Tag Archives: Andrew Friedson

Political Awards 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

It’s that time: here are the political awards for 2020, the year that was!

Politician of the Year: Governor Larry Hogan

There is really no other choice. Because of the unique demands of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s possible that no Governor of Maryland has wielded more power than Hogan did in 2020 since the colonial era. Local governments, employers and residents all over the state have had to react to his many executive orders. He has had successes, such as Maryland’s relatively low COVID case rate compared to the rest of the country, and he has had failures, such as the flawed test kits from South Korea. Above all, he has been incredibly consequential – far more than any other political figure in the state – and that is enough for this award.

Debacle of the Year: The Purple Line

Again, there is no other choice. The Purple Line’s public-private partnership (P3) was supposed to protect taxpayers from liability, but its collapse will cost us $250 million that would otherwise be available for other transportation projects. The state is promising to complete the project, which will someday generate real benefits for the Washington region, but no one knows its completion date or its ultimate cost. With another P3 pending for the Beltway/I-270 project, the Hogan administration owes it to Marylanders to report on lessons learned from the Purple Line so that its mistakes are not repeated.

Runners Up
Two powerful officials – Hogan Chief of Staff Roy McGrath and MoCo Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine – lost their jobs due to scandal. The McGrath story may not be over.

Worst Move of the Year: Robin Ficker’s Question B

Ficker thought he could get MoCo voters to approve a draconian tax cap that would handcuff county government forever. Instead, not only did voters reject his idea, but they approved a competing ballot amendment (more below) that will actually generate more revenue for the county over time.

Runners Up
MoCo Republicans badly wanted the nine council district charter amendment to pass but they wound up helping to defeat it because of their prominent embrace of it in the toxic year of Trump. Talbot County officials insisted on keeping a confederate statue at their courthouse, a long-term loser for the county.

Best Move of the Year (Tie): Andrew Friedson’s Question A and Evan Glass’s Question C

Former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said, “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” Council Members Andrew Friedson and Evan Glass sure didn’t, drafting competing ballot questions against Ficker’s anti-tax charter amendment and another amendment providing for an all-district council structure. The result of the passage of Friedson’s Question A and Glass’s Question C is a more rational, liberalized property tax structure and a larger county council to service a larger population.

Runner Up
Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. issued an executive order capping third party food delivery app fees at 15%, preventing excessive fees ranging as high as 30%. The order also bans them from reducing driver compensation and tips to comply with the fee cap.

Missing in Action Award: Almost Everyone Planning or Thinking of a Run for Governor

Comptroller Peter Franchot is the only declared candidate for governor. He has a war chest, a statewide profile and a consulting firm. Right now, he has no competition. As Roger Waters would say, is there anybody out there?

Big Deal of the Year: Moratorium Repeal

The county council repealed the county’s illogical housing moratorium policy, which did not accomplish its intended purpose (alleviating school crowding) but did prevent housing construction in the face of MoCo’s affordable housing shortage. Housing construction still has challenges – including financing problems stemming in part from slow job growth – but the council was right to junk moratoriums that did no good and made housing problems worse.

Just Because She’s Great Award: Delegate Anne Kaiser

She never asks for attention or takes credit for anything. But Delegate Anne Kaiser is everything you could want in an elected leader: smart, practical, savvy, mentors younger politicians and plays the long game. Best of all, she’s a down to Earth person who doesn’t let success go to her head. She’s a worthy successor to the great Sheila Hixson as chair of Ways and Means. Long may she serve.

MoCo Feud of the Year: JOF vs Stephen Austin

In one corner: political newcomer Stephen Austin, running for school board on a platform of opposing MCPS’s boundary analysis. In the other corner: former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse (universally known as “JOF”), leader of a movement favoring boundary studies in the interest of equity. This was never going to be a great relationship, but this feud set a record for most screenshots in a MoCo political dispute. Here’s to more in the new year!

Runner Up
County Executive Marc Elrich vs Governor Larry Hogan. This one runs hot and cold but it flared big-time when Hogan stopped MoCo from instituting a blanket shutdown of private schools. These two can’t stand each other so expect more this year.

Media Outlet of the Year: Baltimore Brew

If you’re not reading Baltimore Brew, you need to start doing it right now! No city scandal can hide from the Brew’s hustling, dirt-digging journalists, whether it’s document shredding, scams, SLAPP suits, politician tax liens, travel expenses, or other questionable activities. Baltimore Brew is a must-read and a true gem of Maryland journalism.

Game Changer Award: Len Foxwell

For more than a decade, the Franchot-Foxwell partnership roiled Annapolis, grabbed headlines and marched steadily towards Government House. Now Foxwell is a free agent and available for hire as a communications, public relations and political strategist. Few people combine knowledge of politics, policy, press and all things Maryland like Len. Having him on the market is a game changer, especially for anyone who hires him.

County Employee of the Year: Inspector General Megan Davey Limarzi

Limarzi is MoCo’s dynamite inspector general, whose reports on mischief in county government regularly rock Rockville. Two especially notable reports revealed an “overtime scam” in the fire department and overpayment of COVID emergency pay in at least one county department. In Fiscal Year 2020, complaints to the inspector general increased 92%, suggesting confidence in her work. Count me as her biggest fan!

Runners Up

Like Calvin and Hobbes, Travis Gayles (the county’s health officer) and Earl Stoddard (the county’s emergency management director) come as a pair. Both of them have played critical roles in responding to COVID. Gayles is a happy warrior who shrugs off criticism and is indefatigable in his job. Stoddard is a stand-up guy who earned a lot of respect in taking responsibility for the county’s grant management issues. Given the nature of their jobs, Gayles and Stoddard are not always loved, but they deserve credit for taking the heat and carrying on when so many other health officials are leaving around the country.

Quote of the Year: “Hope is Not a Fiscal Strategy”

Council Member Andrew Friedson has said this so many times that his colleagues (and executive branch officials) are probably sick of hearing it. But it’s true: the county has been praying since the summer for a federal bailout that has yet to arrive while the day of reckoning is near. We could have done better.

Gaffe of the Year: “Can I Say the Council is Fact Proof?”

Here is an instance in which County Executive Marc Elrich’s snarky sense of humor was not appreciated by the county council in this hot mic moment. Can we get more hot mics please?

Survivor of the Year: Linda Lamone

After numerous glitches in the primary election, state elections administrator Linda Lamone looked like she might finally be run out of Annapolis. But she outlasted calls for her resignation and the general election went better, so she remains in her job. Given her many problems and a string of bad audits, Lamone isn’t just a survivor of the year – she is THE survivor of the last twenty years. State leaders need to restructure the accountability of her position after she finally retires.

Departure of the Year: Bob Dorfman

We’re not fans of the county liquor monopoly here at Seventh State, but former monopoly director Bob Dorfman was a capable manager who tamed some of its worst problems. Depending on who succeeds him, the county could really miss him.

Most Ignored Story of the Year: Public Information Act Suspension

The Elrich administration’s indefinite suspension of public information act deadlines is the single biggest setback for open government in MoCo that I have seen in almost 15 years of writing. And yet to my knowledge, not a single politician said anything about it publicly and not a single D.C. area press outlet has followed up. I’m not surprised by the politicians. But I am surprised by how meekly the press surrendered to the suspension of one of the greatest tools of investigative reporting available – the public information act. To quote Roger Waters again, is there anybody out there?

That’s all for 2020, folks!

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Winners and Losers of the Ballot Question War

By Adam Pagnucco.

This year, MoCo saw its biggest battle over ballot questions in sixteen years. Most county players lined up on one side or the other and victory has been declared. Who won and who lost?

Winners

Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson
Friedson authored Question A, which liberalized the county’s property tax system to allow receipts to increase with assessments. Wall Street applauded its passage. Even progressives, who don’t love Friedson but owe him big-time for opening up the county’s revenue stream, have to admit that his Question A was the real deal.

Council Member Evan Glass
Glass authored Question C, which added two district council seats and defeated the nine district Question D. Lots of wannabe politicians are going to look at running for the new seats. Every single one of them should kiss Glass’s ring and write a max-out check to his campaign account.

County Democratic Party
It’s not a coincidence that MoCo voters adopted the positions of the county Democratic Party on all four ballot questions. With partisan sentiments running high and information on the questions running low, MoCo Democrats went along with their party and dominated the election.

David Blair
Blair was the number one contributor to the four ballot issue committees that passed Questions A and C and defeated Questions B and D. By himself, Blair accounted for nearly half the money they raised. Whatever Blair decides to do heading into the next election, he can claim to have done as much to pass the county Democrats’ positions on the ballot questions as anyone. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I was not involved in his ballot question activities.)

Ike Leggett
The former county executive was key in leading the fight against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. Thousands of MoCo voters still like, respect and trust Ike Leggett.

Jews United for Justice
While not having the money and manpower of many other groups who played on the questions, Jews United for Justice played a key role in convening the coalition that ultimately won. They have gained a lot of respect from many influencers in MoCo politics.

Facebook
Lord knows how much money they made from all the ballot question ads!

Losers

Robin Ficker
At the beginning of 2020, MoCo had one of the most restrictive property tax charter limits of any county in Maryland. For many years, Ficker was looking to make it even tighter and petitioned Question B to the ballot to convert it into a near-lock on revenues. But his charter amendment provoked Friedson to write Question A, which ultimately passed while Question B failed and will raise much more money than the current system over time. Instead of tightening the current system, the result is a more liberal system that will achieve the opposite of what Ficker wanted – more revenue for the county. This was one of the biggest backfires in all of MoCo political history.

Republicans
The county’s Republican Party did everything they could to pass Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. In particular, they gave both cash and in-kind contributions to Nine Districts and even raised money for the group on their website. In doing so, the GOP provoked a fierce partisan backlash as the county Democrats rose up to take the opposite positions on the ballot questions and most Democratic-leaning groups combined forces to support them. With President Donald Trump apparently defeated, Governor Larry Hogan leaving office in two years and little prospect of success in MoCo awaiting them, where does the county’s Republican Party go from here?

This tweet by MoCo for Question C from a voting location explains all you need to know about why Question D failed.

Political Outsiders
It wasn’t just Republicans who supported the failed Questions B and D; a range of political outsiders supported them too. What they witnessed was a mammoth effort by the Democratic Party, Democratic elected officials and (mostly) progressive interest groups to thwart them. Even the county chamber of commerce and the realtors lined up against them. Whether or not it’s true, this is bound to provoke more talk of a “MoCo Machine.” Machine or not, outsiders have to be wondering how to win when establishment forces combine against them.

Push

MCGEO, Fire Fighters and Police Unions
These three unions are frustrated. They have not been treated the way they expected by the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich and they are also upset with the county council for abrogating their contracts (among other things). They wanted to show that they could impose consequences for messing with them and that was one reason why all three made thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts. On the negative side, the nine districts Question D failed. On the positive side, the passage of Friedson’s Question A will result in a flow of more dollars into the county budget over time, a win for their members. So it’s a push. On to the next election.

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Council Must Sustain Elrich’s Veto of Corporate Welfare

On a 7-2 vote, the Montgomery County Council approved a bill that would completely exempt real estate developments on WMATA property from property taxes for 15 years. Councilmembers Tom Hucker and Will Jawando voted against. The Council should sustain County Executive Marc Elrich’s veto of this corporate welfare masked as a social justice housing project.

This bill is such a bad idea that one hardly knows where to begin.

Proponents of transit endlessly sell the considerable funding required for it as the motor for development and smart growth that not only attracts jobs but increases land values and property tax revenues. We are told “if you build it, they will come.” Now, these same people tell us that they won’t come unless we “incentivize” (read: pay) them.

Even stranger, we are to pay these incentives to build high-priced apartments in desirable locations with very little extra affordable housing thrown in above normal requirements. I understand establishing enterprise zones with lower taxes in struggling neighborhoods, but Grosvenor-Strathmore and other Red Line stops don’t fit the bill.

Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-1) has been quite aggressive in trying to sell Councilmember Hans Riemer’s bill:

None of the WMATA sites are being developed and developers with Joint Development Agreements are walking away all over the region, due to unique infrastructure requirements on these sites, high costs of high-rise construction, etc.

These sites currently collect ZERO property tax, generate ZERO housing, and provide virtually no public benefits aside from surface parking. I view that as an abject public failure, but respect anyone who prefers this status quo.

Multiple fiscal analyses have demonstrated both that high-rise projects don’t work without the incentive and that the Grosvenor project in particular would generate more revenue to the County in impact and income taxes than the property tax abatement (which the county wouldn’t otherwise receive without a project).

Councilmember Friedson argues we need to step up our corporate welfare game to compete when we shouldn’t even play this game. His argument also ignores that demand for homes in Frederick or Fairfax is based on other factors that far outweigh tax incentives linked to individual projects.

The uniqueness of the site argument fails to impress as somehow many buildings have been constructed around the whole region, indeed the whole country, around transit and difficult sites without the magic of tax incentives. (Manhattan exists!) I’m sure WMATA, developers and their supporters on the Council are happy to produce analyses showing otherwise, just as they always have in support of public spending on their agenda.

The incentives are a roundabout subsidy to WMATA. When we establish tax incentives the land becomes more valuable, so WMATA raises the price and recoups much of it. So it’s not even clear what share of this supposedly badly needed incentive the developers will see.

This tax giveaway also won’t increase the housing stock. When it’s built, Councilmembers Riemer and Friedson will point to it and say, “look what we did!” Except there will be another nearby project that didn’t happen because you’ve already pre-satisfied any demand with this one. Montgomery has plenty of land zoned for housing and buildings.

Councilmember Friedson also neglects to mention that the building will not have a zero cost to the county. Providing county services will cost money but Montgomery will receive a lot less than normal to cover those costs.

Andrew Friedson has been touted with much hope, including here, as the Council’s bright new economic light. If he wants to live up to this promise, he needs to shift his focus fast from this old-style ineffective developer welfare to more original ideas to attract commercial business to Montgomery.

The bill reflects Councilmember Hans Riemer’s long-term approach over several terms to housing, which has long dominated the Council. Unfortunately, it has had far more success in pleasing monied interests than it has accomplished in producing affordable housing. No doubt it also pleases David Blair’s developer-heavy crowd.

Councilmember Nancy Navarro has presented herself as second to none as a champion for social justice. She has stood up unflinchingly for often abused undocumented immigrants to the frequent dismay of their opponents around the State. Here, she argued that the Council needed to “be bold” and support this bill.

Except there is nothing remotely new, let alone bold, about giving a tax subsidy to developers. Speeding the production of high-priced apartments strikes me as the opposite of social justice.

I cannot help but wonder why this proudly progressive Council is focused on this legislation at this time when so many county residents are facing far more immediate and desperate problems. Even managing the day to day is still far from ordinary.

Charter Amendment A on Property Taxes

The crowning insult of this legislation is its juxtaposition with County Charter Amendment A. The short version is that the Council majority is now proposing to collect more in property taxes from ordinary residents even as it engages in this tax giveaway that has no valid economic or public purpose.

Charter Amendment A garners support from many because the current property tax system is not ideal for a variety of reasons (not the subject of this post). It effectively asks voters to loosen the very tight tax corset (it can only rise with the rate of inflation) so that the county can collect more if property values rise, as would likely happen now if the measure passes. It’s a tough ask at a time when many have seen incomes drop. One can argue that it is necessary when so many are in need.

But it is insupportable for the majority of the Montgomery County Council to offer a tax holiday to developers while increasing the take from ordinary citizens. It’s not progressive. It’s not liberal. It’s just bad economic policy wrapped in gaudy rhetoric that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It goes against this county’s good government traditions.

County Executive Elrich was right to veto this bad bill. The Council should vote to uphold his veto tomorrow.

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Friedson Floors Ficker on Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.

Friends of White Flint made a huge score last week when they landed the heavyweight battle of the year, at least for MoCo tax geeks: a debate between Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson and long-time anti-tax activist Robin Ficker. Friedson and Ficker are the authors of Questions A and B, dueling tax limit charter amendments on the ballot this year. No quarter was asked and no quarter was given!

First, a reminder of what these tax questions would do. Question A (the Friedson amendment) would freeze the property tax rate and allow it to be increased only by a unanimous vote of the county council. Question B (the newest of many Ficker amendments) would allow property tax collections to rise at the rate of inflation and remove the current ability of a unanimous council to override it. Both questions impose limits on property taxes that the vast majority of Maryland counties don’t possess, although Question A would raise more money than Question B over time.

Friends of White Flint invited Friedson and Ficker to discuss their charter amendments on a Zoom meeting and they did not disappoint. Stiff jabs, hooks and uppercuts were thrown (virtually of course) as the high school linebacker and Muhammad Ali’s running partner put on a show. But Friedson threw the winning punch with this statement:

What Robin Ficker will not say, what he is not telling you, is when he repeatedly talks about that 8.7% property tax increase [in 2016] based on this ridiculous tax policy that we currently have, his property taxes, not just his tax rates, his property taxes, the literal dollars that Mr. Ficker pays today, are lower than what they were when property taxes were raised.

This is a true statement as can be verified from county records. Ficker was charged $4,920 in county property taxes on his Boyds home in 2016 and has been charged $4,723 this year, a 4% drop in his taxes. This is despite a slight increase in his property’s assessed value. Ficker’s experience demonstrates a quirk of the current property tax charter limit that his charter amendment would convert into a hard cap: because the charter limit ties revenue growth to inflation and not growth in the assessable base (which is usually higher), it can actually result in cuts to property tax rates and reductions in collections from some specific properties, including Ficker’s. Friedson argues that this deprives the county of the full tax benefits it could otherwise derive from growth and serves as a disincentive for economic development.

Ficker had no response on the issue of his county property taxes.

The full video is below.

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Top Seventh State Stories, September 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in September ranked by page views.

1. Free-For-All
2. Why Montgomery County Ballot Questions B and D Are Truly Bad Ideas You Should Vote Against
3. Harris Blasts MCEA Over School Reopening
4. Harris Apologizes for Comments on School Reopening
5. Progressive-Backed Judge Candidate Courted, Donated to Republicans
6. Changing the Reopening Timeline: A Recipe for Confusion and Anxiety
7. Ballot Question Committee Scorecard
8. Post Editorial: Vote Against All Charter Amendments
9. Judge Candidate on Floyd Cops: “Lock Em Up”
10. Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment

Free-For-All, which called into question the county’s strategy for dealing with the police department, was the runaway leader this month. That suggests that there is considerable unease about the county’s approach to MCPD which goes far beyond the groups the county hears from regularly. School board candidate Lynne Harris’s criticism of MCEA, for which she later apologized, produced a flood of site traffic. The two posts about circuit court judge candidate Marylin Pierre were circulated by her opponents on the sitting judge slate. The rest of the posts were mostly about MoCo’s charter amendments, on which voting has already begun.

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Real Deal Ethics Bills

By Adam Pagnucco.

The ethics scandal involving MoCo’s former Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was a trying moment for the county government but it has produced a happy outcome: the introduction of two robust ethics bills by Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson. Together, the two bills – if passed – will ensure that the events leading to the now-former CAO’s resignation will never happen again.

Quoting the introduction packet, Bill 42-20 would:

1. Require the Executive to disclose a proposed employment contract with an appointee to a non-merit position and any employment contract with an employee currently serving in a non-merit position to the Council;

2. Include the sale or promotion of certain intellectual property by a public employee as other employment;

3. Prohibit a public employee who has received compensation from an individual or organization in the previous 12 months from participating in a procurement with that individual or organization;

4. Require a public employee who participates in a procurement process with an individual or organization seeking to do business with the County that compensated the public employee for services performed more than 12 months before the participation began to disclose the prior relationship to the Procurement Director;

5. Require an elected official or non-merit employee to disclose, with some exceptions, the source of each fee greater than $1,000 received for services in a financial disclosure statement; and

6. Prohibit the Chief Administrative Officer from engaging in other employment.

Bill 43-20 would prohibit severance pay to non-merit employees. The bill’s language says:

The Executive or a Councilmember must not authorize any payment of money or paid administrative leave to a non-merit employee in the Executive Branch or in the Legislative Branch upon separation from County employment unless the payment is expressly authorized by law. The Executive or a Councilmember must not enter into an employment agreement with a non-merit employee that provides for any type of severance pay for an employee who is terminated with or without cause.

The bill allows payments of unused leave and discontinued pensions. It expressly prohibits “severance pay for an employee who admits to or is found to have violated the Ethics Law in the 12 months prior to separation from County employment.”

These bills are an absolute no-brainer. The entire county council should be all over them like white on rice.

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Smart Growth or Corporate Welfare? Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

For many years, MoCo has focused its land use and economic development policies on transit-oriented development. Since 2006, the county has adopted eight master plans centered on Metro stations, another four centered on Purple Line stations and one more centered on Corridor Cities Transitway stations. Another plan is in the works for Downtown Silver Spring.

The capstone for the Metro-based plans is development on top of the Metro stations themselves, which requires joint development agreements with WMATA. Placing the highest density on Metro stations, along with nearby parcels, enables the county to balance growth, transportation and environmental priorities in its march towards the future. For fifteen years, that’s what we have been told.

Now we are told that this approach won’t work without taxpayer subsidies.

The problem is that most, if not all, development on top of Metro stations is not proceeding. And that is because of economics. In order to be economically viable, Metro development projects must charge rents or condo prices sufficient to not only cover construction costs, financing and investor returns but also the unique costs associated with Metro station sites. The economics are particularly difficult with high rise projects, which have higher material and construction costs than wood-frame projects. And so the county council has proposed Bill 29-20, which would eliminate property taxes on Metro station development projects for 15 years and replace them with undefined payments in lieu of taxes to be set later.

In justifying the bill’s purpose, consider these remarks by Council Members Hans Riemer and Andrew Friedson, the lead sponsors of the bill, and Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson at the council’s first work session.


Riemer
I want to say that this is a smart growth proposal. This is about making development feasible where decades of inactivity has demonstrated it is not feasible. If you look at Montgomery County and our Metro stations, you will almost universally see empty space on top of the Metro stations and despite efforts by WMATA over many years to support development at those stations, to solicit development on their property, there is very little that has happened. And there is very little that has happened recently, in the last ten years or so. Very little high rise, especially, and because of a shift in the market, I think which is driven by regional economic shifts and global economic shifts that have made the cost of high rise construction prohibitive except in the most high rent communities…

I think very broadly speaking, we have sought to channel all of our development, almost all of it, through a smart growth framework. We want to get housing that is high rise. We want to discourage sprawl. But the problem is we have not – the market isn’t producing the high rise that we have zoned for, that we want. And so the end result is we’re not getting much development. We’re not getting very much housing. We’re not even getting much commercial development.

Friedson
The idea that we’re forgoing revenue and that has a direct cost, that we’re leaving money on the table, we’re not leaving money on the table – the table doesn’t exist currently. That is the issue. There is no development, there is no investment. At best, the table is going somewhere else. It’s been shipped to another region of the country. It’s been shipped to another county. The whole point here is to create the opportunity. You know, the idea that we would be serious about transit-oriented development, that we would be serious about meeting our significant housing targets to address the housing crisis that we currently face but wouldn’t be willing to do anything about it is troubling. And we need a game changer. We need something to change the economic development path that we’re on, we need something to change the housing path that we’re on, that currently does not work. And I will say our housing situation, that is our version of a wall in Montgomery County. What we do with housing is a decision that we make on whether or not we want new residents here or not. That’s the local government version of whether we put up a literal or proverbial wall to say who can and who can’t live here, who we want and who we don’t want here.

Anderson
Will the development happen anyway? And I think the market is not just speaking, it’s screaming that the answer is no. Because you don’t have to take any particular real estate developer’s word for it, you can see what’s happening in the real world. It’s not just in Montgomery County, you can look at what market rents are at every Metro station in the region and you’ll see that there’s a few, particularly in Northern Virginia and in Bethesda, where rents can justify new high-rise construction there. Everywhere else, the answer is no, and that’s not just true of Grosvenor, or for that matter Forest Glen, as you mentioned, it’s also true of White Flint.


In considering these remarks, let’s remember who is saying them. It’s not County Executive Marc Elrich, who voted against numerous transit-oriented development master plans when he was on the council. It’s Casey Anderson, who has served on the Planning Board for nine years and chaired it for six; Hans Riemer, who has served on the council for ten years and is the current chair of its planning committee; and Andrew Friedson, who has emerged as the council’s principal champion of economic development during his first term in office. These are not development critics as Elrich has been. Anderson in particular, and Riemer to a lesser extent, are two of the architects of the county’s Metro-oriented land use policy and they are saying that it has failed.

They are also saying that the only way to rescue it is through what may ultimately become the biggest application of corporate tax breaks in the county’s history.

Are they right? We’ll discuss it in Part Two.

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Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment

By Adam Pagnucco.

MoCo voters will see two charter amendments on property taxes on their ballots this fall. One of them was submitted by long-time anti-tax activist Robin Ficker, who delivered his petition signatures in February. The other was authored by Council Member Andrew Friedson and placed on the ballot by the county council. The Washington Post editorial board dislikes both, but for progressives, the choice is clear: the Friedson amendment is superior in providing adequate funding for government.

The first reason why progressives should support the Friedson amendment over the Ficker amendment is due to the nature of how they allow revenue increases. The Ficker amendment uses the methodology of the current charter limit on property taxes, which dates back to 1990. Currently, MoCo’s charter allows the volume of real property tax collections to rise at the rate of inflation with a few relatively minor exceptions. Friedson’s charter amendment would cap the weighted average tax rate on real property and allow collections to rise with assessments. So to compare their revenue generation over time, we need to compare the growth in price inflation (which is relied upon by the Ficker amendment) to the growth in assessments (which is relied upon by the Friedson amendment).

The chart below compares the growth in the county’s assessed value of real property to the growth in the Washington-Baltimore Consumer Price Index (CPI) from 2003 through 2017.

This period contained three distinct economic phases. The 2003-2010 period saw robust economic growth throughout the Washington region, causing assessment growth (115%) to far outpace price inflation (26%). Then came the Great Recession years of 2010 to 2013, during which assessments fell (5% over three years) while prices rose modestly (7%). In the slow recovery through 2017, assessments went up by 12% while prices rose by 4%. For the entire period, assessments increased by 129% while price inflation was 41%, suggesting that Friedson’s approach would have yielded MUCH more property tax revenue growth than Ficker’s. (The exact difference would have depended on other factors such as the application of tax credits, especially the homestead tax credit.)

That said, in four of these sixteen years – the period of the Great Recession – Ficker’s approach would have raised more than Friedson’s because real estate values tend to decline during prolonged economic downturns. That leads us to the second major difference between the Friedson and Ficker amendments. Friedson’s amendment allows a unanimous council vote to break the charter limit on property taxes, which continues current practice. Ficker’s amendment eliminates the ability of the council to break the limit, thereby instituting a hard cap on property tax collections. (There is an important exception to this in state law which will be the subject of a future post.) If property tax collections collapse during a recession, Friedson would allow the council to intervene in case of an emergency while Ficker would not. That’s another big reason why progressives should support the Friedson amendment.

Some progressives were disappointed because they wanted the council to adopt County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed charter amendment, which would have made property tax hikes easier. Good luck getting MoCo voters whose wallets are getting slammed by COVID-19 to support anything opening the door to tax hikes. The Friedson and Ficker amendments both limit property tax increases, but since the Friedson amendment raises more money over time, it deserves the support of the left.

Update: An earlier version of this post was based on changes in the national CPI. This version is based on the Washington-Baltimore CPI. The two measures change at similar rates so the conclusions here are unaffected.

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Friedson Asks for Answers on Private School Shutdown

By Adam Pagnucco.

District 1 County Council Member Andrew Friedson has sent the letter below to county health officer Travis Gayles asking a series of questions about the county’s shutdown of private schools for in-person instruction, which happened on Friday. Friedson’s district includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, North Bethesda, Poolesville, Potomac and part of Kensington.

*****

August 3, 2020

Travis A. Gayles, M.D., Ph.D.
Health Officer, Montgomery County
401 Hungerford Drive, 5th Floor
Rockville, MD 20850

Dr. Gayles,

As I am sure you are aware, the health order you issued late Friday, July 31 prohibiting independent schools from reopening for in-person instruction has been met with a great deal of anger, frustration, and confusion among our residents. This order caught many independent school leaders and families by surprise, including many who have spent the last several months preparing to open based on CDC and state guidelines. Understandably, it has generated countless questions conveyed to me and my office over the weekend.

While I recognize that not everyone will agree with all of the difficult decisions you must make as our County’s Public Health Officer during this pandemic, our residents do deserve clear, logical, and consistent rationales for those decisions, along with timely and transparent answers to their questions. In that spirit, I am requesting that you answer the following questions for our residents in a thorough, fact-based, and timely manner, consistent with previous reopening decisions made to date:

1. What specific health metrics and epidemiological data were used to make the determination that independent schools cannot safely open until at least October 1? Are there specific, objective public health metrics that must be met before in-person instruction can take place?

2. Why are neighboring jurisdictions with similar transmission rates allowing independent schools to open? Are they basing their decisions on different data? Do they assess the risk differently?

3. Have you consulted with neighboring jurisdictions to determine why they’ve reached a different conclusion than our health department?

4. Have you consulted with the State Health Department to discuss this decision and the factors upon which it is based?

5. Are there specific, unique features of a school setting that carry significant additional risk of transmission compared to other businesses such as child care providers, restaurants, barbers, retailers and offices that are able to operate on a limited basis with health directives such as social distancing, use of facial masks and other PPE, and cleaning protocols?

6. Rather than a wholesale prohibition of in-class instruction, did you and your team consider whether independent and religiously affiliated schools should be provided a set of health and safety guidelines for reopening like other sectors in our community? Are there no health directives and safety measures that can be employed in order for schools to open as many businesses have been able to? If not, why?

7. Were independent schools directly involved in the decision-making process to determine how they had planned to follow the CDC and state guidelines and whether there were additional measures that could be employed to further mitigate transmission risk? Were schools afforded an opportunity to provide individualized reopening plans for your consideration?

8. I understand that some day-care centers will operate “kindergarten support” classes. Children who would otherwise be in public school kindergarten will go to these classes at a day-care center, and the day-care center will assist the children with the online kindergarten instruction, and also provide aftercare. If that can be done safely, is it possible for a private school to safely operate a kindergarten class, provided it has the same density of children and adults and uses the same safety standards as a day-care center operating a “kindergarten support” class?

Because these decisions are not easy and the available information regarding this disease is rapidly evolving, it is even more critical that public health directives be made as clearly, consistently, and transparently as possible. If we ask the community to follow the rules, we must ensure that they have faith in the process that determined the rules, as well as the policies themselves. Thank you in advance for your prompt response to these questions.

Sincerely,
Andrew Friedson
Councilmember, District 1

CC: Marc Elrich, County Executive
Dr. Earl Stoddard, Director, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security
Sidney Katz, President, County Council
Gabe Albornoz, Chair, Health and Human Services Committee, County Council

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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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