Nine Districts for MoCo Claims 15,000 Signatures

By Adam Pagnucco.

Nine Districts for MoCo, the group seeking to replace the current county council structure of 5 district seats and 4 at-large seats with 9 district seats, claimed earlier today that it has obtained 15,000 signatures for its proposed charter amendment. Under the state’s constitution, a charter amendment proposed by voters must receive valid signatures from not less than 20% of registered voters or at least 10,000 voters. The group’s Facebook post appears below.

The original deadline for receipt of petition signatures was Monday, July 27. However, the State Board of Elections extended the deadline by one week due to the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that the group may submit its signatures to the county on Monday, August 3. The county board of elections must then verify the signatures to ensure that the 9 district charter amendment qualifies for the ballot.

The group’s declaration was shared on Facebook by the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Republican Club, the Republican District 16 Team, the Conservative Club of Maryland and former Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Mark Uncapher.

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Explaining County COVID-19 Infection Rates

What factors are linked to high COVID-19 infection rates in Maryland counties? Is it race? Is it income? Is it population density? Is it political affiliation? Today, I look at the impact of all of these factors both individually and collectively.

One word of caution: forming conclusions about individuals from countywide data is perilous. Nevertheless, it’s a useful exercise to gain a greater sense of what is happening in our state.

The Big Impact of Race and Ethnicity

Let’s start with race. The share of non-Hispanic Whites is negatively related to COVID-19 case rates. Increasing the White share of the population by 10% is associated with a decrease in 190 COVID-19 cases per 100k.

Conversely, there are strong positive relationships between the share of Non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics with higher COVID-19 case rates. Here are the charts:

A model that controls for both simultaneously indicates that increasing the Black share of the population by 10% is associated with an increase of 125 COVID-19 cases per 100k. For Latinos, a similar increase is associated with an astonishing increase of 470 cases per 100k.

There is no significant positive or negative relationship between the share of non-Hispanic Asians and COVID-19 rates. Bear in mind that only Howard and Montgomery Counties are more than 7% Asian.

Population and Density

The following chart shows the relationship between the number of people in a county and COVID-19 rates. Interestingly, the relationship is stronger than if one uses population density instead.

However, if one controls for the share of Blacks and Latinos, neither total population nor density has a statistically significant effect on COVID-19 case rates across Maryland counties.

Trumpiness Doesn’t Matter

Voting for President Trump in 2016 might be associated with lower infection rates because his voters were overwhelmingly white and also are more likely to live in low population, rural areas. At the same time, Trump’s followers are more likely to believe coronavirus is a hoax and to shun lifesaving behaviors, like wearing masks.

An initial look at the simple relationship between Trumpiness and COVID-19 rates suggests that the racial effect predominates:

Conducting a multivariate analysis that controls for multiple factors simultaneously confirms this conclusion. Once one controls for race, there is no statistically significant relationship between the share of the vote for Trump in 2016 and COVID-19 case rates. Of course, one should be careful at extrapolating from this county level data to the impact of individual-level behaviors related to voting choices.

I also looked at median household income. As I expected, this didn’t matter much. I don’t set much store in this result, however, because median household income varies far less across large aggregate units like counties than between individuals and often has little impact in these sorts of analyses in my experience.

One more caveat: these are the relationships based on the data as of today. As infection spreads to different parts of the state–portions of the Eastern Shore are getting hit now–they could change over time.

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MoCo Finally Bans Tax Dollars for Kleine’s Book

By Adam Pagnucco.

Roughly a year after the Montgomery County Ethics Commission began receiving complaints about Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine’s promotion of his book, the county has finally banned the use of tax dollars to purchase it.

The ethics commission’s report states that county employees began complaining about Kleine “during the summer of 2019.” The commission requested that the county’s inspector general begin investigating Kleine on September 4, 2019. The inspector general completed the investigation and sent a report to the ethics commission on December 12, 2019. At some point thereafter, Kleine offered a proposal to “cure” the issue which the ethics commission accepted and signed on July 1, 2020.

The ethics commission’s report states that the county bought 89 copies of Kleine’s book from October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019 for a total of approximately $3,000. It contains no information about book purchases since then.

On July 20, 2020, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Fariba Kassiri – who reports directly to Kleine – sent out the email below to county managers advising them that county funds cannot be used to purchase Kleine’s book so long as he remains a county employee. The amount of county money spent on the book between September 30, 2019 and July 20, 2020 has not yet been reported.

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From: Kassiri, Fariba Fariba.Kassiri@montgomerycountymd.gov
Sent: Monday, July 20, 2020
To: #MCG.Department & Office Directors MCG.DepartmentOfficeDirectors@montgomerycountymd.gov
Subject: Restricted Book Purchase

Department and Office Directors,

In accordance with the CAO’s Proposal to Cure certain violations of the Ethics Law and the Ethics Commission’s subsequent acceptance of the proposal on July 1, 2020, I am advising you that your Department/Office should not purchase any copies of City On The Line by Andrew Kleine, so long as Andrew remains County employee. This means no purchases can be paid for through the Oracle system, by P-Card or by reimbursing employees for the purchase of this book.

Please share this information with your appropriate staff and let me know if you have any questions or need additional information.

Thank you,

Fariba Kassiri
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer
Montgomery County, Maryland
Offices of the County Executive

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Volcano in Rockville

By Adam Pagnucco.

When the county council met yesterday to consider the case of admitted ethics violator and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Andrew Kleine, one word alone can describe what happened: Eruption. Rockville was covered by a black cloud of ash and lava sprayed through the streets as the council held very little back. Montgomery County Government has never seen anything quite like it.

The basics are simple: last year, executive branch county employees (all of whom work under Kleine) complained to the ethics commission about his book marketing and his relationship with contractors with whom he had done private business and then had gone on to help obtain county contracts. After an investigation by the county’s inspector general, Kleine proposed a “cure” which involved the payment of $5,000 and his abstention from outside employment. The ethics commission accepted the cure and the county executive has allowed Kleine to remain as CAO. Seventh State has previously published columns on the issue on July 2, July 7, July 9 and July 27.

Kleine was not present at the council’s meeting, leaving ethics commission chair Rahul Goel and ethics commission staff director Robert Cobb to brief the council on Kleine’s ethics case. Before elaborating on the situation with Kleine, Goel and Cobb suggested a need for mandatory ethics training for all county employees, including elected officials. No one disagreed with that. But the council did not buy that ethics training alone would have prevented Kleine’s actions. What followed was a remarkable and unprecedented display by the council members in which some walked right up to the line of calling for the CAO’s resignation without actually crossing it. Consider these quotes from the briefing.

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Council Member Nancy Navarro

Training is important but how would that have avoided this situation? And it’s one thing for an employee to have done something like this but when it’s the Chief Administrative Officer, that raises for me some concerns because the employees, the county government employees obviously are under the Chief Administrative Officer and it is very difficult with a straight face to say to our employees “you’re going to have to go to mandatory training” when the Chief Administrative Officer himself didn’t seem to understand the basics of ethics and conflicts of interest…

I personally still have some concerns regarding the ability of Mr. Kleine to be the Chief Administrative Officer of our county government when there was such a lapse in judgment regarding something like this.

Council Member Gabe Albornoz

I’m troubled that Mr. Kleine was not put on administrative leave during the course of the investigation and continued in his role as the head of procurement for our entire county through this investigation. I’m concerned that the county executive has not reached out to my colleagues and I to express how his administration has taken this matter extraordinarily seriously, how there has been, I believe, a statement from the county executive but not much more than that in terms of his comments on this particular matter.

Because the ripple effect of a situation like this is profound. What do we say to department heads who are also found guilty of similar violations? That you get one strike? You get a pass the first time around and yes, there is a cure, but the cure for the payment of $5,000 and the retainment of employment is significant in light of what we have seen. And I appreciate those recommendations and I also appreciate the recommendation of additional training.

But the broader question here is trust. And I worked in an executive branch for twelve years and know how important that trust is among colleagues. And I don’t believe enough has been done beyond this cure to repair the damage from the messaging that this sends to all the county government, that this sends to people that deal in their business with county government. And I don’t think quite frankly that this matter has been taken seriously enough by this administration. And that’s a concern.

Council Member Hans Riemer

This whole incident reinforces a concern that I have had about – and I think many people in the county government have had about the chief administrator’s work. The county executive has allowed him to really apply his personal business theory, his personal business practice, “turn the curve,” to his management of the county government. The county executive has required all of our departments to participate in something that really often feels like a demonstration project for a consulting practice. And it often feels like it substitutes jargon for real management initiatives. And that has been weighing on me for a lot of time. And I think that this report just raises some real questions about the continuing of the consulting business and really whether the intended – whether the chief administrator’s success is the county’s success. And I think that that is weighing on a lot of people and department heads and managers. And I think we do have an issue. We need to restore the confidence of this county government in the leadership of the executive branch.

Council Member Craig Rice

At the end of the day, this falls on the county executive. The county executive wants to continue to have the number two person in charge be a person who has committed serious ethics violations, that’s a choice he’s going to have to justify, that’s a choice that he’s going to have to stand up and say this is why he feels as though it’s comfortable to have this person still in charge in a leadership position.

Council Member Andrew Friedson

Public trust is the only currency that we have in public life. It’s all we have in terms of our ability to govern, and to me, this speaks directly to public trust. And it’s why I share many of the comments of colleagues of how disturbed and disappointed I am by the contents of the ethics report because that’s what this speaks to. And it’s not a member of the county government, it is not some county employee, it is the top county employee, the person who is in charge of running the government. And I speak similarly to comments that were made about – the comments about training. This is not a training issue. Let’s not obscure what happened here. This is specifically a clear violation of ethics and of public trust. That’s what it is. It is a massive, massive failure of judgment in the highest position in county government…

When we talk about this as being a cure, it’s kind of a euphemism. What this really is effectively is a plea agreement.

*****

Volcanic eruptions can be hard to survive due to their pollution of the atmosphere, the danger of lava flows and the potential for subsequent discharges. In this case, the repeat discharge potential is real with multiple council members asking whether Kleine received special treatment (a subject for another time!) and requesting more information. Lava, like water, can drip drip drip.

With the council’s eruption threatening to bury the executive branch in a blanket of burning ash, the big question now is: why has the county executive allowed Kleine to stay? And will that continue?

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Ficker vs Friedson vs Elrich on Property Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.

In an open meeting tomorrow, the county council will consider placing two charter amendments limiting property taxes on the ballot along with an amendment by Robin Ficker, which has already qualified. Let’s compare the three proposals – Ficker’s, one by Council Member Andrew Friedson and his colleagues on the council’s Government Operations Committee and one by County Executive Marc Elrich – to current law.

What would be limited?

Current charter limit: An annual growth limit is applied to the total dollar volume of real property tax collections.

Ficker: Same as current charter limit.

Friedson: A limit would be applied to the weighted average tax rate on real property.

Elrich: A limit would be applied to the real property tax rate but there is a lack of clarity on which rate. It could apply to the general property tax rate, which all county residents pay. Or it could apply to the weighted average tax rate, which includes both the general tax and many other smaller property taxes that are specific to function and/or geography. This issue needs to be decided one way or the other if this proposal appears on the ballot.

How would the limit be applied?

Current charter limit: The annual growth in the total dollar volume of real property tax collections is limited to the growth rate in the Washington-Baltimore consumer price index in the previous year. A few categories of property are exempted from this limit (notably new construction during the fiscal year).

Ficker: Same as current charter limit.

Friedson: The weighted tax rate on real property would not be allowed to increase without a unanimous vote of current council members.

Elrich: The property tax rate (whichever option is picked) would not be allowed to increase without a vote of two-thirds (six) of the council members.

Is there a waiver?

Current charter limit: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if all current council members vote to do so.

Ficker: No. The limit on property taxes is absolute (subject to state law).

Friedson: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if all current council members vote to do so (as in current law).

Elrich: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if two-thirds (six) of the council members vote to do so.

Are there disproportionate impacts on different taxpayers?

Current charter limit: No.

Ficker: No.

Friedson: No.

Elrich: Yes. The taxable value of owner-occupied residential property would be allowed to increase at a maximum rate of 3% per year. Other types of property would not be subject to this limit.

Who wins and loses under each option?

That depends on who you are and what your interest in taxes is.

People who depend on county services (other than schools) lose the most under the Ficker amendment, which ties the growth in property tax receipts to the rate of inflation. Inflation is low and might even be negative this year. If the Ficker amendment passes, it will raise the possibility that property tax collections will screech to a halt with limited ways to deal with that.

Groups favoring tax increases gain the most from the Elrich amendment because it lowers the threshold of breaking the tax limit from all current council members to two-thirds (six) of the council members.

Homeowners might benefit from the Elrich amendment, which limits annual tax bill growth on their principal residences to 3%. However, council staff pointed out that the average annual growth in residential assessments exceeded 3% only twice in the nine-year period of FY11-19.

Owners of commercial property and renters of both residential and commercial property will be disadvantaged under the Elrich amendment because they won’t get the 3% growth limit that homeowners will. Over time, the tax burden will shift away from homeowners and onto commercial entities and renters – including residential renters. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Elrich amendment makes property tax increases easier as stated above.

For stakeholders in MCPS’s operating budget, the entire discussion is irrelevant. That’s because a change to state law in 2012 allowed counties to ignore charter limits for the purpose of dedicating funding to approved budgets of local school boards. Since state law trumps county charters, no charter amendment can stop the council from passing a dedicated tax for MCPS. The Elrich administration included such a dedicated tax in its recommended FY21 budget but the council opposed it.

Ficker’s amendment looks to be headed to the ballot because it received enough petition signatures to qualify. We shall see what, if anything, the council decides to put on the ballot along with it.

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Kleine on the Line Again

By Adam Pagnucco.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a column called “Kleine on the Line” about the county’s embattled Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Andrew Kleine. Back then, I wrote:

Andrew Kleine is a smart guy with interesting ideas and a lot to offer. But we are now at a big moment. The chief administrative officer is the single most critical non-elected employee of county government. He or she must be beyond reproach and in total alignment with the county executive’s priorities.

The controversy over Kleine’s former business partner and his book sales, as well as the scathing letter from the unions, calls into question whether this is the case with Kleine. [County Executive Marc] Elrich must resolve these issues one way or another or his administration will pay the price.

A year later, Elrich has paid a price in the form of a searing report by the ethics commission and the inspector general detailing how Kleine steered county contracts to his business partners and converted county government into a book club. Now Kleine really is on the line as the county council is due to discuss his ethics problems in an open meeting tomorrow.

The ethics commission report by itself would generate harsh consequences in any other administration. But it is not the only issue with regard to the CAO’s record. Kleine described implementing Elrich’s campaign-era “90 Days Financial To-Do List” as one of his top priorities in November 2018, but numerous promises in that list have gone unfulfilled or under-fulfilled. The list included a ten-year financial plan (not done as of the FY21 budget), a “structural review of all departments in partnership with the county’s unions” (where is it?), an innovation fund (cut back from a $2 million request last year to one $71,545 software project) and a promise to “introduce or strengthen mechanisms that hold county leaders accountable to both other employees and to the public.” That last one reeks with irony.

There is more. Restructuring in cooperation with the unions was a major Elrich campaign promise, but since the unions have put their objections to Kleine in writing, whether this can be completed with Kleine having any part in it remains in doubt. The CAO’s office would normally have a role in approving department head nominees and the nominations of Vennard Wright (technology services) and Tonya Chapman (police department) were both train wrecks due to lack of vetting. The administration’s two-year budgeting initiative, with which Kleine was directly involved, was resisted by the county council and made no appearance in the FY21 budget. And it’s unclear whether Kleine was directly involved with the $10 million “magic asterisk,” the illegal negative appropriation in the executive’s recommended budget intended to account for phantom savings from “cost efficiencies.” But if he did have a role in it, add that to the above list.

The CAO preaches “outcome budgeting” in his book and elsewhere, but given the above record, what has been done that has yielded a positive, documented and significant financial benefit for the county?

Now let’s put all this into context. At the time of Kleine’s arrival in county government towards the end of 2018, two other events were occurring. First, Kleine’s predecessor – 12-year CAO Tim Firestine – was leaving. Unlike Kleine, who had never worked in MoCo government before, Firestine had been with the county for nearly 40 years. Before he was CAO, he was the county’s highly regarded finance director for 15 years. He was well known and well respected in both the executive and legislative branches. Firestine wasn’t warm and cuddly, but no one disputed that he was honest, competent and totally uninterested in self-promotion. He left very big shoes to fill.

The other huge event was the revelation that former economic development official Peter Bang had stolen $7 million from county government. The news was arguably the biggest scandal in county history and shocked people who had worked with Bang, who cultivated a reputation as a sharp dressing, no-nonsense professional. In the aftermath of Bang’s arrest, ethics became an even higher priority in a government that prided itself on avoiding the municipal corruption that so often plagues other jurisdictions in the region.

Into this arena descended Kleine, who immediately set out to direct county contracts to his private business partners and began promoting his book throughout county government and beyond. Bear in mind that 99% of county employees knew little or nothing of Kleine when he arrived. This was the first impression he was making on them. Say what you will about MoCo government, but it is full of professional, experienced and dedicated people – both managers and rank-and-file – who would never think of going anywhere near a conflict of interest. How did they see Kleine’s behavior? We don’t know how all of them saw it, but we do know from the ethics report that employees from two different county departments went to the ethics commission to complain. If these employees are still in county government, they are still working for Kleine even after he admitted to violating two sections of ethics law.

There has been no allegation of criminal activity by Kleine but he is guilty of extremely bad judgment that went on for months. How can he remain in his current role? He is the administrative head of county government. The next time he appears before the county council (in person or virtually), he has to know that all nine of them will be thinking about his ethics violations. The same goes for his own employees. Is there a senior manager anywhere in county government who has not read the ethics report? How can Kleine command the respect and good will any CAO needs to run the government?

The other question here is: where was Elrich? In the spring of 2019, rumors were everywhere about Kleine’s book promotion and his contractors. Was Elrich completely unaware of what was happening or was he aware and saw nothing wrong with it? Neither scenario is appealing. Kleine is the most senior non-elected person in the administration and reports to only one person – Elrich. If Kleine remains CAO after a slap on the wrist, it’s an open question as to whether Elrich is capable of firing anyone – or even disciplining them – for misconduct. What impact will that have on the culture of the executive branch?

That brings us to the county council, which is due to discuss Kleine at an open meeting tomorrow. The council can’t discipline Kleine directly – that is the prerogative of Elrich alone. But the council’s views on Kleine relate to a major theme of this term: the council’s lack of respect for the Elrich administration. The council has voted down Elrich’s labor agreements, rejected his approach to fixing the county’s balky public safety communications system, rejected his tax hike proposal (on the very day he offered it), rewritten his second budget, rejected his first nominee for police chief, passed its own set of health regulations in protest of his performance on COVID testing and regularly ignores his input on legislation. Then came Elrich’s hot mic joke that the council is allegedly “fact proof,” which drew harsh responses from Council Members Nancy Navarro and Gabe Albornoz. It’s hard to imagine the council having an even worse opinion of the administration, but if it comes to believe that Elrich tolerates unethical conduct, his influence will dwindle to zero. That’s obviously bad for Elrich. It’s also not so great for the daily function of county government.

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Wear Your Masks Correctly, People!

By Adam Pagnucco.

Earlier this month, the county asked residents about mask usage through Survey Monkey and found that a big majority of respondents reported seeing improper wearing of masks, especially failure to cover the nose. The county’s press release is reprinted below.

Results of Montgomery County Survey on Masks Show Improper and Ineffective Usage

For Immediate Release: Friday, July 24, 2020

More than 2,700 people responded to a recent flash survey on masks and while an overwhelming majority of respondents (91 percent) think wearing a mask is “very important to slow down the spread of COVID-19,” 78 percent of respondents also reported seeing many people wearing masks improperly, such as exposing the nose.

The short survey, conducted via Survey Monkey earlier this month, included five questions and was shared through the County’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, WhatsApp and Nextdoor.

More than half the respondents (61 percent) said they are seeing people wear masks inside buildings and outside where social distancing is not possible and they would like to see more people comply.

“We were pleased to see the response to our survey, while not scientific, indicates people care about keeping themselves and others safe,” said County Executive Marc Elrich. “Wearing a mask, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands and getting tested are the keys to our ability to slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

When asked to describe how people were wearing masks improperly, 66 percent of respondents said they have observed others wearing masks covering only their mouth and chin. Respondents said most mask violations were observed at local businesses (39 percent) and parks, trails and playgrounds (34 percent).

“It is important for everyone to comply with the health order—wearing a mask, and wearing it properly is one of the best tools we have to fighting COVID-19,” said County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles. “A mask should be fitted properly and cover the mouth and nose in order to protect others. Just covering one’s mouth doesn’t get the job done.”

For more information about face coverings, visit the County’s COVID-19 Information Portal.

For the latest COVID-19 updates, visit the County’s COVID-19 website and follow Montgomery County on Facebook @MontgomeryCountyInfo and Twitter @MontgomeryCoMD.

Put the “count” in Montgomery County! Be sure to complete the Census online, by phone, or by ail. It’s safe, confidential, easy, and important. #2020Census #EveryoneCountsMCMD

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MoCo is Praying for a Federal Bailout

By Adam Pagnucco.

The COVID cuts have begun. County Executive Marc Elrich has sent a mid-year savings plan to the county council, which has tweaked it and given it tentative approval through a straw vote. The ostensible cut numbers are $44 million from the operating budget and another $28 million from the capital budget. That compares to revenue writedowns of $48 million in FY20 and $192 million in FY21, meaning that the cuts are roughly a third of the revenue loss.

But let’s be clear. The county has not adopted a true fiscal strategy as it did ten years ago, at least not yet. Its real strategy – if you can call it that – is to pray for a bailout from Washington.

Let’s look at what exactly these cuts are.

The most common form of “cut” in the savings plan comes in the form of lapses. The county budget defines lapse as, “The reduction of budgeted gross personnel costs by an amount believed unnecessary because of turnover, vacancies, and normal delays in filling positions. The amount of lapse will differ among departments and from year to year.”

Lapses occur naturally because of churn in the workforce. Imagine an employee leaves a position that has a cost of $100,000 a year at the end of a fiscal year. Now imagine that the county takes six months to fill the position. That lapse has cut the county’s cost of filling that position to $50,000 in the current fiscal year. However, that cost will jump to $100,000 in the next fiscal year assuming that it remains occupied. These costs are common throughout published budgets. By keeping lapsed positions vacant for longer, county departments can produce “savings.” No one is getting laid off through such practices and they are equivalent to deferring planned future spending, not making actual cuts. Department managers may wish to fill these positions but extending lapses means they will have to wait longer.

Elrich’s savings plan included over 60 lapsed positions in the savings package. Many of them were lapsed for only part of the fiscal year. It’s hard to tell the exact number because not all individual positions were listed. Their total combined cost was $7.0 million, or about a fifth of the administration’s operating budget reductions. The council added another $3.5 million by converting Elrich’s proposed abolition of vacant positions in the police department into lapses. Even though no employees are actually getting cut through these lapses, the $10.5 million counts as a “cut” because it means the county will be spending $10.5 million less than it was planning to spend in FY21.

In Elrich’s plan, nine county offices and departments – the Community Engagement Cluster, Consumer Protection, the County Council, Environmental Protection, Finance, Housing and Community Affairs, Legislative Oversight, the Housing Opportunities Commission and Procurement – relied exclusively on lapses for their share of “cuts.” Seven more – the Circuit Court, County Attorney, Human Rights, Inspector General, Management and Budget, Public Information and Technology Services – used lapses for a majority of their “cuts.”

Another set of reductions relates to turnover, telework, shifting funding to state money and adjustments for service reductions already set in place (like transit and recreation facilities). Examples of these kinds of cuts are $4.2 million in previously reduced transit service, a $2.9 million reduction for Next Gen 911 “in anticipation of state aid,” $1.9 million in “utility savings due to continued telework” and $766,713 in savings from recreation facilities that have been closed for months. Much of this is booking savings the county was already going to receive. Little of this represents new actual service cuts.

Most of the impactful cuts are concentrated in health and human services, the police department, transportation and the parks department. Then there is Montgomery College, which has agreed to direct $4.4 million of county money to its fund balance rather than spend it this year. That money will be available for the next annual budget. MCPS has been spared – for now. There are also modest adjustments to the capital budget related to cost savings on certain projects, delays on the state’s Purple Line project (which is tied to three related county projects) and deferrals of Ride On bus purchases. These trims will pale in comparison to a likely bloody capital project adjustment season early next year.

The county government knows that plucking low hanging fruit is far from sufficient to survive the current budget crisis, so why is it not doing more? Elrich answered that question in his savings plan transmission memo to the council. Elrich wrote:

Across the country, states and local governments are struggling to deliver vital services to residents and help communities to recover, while adjusting to a significant decline in revenues. Unlike other recessions, however, it is unlikely we will be able to climb our way out of this fiscal crisis without additional Federal aid unless we decimate the services that are so desperately needed by County residents. Do not get me wrong, we are grateful for the aid that the Federal government has already provided to Maryland and Montgomery County to help us navigate these uncertain times, and I am greatly appreciative of our State’s Congressional delegation for their continued assistance and leadership. Simply put, however, without additional aid from the Federal government, deep and draconian spending reductions may well be needed in order for us to balance our budget. These reductions will have lasting impacts on County residents, businesses and employees.

There is enormous uncertainty on whether there will be substantial new amounts of federal aid coming from Washington. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously said that he would rather let states and local governments go bankrupt than engage in “revenue replacement.” While House Democrats have included nearly a trillion dollars for state and local governments in their COVID relief bill, Senate Republicans seem content to merely allow already-expended aid to be used for broader purposes. (Right now, it can’t be used to plug deficits.) The latter approach offers little to MoCo, which is rapidly spending the $183 million in federal aid it has already received on COVID-related programs. Federal aid may ultimately be used as a bargaining chip to resolve other issues like unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, COVID liability and school reopening aid, which is not a happy place for states and local governments to be.

The county would be in better shape if it had done what county executive candidate Marc Elrich said he was going to do two years ago: undertake a genuine restructuring program in cooperation with the county’s unions to save money starting in the first 90 days of the term. Instead, the executive has added positions through his recommended budgets – some of which were trimmed by the council and others now lapsed – and the county’s top manager has spent his time running a book club while getting blasted by labor. The county’s budget director has also said that the county is looking at eliminating at least 100 vacant positions. (How does that save actual cash?) Now the county is praying that Mitch McConnell – who wants us to go bankrupt! – will bail us out.

Prayer is a great thing for matters of faith. It is much less useful for matters of budget.

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Lucrative Waiver to Chevy Chase Land Company Scrutinized

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Del. Al Carr (D-18) on an issue that the Planning Board is taking up today.

The Montgomery County Council approved the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan in 2013 after a lengthy process of gathering public input.

The plan contains environmental provisions requiring developers to restore the local tree canopy which has been ravaged over the years by road construction, development, Pepco, and clear cutting for the Purple Line. It requires that utility wires be buried allowing for the planting of large overstory trees. A healthy tree canopy is vital to protecting water quality in Rock Creek and its tributaries.

Unfortunately, the Montgomery County Planning Board quietly waived these environmental provisions for the well-connected developer in 2017. The developer successfully lobbied to be released from the requirement to bury the wires on the east side of Connecticut Ave. As a result, the developer is not planting tall overstory street trees on Connecticut Ave and Manor Rd to maximize the restoration of the tree canopy.

In the 2017 staff report, planning staff used the following rationale when recommending the waiver: “Although undergrounding of utilities is typically required for site plan applications in Chevy Chase  Lake Sector Plan area, this application is not required to do so because the electrical utilities along the property frontage are high-voltage transmission lines that are not routinely buried.”

However the exact same “high-voltage transmission line” was recently buried immediately to the south where the purple line bridge will cross Connecticut Ave. Identical lines are routinely being buried in the county including in Silver Spring (Linden to Sligo project) and in White Flint (new substation).

There is a long-shot opportunity to correct this mistake when that same developer returns to the Planning Board on July 23rd for amendments to their plan. The Planning Board has the opportunity at that meeting to mandate that the wires be buried at the developer’s expense and that tall overstory trees be planted where possible along the site frontage on Connecticut Ave and Manor Rd.

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MCPS to Go Virtual Only Through January

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has announced that it will offer virtual learning only through January 29, 2021. Their community update is reprinted below.

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MCPS To Provide Virtual-Only Learning for First Semester

Plan to be reassessed in November 2020 for Second Semester

Dear Parents, Guardians, Students and Staff:

I am writing to provide an important update on our Fall 2020 recovery plans. MCPS has been working closely with county and state health officials on the potential reopening of schools. Yesterday (July 20), we received additional guidance from Dr. Travis Gayles, county health officer, in which he shared that “based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school buildings at this time. I recommend investing in a virtual instruction model until, at earliest, the completion of the first quarter in November, with consideration for virtual instruction through the first semester.” As I have shared previously, our plan has always envisioned starting in a virtual-only model. However, given this updated guidance, the safest choice for our district is to remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester—January 29, 2021; or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester. This decision includes the cancellation of all fall and winter sports. Working with Dr. Gayles and county elected officials, we will reassess at the end of the first quarter (November 9, 2020) to determine if we are able to implement a phased blended model in the second semester (beginning February 1, 2021). We will continue to engage with our community as we continue to navigate this incredibly complex situation.

We anticipate that Governor Larry Hogan and Dr. Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, will also provide an update on the state’s recovery plan for schools this week. We will review their guidance and make all necessary adjustments to align our plans.

We continue to explore creative ways to support students receiving special services and families with significant challenges in accessing curriculum through a virtual model. We also know that this decision to extend virtual instruction will significantly impact the work schedules of many parents in our county. We are seeking the ability to allow buildings to remain open in a limited capacity for essential purposes, including meal service; to support access to technology and other materials; and for use by some child care providers.

On August 6, 2020, we will provide an updated plan to the Board of Education. This update will reflect adjustments stemming from changes in guidance from local health officials and the important feedback we’ve received from students, staff and the community. The Board of Education will vote on this plan at that time.

We are building on what we learned during the spring to provide a robust and dynamic virtual learning experience for our students. Our staff is being provided additional professional development to enhance their instructional abilities in a virtual model; we have put systems in place to ensure all students have access to digital devices and access to the internet when they are away from school buildings; and we are building in additional time for student support and learning opportunities. We are also streamlining digital tools and platforms to make it easier for our students, staff and families to engage in teaching and learning.

Our students are the heart of what we do and why we exist. There is no doubt in my mind that we all want what’s best for students. This decision is incredibly difficult as we know how much students need school for their academic success and social-emotional well-being. We take the immense responsibility of ensuring staff and student safety, educating our students and creating opportunities for all seriously. Thank you for your continued support and collaboration as we work together to meet the needs of our students, staff and families.

Sincerely,
Jack R. Smith, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools

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