Few county residents have received extra pay increases to make up for anemic wage growth during the economic crisis. I know I didn’t.” The Council agrees with him; that is why we adopted affordable but fair raises for our employees. Achieving racial equity and social justice in Montgomery County is a monumental task that demands access to opportunities for all residents. I encourage Mr. Lublin to engage with us in this process. I can assure him that I do not need to tout how “woke” I am. As the only Latina ever elected to the Montgomery County Council and the lone woman currently serving among eight men as president, I along with a significant percentage of our County residents, live it every day.

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Council Equity Drive Hits the Budget Rocks

The Montgomery County Council has repeatedly focused on racial and gender equity. Supported by the entire Council, Councilmember Nancy Navarro sponsored legislation that requires a racial equity analysis of each piece of legislation. Councilmember Evan Glass sponsored successful legislation this year that bans consideration of salary history in an effort to promote pay equity between male and female county employees.

While these primarily symbolic acts passed easily, the Council flinched from much more meaningful action when it passed the budget this year.

County unions negotiated some stonking good raises with County Executive Marc Elrich this year. Analyses by Adam Pagnucco understandably focused on the politics of the raises for unions that supported Elrich. It’s certainly true that the unions supported Elrich, but the nature of the way that Montgomery negotiates union contracts propelled these raises forward and also merits attention.

Montgomery negotiated first with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and reached agreement without mediation or arbitration. The Firefighters union (IAFF) went next. These negotiations ended up in arbitration, as required by the contract when the two sides cannot agree. The arbitrator mandated generous raises for IAFF employees, which the county executive was contractually obliged to support during the budget process.

The unions aren’t supposed to talk to each other about these negotiations, but what do you think the chances are that doesn’t happen? As a result, there was no way MCGEO, the county employee union, was going to settle for any less. One imagines that the county executive was ill-positioned to talk them down, knowing the results from the previous arbitration (and knowing that MCGEO also knew even though they theoretically did not).

The County Council understandably viewed these raises as budget busters. The increases are well above growth in our relatively stagnant tax revenues. Few county residents have received extra pay increases to make up for anemic wage growth during the economic crisis. I know I didn’t.

The Council chose to sharply reduce the pay increase projected for MCGEO, the county employee unions, which on top of a COLA and step increase had included an additional 3.5% for a step increase that got deferred during the economic crisis. The police union (FOP) received the same deferred step increase, but the council left it untouched.

While MCGEO members have received no deferred step increases, the other county unions have been much more fortunate. Not just FOP and IAFF employees but also MCEA employees (the teachers’ union) have now received two apiece due the actions of this and past councils.

Unlike the membership of the IAFF or FOP, MCGEO is the only union of the three that is both majority female and majority minority. In cutting salaries for MCGEO, the County Council directly eliminated spending that would have done far more to promote racial and gender equity than the more symbolic legislation sponsored by Navarro and Glass.

From budgetary and policy perspectives, the Council choices made sense. The MCGEO raise had the biggest impact on the budget because they represent far more people than FOP and IAFF. Moreover, police and fire protection are core services. My guess is that most county residents would rather see firefighters and police officers receive pay increases than, say, county liquor store employees represented by MCGEO.

It was the right decision. Indeed, one could easily argue that the Council should have cut more from all of the union pay raises because tax revenues have regularly disappointed with the county seemingly facing budgets shortfalls with the predictability of humidity in August.

MCGEO remains an easier target than the sacred cows of education (MCEA) and first responders (FOP and IAFF). However, along with Department of Liquor Control (DLC) employees, MCGEO also represent people like prison guards, sheriffs, social workers, librarians, and snow plow drivers. Many engage in dangerous and difficult work.

Perhaps county councilmembers should spend less time touting how woke they are in the future. When it came to spending hard cash, the Council blinked and reduced the negotiated salaries of the predominantly female and minority union even as it once again protected pay increases for the other two unions. Reality bites.

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Was Montgomery College Funding Cut? Councilmembers Clash

After what I thought would be a relatively non-controversial post about the huge asset that Montgomery College is to the county, I received a request for a correction from Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large):

David, while I certainly agree that Montgomery College is a gem, it is not true that the Council cut the budget for MC. The Council increased the budget for MC. The college will receive about $2.5 million more this year than last year. The Council even increased the amount for the College over what Ike recommended, by $750,000.

Craig Rice wanted even larger increases. We weren’t able to provide them due to our fiscal constraints.

I would like to request a clarification. To forward the assertion that we have cut the College’s budget is not accurate.

Hans

I appreciate Hans taking the time to lend his view and provide more information on the subject. I asked Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2) for his perspective. He took the time to provide a very thoughtful discussion of the topic that is well worth reading for its insight into the process and the politics:

David,

I think the best way to explain it to you is the same way in which Montgomery County public schools does their budget. The board of trustees and the president come together with a budget that supports not only the additional programming but the overall expenses for the college in the particular year.

Then they present this budget to the county executive who then presents it to the County Council. The county executive reduced or cut the approved budget that was approved by the board of trustees and the president. That then was sent over to us at the county council. We (education committee and then full council) decided to restore some of those reductions or cuts to the tune of $750,000 but still left $1.1 million in cuts or reductions from the college’s approved budget.

Now while technically this is an increase over last year due mainly to MOE just as Montgomery County public schools has an increase every year if we were to not fund maintenance of effort or not find the Board of Education to request it would be seen as a reduction i.e. cut.
And the crux of the issue is this. Montgomery college was very clear that it was stuck in a hard place between deciding on funding negotiations or funding equity gap programs or increasing tuition. We had a choice on the council to not force them to make that decision. But that did not happen.
The other challenge is that Montgomery college actually already reduced/cut their budget to adjust to the numbers that the county executive was hinting that they needed to be at anyway. To then layer on another reduction on top of what they had already proposed initially is why the college was severely at a disadvantage.
Craig Howard can give you exact numbers related to the college in terms of what they actually gave up. I have attached the packet for MC from Craig Howard which has more detail than you’d ever want.  http://montgomerycountymd.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=169&clip_id=14923&meta_id=154281
Thanks,
Craig Rice
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Clash on the Issues, Part III: Blame It on the Alcohol

This is the third in a series about the issue positions of candidates in District 1 based on the debate hosted by Friends of White Flint. Today’s topic: what do the candidates think about the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control’s alcohol monopoly?

Time to Get Off the Sauce: Candidates for Privatization

Bringing levity to the debate on several occasions, Pete Fosselman started by bluntly stating “I like my liquor” to laughter from the crowd. He proposes letting the county retain control of hard liquor but privatizing the sale of beer and wine, arguing that the change would boost in Montgomery restaurants. As an industry that makes most of their money on alcohol sales, they watch this aspect of the business carefully.

Andrew Friedson spoke passionately in favor of privatization. Fighting back against those concerned about the loss of revenue generated by the monopoly, Friedson stated “I believe government should be judged on how well it serves people, not how well it makes money.” Moreover, he argued that the monopoly costs Montgomery revenue, as it is hard to explain why alcohol sales are 41% lower here than elsewhere in the region unless you think Montgomery has “a secret temperance movement.”

Meredith Wellington agreed with Friedson, saying thoughtfully that the monopoly is a symptom of the county’s problematic approach. Arguing that government can’t do everything, Wellington said that we want entrepreneurial people in the county and need to work with them to help us market the county to businesses.

Though concerned about losing the union jobs, Reggie Oldak also thinks the county should not be in the liquor business, pointing out that $30 million is not much in a $5.5 billion budget. She shouldn’t worry so much. Private liquor distributors are also unionized. Why should the county should favor jobs with one union over another?

They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab, I Said No, No, No: Candidates against Privatization

Bill Cook believes that privatizing the liquor industry would be a huge loss for the county because we’d lose $30 million and those “great paying union jobs.” Taking perhaps an unusual tack, he then proceeded to attack of his own potential constituents, Total Wine Co-Owner David Trone, who lives and has located the headquarters of his business in District 1.

Stating that there is “nothing wrong” with the county selling liquor and endorsed by UFCW 1994 MCGEO, Ana Sol Gutiérrez favors modernization, not privatization. She says that “significant steps have been taken” in terms of improvements. I wonder if she also thinks Metro escalators rarely break down. Gutiérrez likes that we can take on new debt by bonding the revenue stream. In other words, the county is fiscally hooked on alcohol.

Jim McGee opposes privatization but favors modernization. Unfortunately, that has been promised for years but is much like waiting for Godot. They say that it’s coming. But when is it coming? At the same time, McGee thinks it is too hard for microbreweries to distribute their product.

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Clash on the Issues, Part II: is Ballooning Debt a Problem?

This is the second in a series about the issue positions of candidates in District 1 based on the debate hosted by Friends of White Flint. Today’s post looks at whether the candidates are concerned about the share of the county budget going to service debt, which is approaching 20% according to the question.

Ana Sol Gutiérrez doesn’t see County debt as a problem and views it is analogous to a home mortgage, leaving me hoping that we don’t end up under water like so many home owners. She has confidence in analyses showing the county is financially stable but also expressed interest in finding “other funding streams,” which sounds like taxes. Throughout the debate, however, she referred to mysterious state-level funds that the county had left untapped, a perplexing claim from a this long-time delegate on the appropriations committee who should be well placed to direct funds to the County.

In a similar vein, Bill Cook commended the Council for its balanced budget and well-funded rainy day fund, and blamed “reckless” development without appropriate impact taxes for placing additional burdens on county residents.

Reggie Oldak took a more centrist position, arguing that too much debt is a burden and Montgomery needs to preserve its AAA bond rating. At the same time, she agreed it is shortsighted not to spend on the safety net, leaving me a bit concerned as debt should go to capital, not operating, expenses.

Noting a lot of agreement among the candidates, Jim McGee took a similar position. He views debt as an “investment in the future” but also says we need to see the return on the investment. He also noted aptly that interest rates are rising, so debt will cost more in the future. Economic growth is the real solution to this problem.

Meredith Wellington was the first to express directly that she is very concerned about the debt gobbling up more of our budget even as revenues have not bounced back and we’ve raised taxes. She supports the affordability guidelines, even though they constrain the county’s ability to borrow, and said we need to set priorities. In short, Wellington was the first to identify rightly that growing debt and flat revenues is not a sustainable fiscal path, and that the county will have to make real choices as a result.

Andrew Friedson concurred with Wellington. He countered Gutiérrez’s home mortgage analogy directly, arguing cogently that we cannot do the equivalent of taking out a bigger mortgage or taxing our way out of it. There is certainly little appetite for increased property or income taxes in Montgomery, especially in the wake of the County’s big tax hike.

Showing his expertise on the topic, Pete Fosselman noted the $375 million paid in interest last year and the $120 million hole in the current budget. He’s concerned about the County’s AAA bond rating, arguing that we need fiscal discipline and to work better to provide services through nonprofits even as we stop funding politically connected “sock puppet nonprofits.”

Once again, voters appear to have a real choice, as candidates expressed broad differences on both debt as a problem and the solutions. All should be concerned with the county bond rating because lower bond ratings mean we pay more in interest and can afford less. As Wellington identified, and Friedson and Fosselman agreed, we are not on a sustainable fiscal path, so debt should be a real concern. The era of difficult choices is far from over.

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Clash on the Issues, Part I: Recruiting Amazon

This is the first in a series about the issue positions of candidates in District 1 based on the debate hosted by Friends of White Flint. Candidates clashed greatly on whether and how to pitch White Flint as Amazon’s future location. While all touted Montgomery County’s assets, there was enormous disagreement on providing tax incentives.

Jim McGee argued against doing anything to recruit Amazon to Montgomery. He’s outraged that Jeff Bezos makes “$35 billion per year” and opposes the siting of the equivalent of “two Pentagons” here. While correct that Bezos is wealthy, though missing that it’s for creating a world-beating company, this analysis ignores both Amazon’s duty to its shareholders or the reality of its economic power to command incentives. McGee admitted candidly that he was “probably not the right guy” to make the pitch to Amazon.

Bill Cook wants the jobs but is “not willing to prostrate” before Amazon. He’d tell Jeff Bezos that he doesn’t need the money and you already have a mansion in Kalorama. Cook says he knows that Amazon is coming to Washington but won’t be going to DC or Fairfax because “the schools suck are terrible.” Neither true nor the way I’d put it. The Washington area provides three excellent candidates but Cook’s attitude would assure that Amazon doesn’t come to Maryland.

In contrast to these wildly unrealistic, populist views of the world, Reggie Oldak countered that it would be great if Amazon came, pointing out astutely that we are giving tax breaks, not subsidies, and that collecting 90% of something is better than 100% of nothing. Additionally, we’d receive transit funding from the State. Indeed, the tax breaks are spaced over many decades based on Amazon spending many times more in salaries.

Several candidates, such as Andrew Friedson, pointed out the attractiveness of our location near DC and three airports along with our transit system, educated workforce and excellent school system. Citing Montgomery as a diverse and welcoming community, Pete Fosselman argued emphatically that the tax breaks don’t outweigh the “phenomenal” long-term benefits. Fosselman also pointed out the State’s new funding for Metro along our planned BRT system as real positives in our recruitment pitch.

Demonstrating her planning skills, Wellington also emphasized our great location and said agreed with Pete Fosselman’s support for the Council’s recent zoning changes shortening the comment period for the site, perceptively pointing out the most important discussions occur before the submission of the plan. She’d work to make sure that Amazon’s new building integrate well into the community.

Ana Sol Gutiérrez said “Let’s make a deal. We can both win” but did not outline the sort of deal she’d expect or support. Gutiérrez said that the Governor is enticing Amazon with tax credits but wanted to know what we would gain from Amazon, saying that it’s not about the jobs but the diversity. I suspect most would disagree with Gutiérrez and say that it is, in fact, about the jobs, pointing out that Amazon’s arrival here would provide opportunities for our diverse workforce and assure that all people hired by Amazon, or the many businesses its arrival would spawn, would be covered by Montgomery’s protections for employees.

Unfortunately, Dalbin Osorio was ill and unable to attend the debate, which was too bad as he was a lively and interesting candidate at the first debate.

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Riemer Property Tax Reversal Begins Council Presidency

How quickly times change.

Last week, Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1) proposed allowing Montgomery County residents to prepay their property taxes in the hopes of shielding them from the new federal tax limit of $10,000 on state, local and property tax deductions coming into force in 2018.

In Montgomery County, a proposal that shows opposition to Trump and allows many to save money on their taxes is bound to be a political winner. Putting it bluntly, supporting this proposal didn’t take a smarter political nose than the Lord gave a gopher.

Apparently, that still left not just the gophers but also Roger well ahead of his colleagues, including newly minted Council President Hans Riemer. Facing his first major public test as Council President, he explained to Bethesda Beat lo these five days ago:

“I think a lot of people felt there are so many uncertainties and unknown impacts for us to rush into this,” Riemer said.

He noted that council members would have had to support the policy without holding a public hearing or debating the measure publicly. Riemer also said the plan may result in less income tax revenue for the county.

In a memo to County Executive Ike Leggett, Riemer summarized:

[W]e believe that the serious risks of hasty action over the next ten days, for both our taxpayers and the County itself, outweigh the possible benefits.

Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large) strongly supported Riemer’s inaction:

“Roger jumped in with both feet,” Leventhal said. “But a majority of council members said no. We have a lot of conflicting priorities now and we’re facing a budget crunch. We’d be causing confusion and distress right before the holidays.”

This may well be the first time anyone has described having to pay less in taxes as a source of “distress” (!) Leventhal has loudly touted his opposition to all things Trump but blinked when he had a chance to take meaningful action. Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At Large) also backed Riemer:

[Elrich] said he didn’t want to support a proposal that is predicted to mostly benefit wealthy people who own expensive properties. If the county loses revenue as a result of the policy, it would likely result in cuts to county services for low-income residents, he said.

He described the policy as a “good political gimmick,” but added, “I wouldn’t want to run a government that way.”

An avalanche of opposition to this decision led to a Christmas miracle. The magic of constituent pressure caused the impossibility of a public hearing and the “serious risks of hasty action” highlighted by Riemer to melt like so much globally-warmed snow:

Riemer said the council will introduce a bill Tuesday, hold a public hearing and vote on it to allow the prepayments. . .

“If that’s what residents want, we’re going to make it possible for them to do it,” Riemer said Saturday.

“The urgency of this issue has really grown,” Riemer said. “We totally understand there are a lot of people that want to take advantage of this opportunity if we can create it.”

The Council had no idea the level of constituency anger – not to mention threat to political futures – over failure to act on this issue. Hence the growth in urgency over just a couple of days.

Despite having authored a post entitled “They Just Don’t Get It,” it was a still a forehead-hits-keyboard moment to discover that many councilmembers didn’t grasp that residents would prefer to save substantial sums on their federal taxes or thought that they woudn’t notice that other jurisdictions didn’t find the idea of collecting early property taxes too daunting.

Yesterday, Riemer explained the Council’s reversal to Bethesda Beat:

Council President Hans Riemer said that council members initially believed only the “most affluent” would benefit from prepayment, but later came to believe “it will benefit the middle class.”

He said council members heard from retirees, teachers and others who said the benefits would be significant enough for them to rush to put together the prepayment.

This explanation is more shocking than the reasons for his initial demurral. It means that Hans and his colleagues – the people who set our tax rates – don’t have much of a sense of how much their constituents earn or pay in taxes.

Adam Pagnucco outlined the effect of Republican tax proposals in Montgomery on December 4. I did the same on September 30. Neither post was exactly a revelation on this point, but Riemer says it was news to him.

Riemer was not alone in his inelegant pirouette. Leventhal and Elrich also reversed their positions, though Elrich continued to highlight concerns regarding budgetary impacts. Berliner’s County Executive Campaign is rather understandably touting his leadership on this issue in an email blast:

Aptly,“Bravo! You were the one that made it happen,” was one of the first constituent emails in Roger’s inbox today. As a result of his hard work, 40% of our county’s residents who itemize their property taxes can prepay and potentially save thousands of dollars before the $10,000 cap goes into effect in 2018. . .

Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2) was the only councilmember to stick to his guns and vote against the bill:

Rice said he opposed the bill because it will primarily benefit wealthy people. He said wealthy people already received tax breaks in the federal legislation and are going to be given another break by the county.

While probably a politically tough vote and somewhat unusual for the pro-business councilmember, Rice is at least saved from having to explain an abrupt change of heart. Moreover, Rice has a point. The people who itemize and will benefit from the deduction are unquestionably more towards the upper end of the spectrum. Those who pay higher rates will save even more by shielding income from taxation.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that the great bulk of these people aren’t also middle class by local standards, especially when you consider the cost of living and the heaving mortgages that many people carry to buy a home here. Retirees who don’t have escrow accounts – and vote in large numbers – are also prone to notice the impact.

In the wake of the ignominious Council climb down, conservatives and business types can enjoy the spectacle of many progressive tribunes of the people, such as Councilmember Tom Hucker (D-5), loudly trumpeting how they saved you from higher taxes.

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Gabe Albornoz Qualifies for Matching Funds

The following is a press release from Gabe Albornoz’s campaign for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council:

Press Release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Gabe Albornoz Reaches Matching Funds Threshold for At-Large County Council Race

Kensington, MD – Gabe Albornoz, a Democratic candidate for an At-Large seat on the Montgomery County Council, announced that he had received over $20,000 and 250 contributions from Montgomery County residents. Albornoz’s campaign will be qualified to receive matching funds from the Montgomery County Public Campaign Financing Program upon certification by the Maryland State Board of Elections.

“I’m humbled and honored to receive this support. The Campaign Finance Program is working and has ensured that Montgomery County residents set the tone of our politics. I’m pleased that our campaign is playing a role in democratizing our county’s politics to give more power to people,” Albornoz said.

“I am very pleased to hear that Gabe has achieved this important milestone in his campaign. He has earned a reputation for strong leadership, collaboration and commitment to public service, which is why I’m happy to endorse his campaign,” said Councilmember Nancy Navarro.

At-Large candidates for County Council must receive at least 250 qualifying contributions, totaling at least $20,000, in order to qualify for a public financing, according to a law previously passed by the Council. Only contributions of up to $150 per election cycle from Montgomery County residents qualify for matching funds. Candidates in the program cannot accept any contributions from special interest groups, businesses, political action committees, unions, or political parties. Participating candidates are eligible to receive up to $250,000 in matching funds during the primary and general election campaigns.

“We are grateful to Gabe’s many supporters and their confidence in him to represent them as a member of the County Council. Gabe’s message of optimism for Montgomery County has been enthusiastically received,” said Campaign Chairman Chuck Short.

Albornoz is a lifelong Montgomery County resident and a past Chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. He is the current Director of the Montgomery County Recreation Department. He was appointed to that role by County Executive Ike Leggett in January 2007.

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