Category Archives: Montgomery County

M-83 Supporters Get a Win

By Adam Pagnucco.

Back on November 3, David Lublin wrote that the County Council had placed the planned Upcounty highway M-83 “in the freezer.”  We agree with that take with one addition: if and when M-83 comes out of that freezer, it will be ready to serve.  That’s because instead of killing the road, the resolution passed by the County Council has preserved it for a future county government to build.

To understand what has happened, one has to consider the goals and challenges of road supporters and opponents.  The supporters want to fund its construction.  That’s tough because the road will cost roughly half a billion dollars and the county is reducing its annual issues of general obligation bonds to trim future debt service.  Opponents want to remove the road from the county’s master plans.  They believed they had a chance to do that since six Council Members said they opposed M-83 during the 2014 elections.  But that has not happened.

The council’s resolution, passed on Halloween, did not implement the agendas of either side.  Its action language is worth reading word for word.

The County Council for Montgomery County, Maryland approves the following resolution:

  1. The Council supports expanded capacity on I-270, the Corridor Cities Transitway, Bus Rapid Transit on or near MD 355, and improvements on MD 355. These improvements will provide significant, immediate relief for Upcounty residents. These improvements align with our economic development strategies, providing the broadest and most diverse benefits, and minimize impervious surface, stormwater runoff, carbon emissions, and other environmental impacts.

  2. The Council directs the Montgomery County Planning Board not to assume additional road capacity from the northern extension of Midcounty Highway when calculating the land use – transportation balance in future master plans, including but not limited to the upcoming Gaithersburg East Master Plan and the Germantown Plan for Town Sector Zone. This step ensures that any new development allowed under these plans does not rely on the northern extension of Midcounty Highway, while retaining the right-of-way for this extension in these plans.

Road supporters did not like the omission of M-83 from the list of projects supported by the council.  They should have no argument with the idea of not including M-83’s capacity in calculating infrastructure needs for future development.  That could help prevent the road from filling up immediately after it’s built (if it’s built).  But the last sentence referring to “retaining the right-of-way for this extension” is a big win for supporters of M-83.

Why does this matter?  A casual perusal of land ownership maps from the State Department of Assessments and Taxation shows massive county land holdings in the vicinity of M-83’s preferred alternative.  Identifying every one of the dozens of parcels owned by the county and county-affiliated entities there would be a time-consuming research project.

A sample of county-owned land for M-83 near Watkins Mill Road and Great Seneca Creek.

Instead, we asked the county Department of Transportation’s project manager for M-83 how much of the right-of-way for the road’s preferred alternative was currently owned by the county and state.  We received this response.

Dear Mr. Pagnucco:

Thank you for your interest in the Midcounty Corridor Study (M-83) project.  Per our preliminary assessment, approximately 60% ROW for M-83 has been dedicated or reserved and another 24% is in parklands owned by the County’s Parks.

Should you have any questions, please contact me.

Best regards,

Gwo-Ruey (Greg) Hwang, P.E.

Capital Projects Manager

That’s right, folks – the county and Park and Planning together control 84% of the right-of-way for M-83 right now.

Why does this matter?  Let’s remember the history of the Intercounty Connector.  The highway had been in master plans for decades.  As of 1997, the county and state owned more than half the right-of-way for the ICC.  The following year, Governor Parris Glendening announced he was killing the project and later told the state government to sell part of its right-of-way.  But the state did not sell off all its right-of-way and in fact purchased some of it after Glendening’s announcement.  Continued state ownership of the ICC’s right-of-way made it much easier for Glendening’s successor, Governor Bob Ehrlich, to reverse his decision and begin construction.

So it may be with M-83.  The county’s holdings of right-of-way for the project may be even greater as a percentage of its acreage than the state’s holdings of the ICC were a decade before its construction.  The resolution by the council explicitly calls for “retaining the right-of-way” in the master plans, suggesting that the county’s holdings will not be sold.  And the road has not been removed from any master plans, a key goal of opponents.

M-83 supporters should have hope.  M-83 opponents should beware.  Both sides have a lot of work to do in next year’s elections.

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Implications of the Minimum Wage Outcome

Bethesda Beat has the story:

The County Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to a compromise that will phase in the $15-per-hour wage over four years based on businesses’ size.

Under the compromise:

  • large businesses with more than 50 employees will be required to pay the minimum wage in 2021
  • businesses with 11 to 50 employees will have to pay the wage in 2023
  • small businesses with fewer than 11 employees will need to pay the wage in 2024.

The council also approved a measure to tie the wage to the inflation rate in 2022 to prevent the need to vote to increase the wage in the future.

Indexing’s Long-Term Impact

This last bit may be the most important. Indexing to inflation assures that Montgomery’s minimum will continue to rise. As a result, the gap between the minimum wage in Montgomery and elsewhere will continue to grow.

If demand for labor keeps the going rate below Montgomery’s minimum, especially as indexing drives it up, it will make the county less competitive in businesses that don’t need to be located here, though have less impact on many services that are hard to move. However, even these businesses, like restaurants, can choose where to open and we would likely see the result.

The impact on the County budget over the short term is unclear. Over the long term, it may force the County to ratchet up wages and cut other services more in lean budget times, since the County will no longer be able to limit COLAs for workers at the bottom and will have to fight wage compression.

Any future economic and budgetary pressures will be made more acute, as the popularity of indexing wages makes it politically perilous to remove. These potentially negative impacts, however, will occur enough in the future that the current crop of officials will not have to address any consequences of their actions.

Political Impact

The short-term politics are more interesting. It gives Marc Elrich a major victory to tout and undermines critiques of him as ineffective in marshaling his colleagues behind him. At the same time, the unanimous adoption of a compromise takes a lot of the juice out of the political issue as it was adopted unanimously.

Candidates can’t differentiate themselves when there is no difference on an issue. Incumbent Sidney Katz’s opponent, Ben Shnider,  regards this as a victory since he pressured Katz on the issue. But the Council’s action makes it very hard to campaign against Katz on this basis – a win for Katz.

The decline of the issue’s salience also benefits outsider candidates worried about the financial impact, as they are on the less popular side of the question. It may give an opening to County Executive Candidates Bill Frick and Rose Krasnow with the business community, which won’t like the outcome.

Roger Berliner will be grateful this issue is off the agenda and will tell business leaders that he did the best he did to mitigate its impact. Ultimately, however, he still voted for a policy they think is harmful, while Frick was willing to say publicly that minimum wage policy should be left to the state.

Frick will argue to business that his actions show that he is willing to take on tougher causes and they should get behind him. Krasnow is not yet formally in the race, which limits any lumps she can take but also prevents her from earning points on this issue. As the Maryland Lottery has spent much money to explain, “you have to play to win.”

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On Raising the Minimum Wage, Part II


Today, 7S continues yesterday’s discussion of critical issues surrounding the proposed increase in the County’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Impact on Employment

Minimum wage opponents have long argued against raising the minimum wage on the grounds that it will spur businesses to hire fewer people. The intent of the policy is to help people who are struggling get out of poverty – not unemploy them – so this is a critical question.

Proponents argue correctly that past studies have shown that moderate wage increases have not had a measurably negative impact on employment relative to neighboring jurisdictions. They can also make a case that the stagnation in the minimum wage has left it lower in real terms than in earlier eras.

Moreover, a minimum wage increase can aid the economy by giving money to people who will undoubtedly spend it because of basic needs and pent up demand, and stimulate the economy.

Of course, the impact of Montgomery’s increase on our own economy depends on whether they spend it here or in neighboring jurisdictions. Do beneficiaries live here? Do they spend their money here?

The Size of the Wage

Councilmember George Leventhal, who opposed the previous wage increase, supports this one because he didn’t think the previous one caused any problem, so the County should press forward with this one. That logic remains wholly unconvincing because one could similarly argue why stop at $15. Why not $17 or $20?

The size of the minimum wage is obviously crucial. Even if the current $11.50 hasn’t caused any problems, which some might debate based on employment figures, it doesn’t mean that a $15.00 wage – a 23% hike – will not, especially if inflation remains low over the phase-in period.

Don’t forget that various social charges tied to total wages will also rise, as will the potential wage differential with neighboring jurisdictions. The proposed $15 minimum will be twice as high as the minimum wage in Virginia.

Councilmember Elrich frames his argument in favor of the wage on what is needed to get people a living wage. A living wage, unfortunately, may be divorced from the wage that has a negative impact on the economy and employment.

The graph at the top shows the difficulty of the assessment problem. If the minimum wage had continued to increase as it did in the 1950s and 1960s, it would be much higher today. But it has tended to fall or stagnate since around 1968, which makes the argument for the increase but also suggests that the higher rate would be outside our historical experience.

Broad Economic Changes

The tight labor markets of the 1990s resulted in wage increases and substantial reductions in poverty.  In contrast, the magnitude of the financial crisis left tremendous slack in the labor market and current low unemployment rates don’t reflect that there is much room for discouraged workers to enter the labor force.

At the same time, wages have stagnated during post-2000 economic recoveries, making it unclear that tighter labor markets will increase wages. The Republican focus during the 2000s on directing ever more money in tax cuts to the wealthy while cutting services only accentuated this trend – an experiment the Republicans seem intent on repeating.

As has often occurred in the past, technological innovations are destroying jobs and creating others. Right now, technology is rapidly replacing many low-end jobs, which creates downward pressure on wages despite lower unemployment. Scanners allow people to check out themselves at the supermarket. McDonald’s is now experimenting with a touchscreen order system. The Internet puts enormous pressure on in-store retail sales.

Minimum wage increases may encourage firms to move more aggressively to adopt new technologies, resulting in fewer workers. This is not necessarily bad for the economy, as it could position Montgomery to be at the cutting edge of efficiency. Higher wages may spur Montgomery businesses to become leaner and meaner faster than the competition while ensuring that employees get better compensation.

Economic Strategy

Finally, the County needs to consider how this issue fits into its broader economic approach. We have experienced low growth and stagnant employment. What can the County do to reverse these trends? How does a minimum wage increase fit into that strategy?

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On Raising the Minimum Wage, Part I

The County Council is getting ready to reconsider Councilmember Marc Elrich’s bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour that was vetoed by County Executive Ike Leggett, who outlined changes to the bill that he would like to see. Elrich’s bill was one vote short of being able to override Leggett’s veto.

As we are heading into an election year, there is a lot of political pressure around the issue and I imagine something will emerge from the Council. Rather than focus on the politics, however, what are the questions that councilmembers and voters ought to consider?

Direct Impact on the County Budget

For all of the controversy over the effect of a wage increase on the County’s economy, it remains surprising that little thought has been given to the potential impact on the county budget. Marc Elrich argues that it shouldn’t be much:

Probably not much if any [impact] on the County’s own budget. County employees and those who contract for the County have to pay a living wage which this year is around $14.50. So any inflation would get you to $15 in two years at the most.

The PFM Study on the minimum wage was widely discredited as junk science but nonetheless outlined the argument for why a higher wage could cost the county money:

[A $15 minimum wage] would likely present a significant cost to the County both in terms of adjusting employees’ pay to reflect a higher wage floor and to avoid wage compression in relation to that floor, but also through the resulting increases in additional compensation dependent on the base rate of pay (e.g. overtime) and in the County’s pension liability for eligible employees, due to increases in base earnings.

The fiscal impact statement for the bill is rather Delphic:

This legislation, as well as this fiscal impact statement, does not address the issue of wage compression in the County. Any action taken to address this issue would have a significant fiscal impact, which would be difficult to determine at this time.

Seems like it would be good to have a healthy discussion of budgetary impact to make sure we don’t have a repeat from 12 years ago with the county government racking up wage bills that it couldn’t afford in advance of an election. Elrich makes a good case but would the County need to have a higher floor to compete with the private sector?

Should the County Leave It to the State?

Libertarians argue that there should be no minimum wage because individuals should have the right to make contracts at any mutually agreeable wage. Assuming that this ship said long ago in Montgomery County, the question still remains if it wise for the County to enact its own rate substantially different from the state and double that of Virginia.

Del. Bill Frick, a candidate for county executive, has argued we should have a higher minimum wage but it should be done by the State:

Minimum wage policy, however, is more effective as a state policy than as a local one.  Maryland has a Department of Labor, with the statutory power and duty to enforce minimum wage and other employment laws. Montgomery County does not. Just as zoning and land use decisions belong at the County level instead of the state, I believe employment regulation is better in the hands of the state . . .

Additionally, statewide action eliminates risk of losing business to either Howard or Prince George’s Counties, though not DC or Virginia. At-Large County Council Candidate Seth Grimes argues that the county needs to act because the state hasn’t:

The self-sufficiency standard varies widely across Maryland, [so] legislators outside high-cost counties including Montgomery might see a higher minimum as less of a priority than we in Montgomery do. Montgomery County especially needs a higher minimum, but statewide action has failed. Yet Mr. Frick would let a specious search for “more effective” policy hold us back from needed local action.

Still, the county has spent much time focused on areas outside of its core services and regulated in areas, such as pesticides, where it has little enforcement capacity. Frick raises the broader question of whether the County Council spends too much time on issues that should be legislated on in other arenas rather than the nuts and bolts of county government.

Tomorrow morning, 7S continues with a discussion of the impact of minimum wage increases on employment in Part II.

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Council Places M-83 in the Freezer

By a 7-2 vote with Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-2) opposed, the Montgomery County Council approved a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) telling the Planning Board to ignore that the controversial M-83 road in making future plans.

The controversy pits Upcounty residents against smart growth and environmental opponents of new roads. Many Upcounty residents in communities like Clarksburg would love to see the long promised alternative route to their communities built in order to alleviate excruciating traffic. Environmentalists and smart growthers think that new roads promote the use of cars and sprawl.

Compromise or Just Spin?

The resolution is being presented by Riemer as a compromise because it keeps M-83 in the Master Plan but tells the Planning Board to act as if it will never be built. Nancy Floreen outlined the politics of spin surrounding this resolution in explaining her “no” vote:

There is nothing in here that says we are going to build M-83. So that is a win for the environmentalist, I guess. And, there is nothing in here that says we are going to build M-83, which is a win for the UpCounty.  I suppose, I should be happy about this because we leave M-83 on the master plan for the future, which is a good thing. But, because we are doing something that is designed to fuel public perception one way or the other, I think it is just plain irresponsible. It is a gratuitous slap in the face to the people who relied on the master plan. And for the people who are opposed to it, it continues the argument ad infinitum.

Indeed, the resolution in amenable to being messaged in a variety of ways to different audiences. Environmentalists and smart growthers can be told it all but kills the road for the time being. M-83 supporters will be told that it’s still in the Master Plan and that the anti-road people aren’t happy for this reason.

Road Opponents Carried the Day But this Street Fight Continues

Riemer, an M-83 opponent, is deeply misguided to the extent he believes that the sop of maintaining M-83 in the Master Plan will appease road supporters. They’re not fooled. The “it’s a compromise” argument only annoys because it comes across as disingenuous to people who wanted this road built yesterday.

Marilyn Balcombe, President and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, is campaigning for at at-large seat on the County Council and making this an issue:

[T]o invoke the Paris Climate Agreement for any project that someone may disagree with is a very slippery slope. . . . Does this proposed resolution mean that we are never building any more roads in the County?

Not a bad substantive policy question in this election year.

Politically, the impact of this issue remains unclear. It’s a great way to rally Upcounty residents who want the road. But how many vote in the key Democratic primary?

Environmentalists are indeed are unhappy that the county didn’t just kill the road outright. Another county council can take the road out of the freezer and thaw it out. They have a lot of support Downcounty but it’s more diffuse pro-environmentalism rather than opposition to this particular project. Can they rally people beyond the small set of usual suspects to oppose the road?

A more likely strategy is that environmental and smart growth groups endorse against pro-M-83 candidates but mention other more compelling issues or general concerns about climate change in their messaging to voters.

Time to Get Off the Pot

While Riemer presents the resolution as a compromise that leaves all unhappy, another way to see this decision is that they decided not to decide. Often, waiting is a good decision. In the case, however, it has the strong whiff of kicking the can down the road to no purpose as the major fact we can expect to change is that traffic will get worse.

The “solution” that our elected officials voted for is really no solution at all. If councilmembers are against the road for whatever reason–the environment, smart growth, the lack of funds–they should just tell the people by killing it. Similarly, supporters should demand a resolution that actively prepares for it and be ready to explain how they will fund it.

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Luedtke Proposes Alcohol Sales Reform

There are two major components to frustration with Montgomery County’s alcohol laws: (1) the distribution monopoly by the Department of Liquor Control (DLC), and (2) the limitations on where consumers can buy alcohol. Del. Eric Luedtke’s (D-14) bills would address the latter (see press release below).

In a nutshell, one bill would allow supermarkets to get around the current limits that make it impossible for them to sell all types of alcohol at multiple locations by allowing them to open stores within their stores operated by the DLC.

I suspect supermarkets will be chary of giving up sales space when they cannot control the sales experience and have to negotiate over which products are sold. My bet is that they would much prefer to be able to sell just beer and wine within their own stores. Hopefully, the bill can be amended towards that end.

However, MCGEO, the DLC union, will likely resist any effort to move away from the absolute DLC control model. Though supermarket employees are unionized, it is a different union, and MCGEO won’t want to lose the opportunity to expand its muscle–and ability to protect the hated distribution monopoly.

The second bill loosens certain restrictions on DLC stores and Sunday alcohol sales. My bet is that non-DLC stores that sell beer and wine will fight allowing DLC stores to sell soft drinks and cold beer and wine. They’ll be outraged that they still have to deal with DLC’s distribution monopoly yet see the DLC encroaching on a valuable share of their business.

Bottom Line: If some major kinks can be worked out, especially the need for a DLC-operated store within a store, consumers will regard this as a major step forward. But the bills do nothing to address the hated distribution monopoly that jacks up prices and drives restaurant business out of the county.

Here is Del. Luedtke’s press release:

Delegate Eric Luedtke Seeks to Make Montgomery Alcohol Laws More Consumer Friendly

Bills include provisions that will eliminate outdated blue laws, expand choices for retail alcohol consumers

Montgomery County, MD, October 30, 2017Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-Burtonsville) announced plans today to introduce two bills aimed at making Montgomery County alcohol laws more consumer friendly. One of the bills, MC 16-18, will allow for separate beer, wine, and liquor dispensaries to be located inside grocery stores. This store-within-a-store model has been used successfully in other states. Under this model, large grocery stores will be eligible to have a separate store located within them selling alcohol, similar to coffee shops or bank branches located in many grocery stores now.

The second bill, MC 4-18, titled “The Montgomery County Alcohol Modernization Act of 2018,” will overhaul a number of outdated laws that limit consumer options and place unnecessary limits on businesses. Among its many provisions, this bill will allow county liquor stores to sell cold beer and wine, soft drinks, and growlers. The bill also eliminates some of the last remaining blue laws in Montgomery County, such as laws that prevent some alcohol licensees from serving alcohol as early on Sundays as they do on other days of the week.

Delegate Luedtke stated about this effort, “Our debates about alcohol laws in Montgomery County have too often ignored consumers. The most common complaint I hear from residents about our alcohol laws is a lack of beer and wine in grocery stores. It’s time we focused more on consumer needs and fixed some of these outdated laws.”

Both pieces of legislation will be filed as local bills, and there will be public hearings held on them before the Montgomery County Delegation in December.

###

Delegate Eric Luedtke represents District 14 in Montgomery County, which includes Brookeville, Burtonsville, Damascus, Olney and parts of Silver Spring. Delegate Luedtke is chair of the Education Subcommittee on the House Ways and Means Committee.

 

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More on MoCo’s Mighty Seven Zip Codes

Readers raised very good questions on our Facebook page about median as opposed to mean income after reading Adam Pagnucco’s conversation sparking post on Montgomery’s most and least affluent zip codes.

As the above table shows, they were right to suspect that wealthy households skew average income higher than the median, especially in the seven high-income zip codes where the median is 71% of the mean as opposed to 79% in low-income zip codes. The difference in median income levels between the high and low income zip codes is also one-third smaller than for the mean.

Middle-class has always been very elastically defined in America. Keeping that in mind, it nevertheless remains accurate to say that the data project a picture of a largely middle-class jurisdiction. The data lower for income zip codes–called lower and not low for good reason here–paint a portrait of areas that are mainly lower-middle to middle class.

The high-income zip codes are predominantly upper-middle class with good chunks of more middle class and more affluent people–and some very affluent people who drive up the mean income. The median income statistics show the danger in relying solely on mean income as an indicator of how people live. While unquestionably home to an unusual number of very well-off to extremely wealthy people, upper-middle class better describes the income of most households in this expensive area.

The poverty statistics provide a good indicator of people who struggle greatly. One should assume their share is higher since many people who live above the poverty level also have real difficulties making basic ends meet. These show that a significant minority in the lower-income zip codes are poor, despite their clear middle-class character. Poverty is as minimal as just about anywhere in America in the higher-income zip codes.

In short, while there are real and large differences between these groups of zip codes, which after all were selected by Adam precisely to highlight these real differences, Montgomery County is dominated by varying types of middle-class people even in these areas. Adam mentioned rightly that people are aware of the differences. I’d add that they are also aware of the basic similarities. This matters a lot because middle-class values and problems provide a common reference point, even though the higher-income zip codes obviously have more resources to meet challenges and people are aware of these differences.

As a result, our politics tends to be oriented around a common set of goals and problems related to the quality of education, safe neighborhoods, transportation and so forth that resonate to broad majorities just about everywhere in Montgomery. Without negating resource differences or suggesting neglect of the real problems faced by poor Montgomery-ites, this is a good thing because it makes bridging geographic-income divides much easier.

Doubters might consider the greater gaps in outlook faced by jurisdictions like the District of Colombia, Prince George’s and Baltimore City—let alone the extremes of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—that possess greater concentrations of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty as well as wealthy neighborhoods.

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MoCo’s Mighty Seven Zip Codes

By Adam Pagnucco.

For a long time, Montgomery County has been thought of as a wealthy jurisdiction.  It has long appeared in lists of the nation’s richest counties (although it is about to drop out of the top twenty).  Politicians elsewhere in Maryland view it as a gold mine, with Senate President Mike Miller famously saying, “It’s like Never Neverland for other legislators of the state.”  The county is regularly shorted by state wealth formulas which disproportionately distribute state aid, especially for public schools, to other parts of Maryland.

But most of Montgomery County is not particularly rich.  Its wealth is concentrated in seven zip codes which skew its mean household income upward and make the county as a whole appear richer than it really is.

All residents of MoCo understand that there are huge differences between areas in the county even though many outsiders do not.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s mean household income was $133,543 over the 2011-2015 period, just barely squeaking past Howard County ($132,751) for tops in the state.  But that conceals big variations.  MoCo has nine zip codes in which mean household incomes were under $100,000.  The combined mean household income of these areas ($92,668) is roughly equal to the mean household income of Prince George’s County ($90,268).

MoCo has seven zip codes in which mean household incomes were over $200,000 in the 2011-2015 period.  These zip codes, mostly located northwest of D.C., account for 14% of the county’s households and 25% of its household income.  If these zip codes were regarded as a separate jurisdiction, their combined mean household income would be $238,917.  The combined mean household income of the rest of Montgomery County is $116,618 – about half the income of the Mighty Seven.

How do the mean incomes of the Mighty Seven and the rest of the county compare to the rest of the region?  We show the mean household incomes of those two parts of the county along with the other large jurisdictions in the region below.  The Mighty Seven as a group are easily at the top although we suspect that extracts of the wealthiest parts of Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard and D.C. would also be in that range.  As for the rest of the county, its income is average compared to the rest of the region.

That’s right, folks – with the exception of its wealthiest zip codes, MoCo is a middle-income jurisdiction by the (admittedly high) standards of the Washington region.

This reality has interesting implications for policy makers and candidates.  The issue of equity between different parts of Montgomery County is getting traction as a political issue in the upcoming election.  But in terms of who pays the county government’s bills, there is no question that county revenues are hugely dependent on a limited number of wealthy neighborhoods, especially in the absence of robust economic growth.  If those residents decide that they can get a better deal by living somewhere else, that would be a huge threat to the county’s tax base.

As for the state level, there’s a tendency to look at differing incomes and wealth BETWEEN counties but not INSIDE counties.  That’s how state wealth formulas work – they compare counties to each other but not local areas to each other.  How many state policy makers have understood prior to reading this blog post that there is a large part of Montgomery County that is economically comparable to Prince George’s?  It’s time for a serious examination of how to direct state aid to local areas in need regardless of which county borders they happen to occupy.

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They Just Don’t Get It

After Adam Pagnucco’s terrific and thought-provoking post from yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with Councilmember Nancy Floreen on Facebook. A very smart and knowledgeable former Council President who is happy to defend her record, the conversation was inadvertently helpful to me in understanding why term limits passed so overwhelmingly.

They Don’t Get It. At All.

Voters didn’t quite say “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. . . Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” in the manner of Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament (repeated famously by a Conservative MP to Neville Chamberlain). But a 70% vote in favor of term limits is pretty darn close.

Yet, reflecting a common view on the Council, Nancy Floreen ascribes no meaning to the vote whatsoever, including viewing it as a vote against the status quo (see full Facebook exchange here). In short, there is now a yawning gap between how councilmembers see their work and the County government, and how voters see them.

This ostrich-like response on term limits–and even though I voted against them and really like and respect Nancy, I don’t know what else to call it–vividly demonstrates this distance and why voters supported them.

The Divorce

On reflection, I realized that something fundamental has changed about how voters see the County government. When I was a more of whippersnapper, people had a much more positive view of the County government. Yes, people paid a lot in taxes but the results were visible in terms of quality services from excellent schools to parks to libraries that made it a great place to raise kids.

People are now much more divorced from their County government–and not just because our population has doubled. Traffic, always bad, is now far worse. We’ve gone through a long period in which taxes have gone up but visible outputs in terms of those excellent services, such as libraries, are going down.

People even worry increasingly about the quality of our beloved school system and whether they’re getting value for money. Metro is no longer spanking new but decaying and dysfunctional. Other infrastructure from electric wires to gas lines to water mains needs replacement.

Why Did Voters Want to Throw the Bums Out?

Many of the problems that the County faces have little to do with its current membership. At least part of the term limits vote stems from having gone through a tough period when difficult, unpopular choices had to be made. And yet, the reasons that voters decided to make the psychological trial separation from the County a full-scale divorce via term limits go beyond that.

The Bubble

County Councilmembers are insulated from the public unless they make a strong effort. The highly symbolic locked door that prevents the plebeian masses from even entering their offices is just the start of it. Staff insulates councilmembers from the public, both by fielding calls and answering email.

Besides naturally supportive staff, councilmembers get a lot of positive feedback from visitors. After all, people lobbying for something tend not to want to alienate the Council. After 12 or 16 years, who wouldn’t be changed by that?

Two Electorates

Roughly 10% of eligible voters participate in the Democratic primaries that elect our local officials. Turnout in Montgomery has been stagnant, so politicians focus on the increasingly small share of people who participate in these contests.

The focus on the odd few of us who vote consistently in Democratic primaries leaves the rest feeling disengaged from politics, as politicians sensibly don’t reach out to them at election time because it won’t help them win.

It also leaves politicians with a pretty warped sense of what the average voter wants because the few who participate in primaries of either party tend to be more extreme than not just the average voter but also the average member of their party.

Term limits was one of the few ways that the other 90% could express dissatisfaction with local officials in a meaningful way other than casting a symbolic vote for a Republican, a brand tarnished by national Republicans that mostly fields weak or even nutty candidates here.

Confusing Congress and Local Government

Too many members of the Council seem to want to be national legislators and opine on the great national issues of the day. Increasingly, this creeps into legislation with more time spent on issues away from core functions.

I miss those wonderful ads with Doug Duncan taking out a voter’s trash. To voters, this said that he got it. One reason County Executive Ike Leggett was able to turn back challenges to his leadership despite being the man in charge at a difficult time was that (1) he showed an unusual capacity for listening at events around the county, and (2) he responded to voters with not just deep fluency on local issues but also a respect for voter concerns. At a town hall meeting with Ike, voters always felt heard.

Property Taxes

Most people’s salaries have been stagnant. Nonetheless, the County raised taxes by over 9%. At a time when many voters find it hard to live within their means, the County made it harder by increasing taxes. As it turns out, berating voters that they don’t care about schools or social justice if they feel this way doesn’t work.

In other words, it is time for the County to start to figure out how to live within its means. Maybe this means tax reform of some sort–no, not in the guise of a massive tax cut like federal Republicans–such as eliminating loopholes that help some but not most of us. Councilmember and County Executive Candidate Marc Elrich made a good start by highlighting an old post by Adam on a tax break for country clubs. But it may also mean taking on labor to rein in costs, actions Councilmember Roger Berliner or Del. Bill Frick, also running for executive, are more likely to do.

The tax argument for term limits was made especially effective by the 28.1% pay increase that the Council voted to award itself in 2013. The Citizens Commission report had recommended a 17.5% increase in one year plus COLAs. That would’ve given the Council a 17.8% increase through 2016 based on the CPI for the Washington-Baltimore region. Comparing annual wages per employee in Montgomery County from 2013 and 2016 reveals that private sector wages have risen just 7.6% in current dollars.

The People v. The Powerful

Monied interests are way better at working Rockville than the rest of us. While members of civic associations are part-time volunteers who are not always up on the latest in ZTAs (zoning text amendments), developers and other powerful interests have expensive lawyers who know how to work the process.

This critique is very different than rich v. poor because the problem affects neighborhoods across the County. Developers and other interests can afford lawyers who can navigate them through the process and leave neighborhoods feeling powerless.

Social Engineering

This intersects with the social engineering tendencies of both the Council and the Planning Board. Personally, I think smart growth is generally a great thing that builds urban nodes like Silver Spring, Rockville and Bethesda where many people want to live or to spend time.

At the same time, it needs to be done with sensitivity and awareness of existing neighborhoods. Most people moved out here for the suburban lifestyle of a house and a yard. They don’t appreciate being told that they’re outdated and even being demonized for caring about their neighborhoods and worrying about whether the infrastructure can handle the growth.

Moreover, those who have lived here a long time have a healthy suspicion of urban planners. In the 1970s and 1980s, these are the same people who told us that elevated urban plazas behind office buildings were the wave of the future. Total disaster.

I think they’ve got it more right this time with smart growth. But carrying it out in such an ideological manner that dismisses neighborhood concerns alienates the people who are supposed to be served. Downcounty residents are mighty tired of hearing patronizing talk of how much they’ll like that new 30-story building looming across the street from their home. Or that traffic is good because it will force us to ride the decaying Metro that doesn’t take us to the supermarket.

Upcounty residents really do want some of those promised roads built and are real tired of begging. If you don’t believe me, check out the hundreds of petition signatures submitted by upcounty citizens (see below) who are deeply unhappy that Councilmember Hans Riemer’s proposed resolution on traffic solutions for the area drops the M-83 extension of the Midcounty Highway.

Put another way, start treating smart growth like a very good idea to be pursued in concert with residents rather than a new religion desperate to burn some heretics. The Council made a good start with the Bethesda Master Plan. It wasn’t perfect but it was a good process so kudos, especially to Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and Hans Riemer. But concerns have already arisen that development will go beyond what is in the plan, as developers and their lawyers are already working the process.

Ferment in the Land

So yes, it’s definitely “a time for a change” election. Yet, we may end up with a crowd that has much the same views as the previous one but voters will welcome the change of faces. And, who knows, new faces may bring some good new ideas and approaches.

Here’s hoping.

M-83 Petition Signatories 101717 by David Lublin on Scribd

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Where Are We Going?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Your author has written over a thousand posts over the last decade about state and local politics.  Some of those posts were tough.  Some called out elected officials by name and others took strong positions on issues that were unpopular with some.  But none of them provoked a more negative reaction from the political establishment in Rockville than our three recent posts on the history of MCPS funding.

Those posts did not contain ad hominem attacks.  They relied on budget data to make a point: the county restricted local funding for public schools for seven straight years and relied on state aid to fund the school system until property taxes were raised last year.  We then recommended that the school system get small, steady per pupil increases to deal with their needs financed by restraint in the rest of the budget.  This was not enjoyed by the officialdom in Rockville.  Terms were used like “misleading,” “distortions,” and “over the top.”  But in the end, the response from Council Member Nancy Floreen wound up confirming, not refuting, much of what we wrote.  There is no real disagreement over the facts of the matter; the budget data tells the same story no matter how it is read.  There is only disagreement over how those facts are characterized.

All of this provokes a thought.  Everyone reading this post has suffered a huge defeat at some point in their lives.  What does one do?  Well, after regaining consciousness and asking, “What the hell happened?” many people try to reconstruct what led to the defeat and assess the various factors that contributed to it, including self-inflicted wounds.  Then a resolution is made to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.  Sure, we often mess up again.  But sometimes we learn and improve.

For the Rockville political establishment, the 40-point passage of term limits was that moment of huge defeat.  It was the biggest voter revolt since two consecutive County Councils were thrown out in the 1960s.  Where is the self-reflection and soul searching in the wake of that moment?  We’d like to see someone in government say, “Here’s what we learned from term limits.  Here’s what will be different going forward.”  Anyone who does that would deserve great respect.

Your author speaks regularly to candidates who knock on doors.  There is considerable diversity in the views of the voters.  Development is one issue provoking different opinions.  “We need more jobs.”  “We are overdeveloped.”  “We need more affordable housing which is why we need to stop all this building!”  (Yes folks, that was an actual quote from a MoCo voter!)  But there is also a bit of unease.  “My kid’s school is crowded.”  “I pay more in taxes but I’m not getting more in return.”  “I’m having problems affording the cost of living here and I’m worried that my kids won’t be able to afford to live here.”  “The county doesn’t listen to me.”  These are not tea partiers or Trump supporters; these are Democrats who regularly vote.  This isn’t hatred of incumbents.  But lots of folks are asking the same question.  Where are we going?

The interest groups in the county are asking the same thing.  None of them feels content.  The business community, the labor folks, the PTAs, the Realtors, the civic community and the rest of them are all uneasy and some are downright unhappy.  They have more in common than they believe.  What happens when they start talking to each other?

The 2018 election will not be a normal event.  It occurs in the context of a stagnant economy, a school system in desperate need, a tight budget, abject failures in the White House and Capitol Hill and voter rejection of the status quo.  We haven’t seen anything like this in decades.  The good news is that the candidate field is outstanding.  Some of the incumbents have tremendous experience and substantial achievements in their records.  All of them who were in office in 2010 can claim credit for saving the county from complete fiscal disaster.  The non-incumbents are smart, energetic, diverse and gifted in life experience.  Many of them would make great elected officials.

But we need something more.  We need to ask: where are we going?  And where should we be going?  To do that, we have to honestly assess where we’ve been – even if it means breaking a few eggs – and then figure out how to move forward.  It’s not easy.  As the incumbents will tell you, the constraints are real.  Do you want to give more money to the public schools?  Fine – then understand the state’s maintenance of effort law and be prepared to raise taxes or control spending elsewhere in the budget.  Do you want to improve the economy?  Fine – then avoid increasing the difficulty of doing business in the county, especially when it comes to employer costs and predictability.  Do you want to increase incomes?  Fine – that involves a discussion of rebuilding the working and middle classes through encouraging collective bargaining.  Do you want to increase funding for school construction?  Fine – then you need to find new revenue or be prepared to restrain the rest of the capital budget.  Do you want to help immigrants and people of color?  Fine – then be attentive to the needs of small businesses, which in this county are dominated by owners who are immigrants and people of color.  Do you want to close the achievement gap?  Fine – get ready for some difficult discussions about housing policy.  We could go on and on.

These discussions are necessary for us to move forward.  They must be honest.  They must be driven by data, not ideology.  And they must not spare political sacred cows.  Because if we don’t figure out where we are going, we will wind up in one place.

Nowhere.  Nowhere at all.

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