Tag Archives: Marc Elrich

Riemer vs Elrich on Solar in the Ag Reserve

By Adam Pagnucco.

The extent to which solar panels should be allowed in the agricultural reserve was a big issue this week. Council Member Hans Riemer, one of the lead sponsors of legislation to do so, and County Executive Marc Elrich, who favors less capacity than Riemer, both issued statements this week which we reprint below. For background, you can refer to Bethesda Beat’s account of the county council’s decision on the issue, my column on its context and Delegate Kumar Barve’s letter to the council about the legislation.

First, let’s consider what Riemer had to say in his blast email of February 24.

*****

Why I Voted No

When I introduced the “farm + solar” zoning change with Council President Tom Hucker back in January 2020, my goal was to build a cornerstone of Montgomery County’s climate action policy.

By allowing less than 2% of the land in the County zoned “Agricultural Reserve” (which is itself one-third of all land in the County) to be used for privately funded community solar projects, the proposal would have generated enough clean energy to power more than 50,000 homes, while continuing agricultural practices on that land.

Regrettably, with opposition fueled by the County Executive, a majority of Councilmembers adopted two amendments to ZTA 20-01 that are so restrictive that the proposal may result in very little if any solar.

As a result, I voted “no,” because I am concerned that rather than a small step forward for Montgomery County, it may be a large step backward for Maryland. Consider these words from Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which along with the Sierra Club and Poolesville Green strongly supported the original plan:

Clean energy has to go somewhere. If liberal Montgomery County can’t reach a sensible compromise policy, imagine the push back from Republican county and state elected leaders who think climate change is a hoax anyway.

We should be leading. Our county has adopted climate goals. We declared a “climate emergency.” We have conducted studies on how to reduce our carbon footprint. At the end of the day though, the only way to make a difference is to make policy changes, and changes will require disruption to the status quo.

Yes, many incumbent farmers and preservationists were opposed, due to impacts on their business models (shifting from commodity crops to agrivoltaics, solar grazing, or pollinator-friendly habitats on that portion of land) or a perceived threat that allowing solar is a step to allowing residential or other development (just a fear, not a reality).

There are reasonable questions about how we transition to a clean energy economy. One idea I offered was to use tax revenue from solar arrays to support additional agricultural preservation, grants to help small farmers purchase or lease land, and funds to support agrivoltaic and solar grazing. Nevertheless, under this plan, farming would continue, the Reserve would endure. Frankly not much would seem all that different but we would have made a huge impact on our carbon emissions.

Other choices that we have before us are far more costly, either financially to taxpayers or to businesses or homeowners. This is one of a very few ideas that does not actually require County funds — in fact it would generate millions in new county revenue that could be devoted to the climate agenda while creating new clean energy and solar grazing jobs.

Some of the important points to remember about this proposal include:

  1. Solar fields would have been limited each to 2MW in power generation, about 10-15 acres per property maximum (in contrast to portrayals of “industrial solar”)
  2. Total acreage allowed would have been limited to 1,800 out of the 100,000+ acre reserve, which itself is one-third of all land in the County
  3. Grazing sheep on pollinator-friendly plants beneath the arrays was encouraged and could have been incentivized with new tax revenue from the solar arrays
  4. Solar grazing and agrivoltaics would increase local food production in the Reserve — less than 1% of the land in the Agricultural Reserve today is farmed for fruits and vegetables destined for local farmers markets
  5. Rooftop and parking lot solar, while important, is significantly more expensive than ground-mounted or terrestrial solar fields, which is why you don’t see enough of it
  6. There is nothing more important to saving the climate than creating cheap clean energy
  7. By only allowing “community solar” installations on the land, energy companies taking advantage of the program would be required to offer discounted energy subscriptions to low income residents

The Council majority acknowledged that they are not sure if their proposal will result in new solar projects and that we should return to the topic in two years to evaluate progress.

In that respect, while I am disappointed in the final vote, I am also grateful that we have now opened up the possibility of farms providing community solar (which was previously entirely prohibited; now is mostly prohibited) and I am committed to growing that potential in the future as a necessary public benefit from our Agricultural Reserve.

In the meantime, while it is clear that the original proposal has overwhelming support from voters, we need to build grassroots support, and in particular, we need to educate residents about the primacy of clean energy and the social justice value of community solar.

To be continued.

Sincerely,
Hans

*****

Now let’s consider Elrich’s statement, issued on February 25.

*****

Dear Friends:

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voted to adopt changes to the County zoning code that will provide opportunities for locating solar collection systems in the Agricultural Reserve. I extend my thanks to the seven Councilmembers who found common ground that allows for community solar projects while protecting our agricultural resources.

Zoning Text Amendment 20-01 strikes the right balance between the need for renewable energy and the equally important need to protect the Agricultural Reserve’s unique and vital contributions to local food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.

The new standards allow solar collection systems generating up to two megawatts of power as a conditional use on the lesser productive soils in the Ag Reserve. Other provisions protect streams, wetlands, steep slopes greater than 15 percent and forests.

In addition, the areas under the arrays must be used for farming or agricultural purposes. Examples include pollinator-friendly designation, agrivoltaic plantings or crops suitable for grazing farm animals. Another significant change affects property owners who install smaller solar systems to serve their individual energy needs, increasing the amount of on-site energy they can produce from 120 to 200 percent.

The County Council also mandated a formal review process to assess the outcomes of these changes in two years. This will give us the opportunity to observe whether and how this experiment will work, especially regarding the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which focuses on the co-development of land for both solar power and agriculture.

In the meantime, my administration continues to prioritize increased solar energy production in innovative ways. For example, we are currently planning the installation of a six-megawatt array on the County-owned site of an old landfill. We also are looking at ways to incentivize solar projects on existing parking lots and buildings elsewhere throughout the County. These types of projects are essential to our efforts to address climate change through clean energy solutions.

I deeply appreciate the work of all those involved in this year-long review, most especially members of, and advocates for, the farming community and Executive Department staff members. The Ag Reserve, established by prescient County leaders more than 40 years ago, is recognized as a national model of farmland and open space preservation. Its importance and significance grow with each passing year as we witness the effects of climate change on our food and water supplies. The legislation adopted by County Council embodies the need for protecting this resource while allowing us to see whether agriculture and solar systems can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way in Montgomery County.

Marc Elrich
County Executive

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Elrich and Gayles Comment on MCPS Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of MCEA’s resolution expressing no confidence in MCPS’s reopening plan, County Executive Marc Elrich and county health officer Travis Gayles were asked by the press today whether they agreed with MCEA or MCPS. Following is a transcription of their comments.

Question from Tom Fitzgerald, Fox 5 DC:

Question about schools. A lot of us got a news release yesterday from Montgomery County Education Association which says in part that they were passing a lack of confidence resolution. Quote: “The current MCPS plan to reopen school facilities cannot be successfully implemented, requiring more resources, more people, more space and more time and not negatively impacting students’ learning experience.” This is for Dr. Gayles and the county executive. Understanding what we just said about not wanting to open things up to have things rebound, I guess the simple question is are they right? Is the plan that’s been presented in a position to not be successfully implemented?

County health officer Travis Gayles:

I can speak from a health perspective. I’m not privy to those conversations between the union and MCPS and so forth. What I can say is this: is that the guidance that we have provided continues to be the same and is consistent with the metrics and measures that we put out in the fall using the state guidelines as well as the CDC guidelines in terms of metrics and markers where we thought it would be safe to come back related to test positivity and community transmission rate as evidenced by case rates.

And the numbers that we have are moving in that direction, which is favorable. What’s also different now than before, which again I continue to emphasize, is that we are seeing teachers and education staff get vaccinated and have access to that. I do think it is important for them to be able to have access to at least one shot before going back into the classroom. I know some may say that’s controversial given some of the CDC guidance but I do think we should continue to ensure that they have access to that as an added layer of protection when they go into the classroom.

Based upon… Dr. Stoddard and I, we meet regularly with our colleagues at MCPS, and based upon the tremendous amount of work that they have put into planning and coming up with different provisions and safety measures to put into the classrooms to mitigate transmission, we feel that they have done their due diligence in that and continue to refine. Though that said, I think if anyone should be concerned, going back into work for person-to-person, but we do feel that they have put a lot of effort in terms of coming up with different contingency plans and safety measures to mitigate transmission as much as possible. And we will certainly continue to… again, we don’t make those decisions, so again, for everybody at home, the health department does not make the decisions whether or not schools open, but we will continue to again monitor our guidance that we have provided to them based upon the surveillance information we have at hand.

County Executive Marc Elrich:

I haven’t read everything the school system’s proposed. I understand concerns about whether ventilation issues and other things have been adequately addressed, or how many people are going to be in a classroom because… as a former teacher, if I had the regular sized class in a regular sized classroom, I would never achieve the separation that people want. So I would want to look at how they are gonna deal with the number of kids who are brought back into classrooms.

And I think the big thing that gets lost in all of this is we talk about Montgomery County as if Montgomery County were all the same. And the truth is, and this is one reason why we’ve been focused on equity issues, there are parts of the county that do really, really well. I mean, our positivity and cases per hundred thousand is the total for the entire county – they are not evenly distributed across the county. You can look at zip codes, and we’ve got zip code maps, and you’ll see far more cases and far more apparent transmission per hundred thousand and you’ll see other zip codes where you don’t see many cases and you have, and you extrapolate much lower likelihood of transmission. So I understand that people would look at different neighborhoods and have different concerns about where you were teaching and what’s the environment and what’s the positivity rather than just looking at countywide numbers. I think there is something to be said for thinking about that.

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Once Again, Who’s the Boss?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Back in December, I wrote a column titled “Who’s the Boss?” in which I noted an extremely unusual event. It concerned MC 4-21, a local bill by Delegate Vaughn Stewart that enables – but does not mandate – the county to transfer administration of speed cameras from the police department to the transportation department. County Executive Marc Elrich and the county council support the bill. As elected officials, they get to set the positions of the county government on legislation and other important matters. County employees are then charged with implementing the policies decided by elected officials. That’s how government is supposed to work.

But that’s not how it worked in December, as representatives of the police department argued against the bill in a hearing before the county’s state legislators in open defiance of the executive, who the voters elected to be their boss. Multiple state legislators told me they had not witnessed something like that before. In the wake of my writing the column, I thought that the executive or his top lieutenants would crack heads and establish some discipline.

I thought wrong. Yesterday, it happened again. When the same bill (now listed as HB 564) was heard by the House Environment and Transportation Committee, once again an MCPD officer testified against it. The officer was Thomas Didone, who had also argued against it in December. Didone told the committee that he was appearing “as a Montgomery County resident and a traffic safety advocate for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Highway Safety Committee.” However, Didone is a lot more than that – he is an Assistant Chief and head of the police department’s Field Services Bureau. He is also a political appointee of the county executive, having been confirmed by the council in April, 2020. Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the executive.

Didone, bottom left, prepares to testify against a bill the county executive supports.

Didone absolutely trashed the bill, telling the committee, “Simply stated, this is bad policy based on emotions and not facts. Bad policy is bad and should not be considered.” Didone proceeded to tell the committee about how county police administer traffic cameras, demonstrating that he is no mere county resident.

Set aside the merits or lack thereof of the bill. What happened here was AMAZING. A political appointee of the county executive’s appeared in front of a House of Delegates committee and testified against a bill supported by the executive not once but TWICE. Ike Leggett would never have tolerated it. Doug Duncan would have… well, there are things too gruesome to be printed on a family-friendly blog like Seventh State!

Council Members Andrew Friedson and Hans Riemer picked up on this, writing a letter to Elrich asking him to get control of his staff. It’s true that Elrich has problems with the police department that have been exacerbated by his task force on reimagining the police. It’s also frankly irrelevant. Senior county managers don’t work for themselves. They work to implement policies established by elected officials who are accountable to voters. Elrich needs to assert his authority as the elected leader of the executive branch. If he does not, there will be chaos in Rockville.

The letter from Friedson and Riemer is reprinted below.

*****

February 12, 2021

County Executive Marc Elrich
101 Monroe Street, 2nd Floor
Rockville, MD 20850

County Executive Elrich,

The County Executive and Council have voiced their support for House Bill 564, local enabling legislation that would allow the County to move administration of the automated traffic enforcement program from Montgomery County Police to the Department of Transportation. In light of the County’s official position, you can understand the surprise and confusion created by the leader of the automated traffic enforcement program testifying in firm opposition to House Bill 564 on December 17 before the County Delegation’s Land Use Committee and on February 11 before the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

In his testimony, Assistant Chief Tom Didone said that moving the automated traffic enforcement program is “bad policy” and that the sponsoring legislators and those in County government who support it have done so “based on emotion and not fact.” His allegation is incorrect and appeared to create confusion about the County government’s true position among members of the Committee considering the bill – and understandably so.

Put aside for the moment that we continue to support the policy that House Bill 564 would enable on policy grounds. We believe moving the administration of automated traffic enforcement to the Department of Transportation is a more effective approach to reaching our Vision Zero goal by decreasing the speeding that leads to and causes deaths and severe injuries on our roadways. We also believe, consistent with the recommendations from your Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, that relying more on automated traffic enforcement will support our shared efforts to reduce bias in traffic enforcement. We welcome continued dialogue on the merit of this concept and look forward to exploring criticism of the policy, including by those with direct knowledge of the administration of the program.

We will be unable to have that discussion in any serious way if the concept is not allowed in State law. Unfortunately, the member of the Executive Branch staffed with leading the automated traffic enforcement program is advocating and lobbying against our ability to have that full public debate, despite our support.

This appears to have made approval of the enabling state legislation more difficult and such activity threatens to undercut the formal support from County elected leadership for any enabling bills before the General Assembly that impact our County. As County Executive, surely you do not want Executive Branch staff contradicting your own position. We ask that you work with members of the Executive Branch to get their expertise, their insight, and their concerns about any proposed policy in a manner that is more appropriate and respectful of our responsibility to represent the public and the standard procedures the County uses to weigh in on State legislation.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Andrew Friedson
Councilmember, District 1

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-Large

CC: Richard Madaleno, Chief Administrative Officer
Melanie Wenger, Director, Office of Intergovernmental Relations
Marcus Jones, Chief, Montgomery County Police
Tom Didone, Assistant Chief, Montgomery County Police
Chris Conklin, Director, Department of Transportation
Delegate Marc Korman, Chair, Montgomery County Delegation
Delegate Kumar Barve, Chair, House Environment and Transportation Committee
Delegate Vaughn Stewart

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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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The Top Twenty Seventh State Posts of 2020, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

The year 2020 was hugely eventful for the entire world and MoCo was no exception. In our county, 2020 saw a public health crisis, a resulting economic crash and huge challenges to our quality of life. In political terms, it also saw unusually contentious elections for school board and circuit court judge, four historic ballot questions and numerous fights inside county government. We wrote about it all on Seventh State. Here are the top twenty posts measured by page views from the people who count the most – YOU, our readers.

  1. Miscreants Run Wild at Elrich Press Conference

This was a poorly organized public event gone wrong, culminating with an unmasked protestor getting within spitting distance of the county executive. For those who question the need for the executive to have a security detail, this is Exhibit A for why it can be necessary.

  1. Elrich Vetoes WMATA Property Tax Bill

County Executive Marc Elrich’s first veto, this one targeting a council-passed bill giving Metro station developers 15-year property tax breaks, set off a fight on corporate welfare that has not ended by a long shot. That will prove especially true if a proposal by the planning staff to grant tax abatements to other properties near Metro stations advances.

  1. The Squeaky Wheel and Inequities Hiding in Plain Sight

MoCo PTA Vice-President Laura Stewart wrote this guest blog on inequities in MCPS’s capital budget. It’s a must-read for everyone who cares about school construction.

  1. Will MCPS Reopen?

In early November, MCPS told the public that it was planning a phased-in reopening of schools for some in-person instruction. But the winter surge of COVID quickly overtook that plan and cast the timing of reopening in doubt. The issue is still unsettled.

  1. MCEA: MCPS Reopening Plan “Wholly Inadequate” to Protect Students and Staff

Back in the summer, MCPS’s original reopening plan was drenched in controversy, ultimately resulting in a pitched battle with the county teachers’ union (MCEA). MCPS wound up going with virtual learning for the fall, like most other large school systems in the region, but the mechanics and safety of reopening are still subjects of debate.

  1. What Happened to White Flint?

Jobs, jobs, JOBS. According to White Flint developers, MoCo’s slow rate of job growth was one reason that they could not get financing to proceed on the county’s preeminent development plan. The chart below says it all. And when the COVID pandemic finally ends, county leaders must dedicate themselves to creating jobs, Jobs, JOBS or MoCo’s stagnation will continue.

  1. Baltimore City’s Election Has a Problem

Back in June, incumbent Baltimore City Council Member Zeke Cohen, who had a big lead in money and endorsements over his challenger, appeared on election night to be getting just 2% of the vote. That was the first sign of a primary gone wrong, which led to many misgivings about the state’s processes with mail ballots and the performance of its long-time election administrator Linda Lamone.

  1. Why Montgomery County Ballot Questions B and D Are Truly Bad Ideas You Should Vote Against

2020 was a year of surprises, and one of the bigger surprises was the emergence from political retirement of former County Executive Ike Leggett. Question B (Robin Ficker’s latest anti-tax charter amendment) and Question D (nine council districts) disturbed Leggett enough that he started a ballot issue committee to defeat them. This post was Leggett’s guest column on why they were bad ideas and it got a big reaction from our readers.

  1. Teachers Respond to Lynne Harris

After school board candidate Lynne Harris blamed MCEA for allegedly resisting school reopening (a post that also appears on our top 20 list), a group of rank-and-file teachers pushed back in this guest post. It achieved wide readership that was probably concentrated among teachers as the general election approached.

  1. Free-For-All

In non-COVID news, 2020 was the year that the county’s police department (along with departments around the country) became a political football. This post describes how the executive, the county council and Annapolis all jumped into the issue of policing with little coordination. Lost in the debate was the central fact that crime in MoCo is at its lowest level in decades. Policing will continue to be a hot topic in 2021.

Tomorrow we will list the top ten Seventh State posts for the year!

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Top Seventh State Stories, December 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

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

1. What Happened to White Flint?
2. The Day of Reckoning is Near
3. Jawando Calls for a Tax Hike
4. Come on Now
5. Who’s the Boss?
6. MCEA to School Board: Reopening Should be Safe
7. Trump vs Hogan: Votes by MoCo Town
8. Council Overrides Veto, Attacks Elrich, Cuts Revenue for School Buildings
9 (tie). Minority Members of the U.S. House
9 (tie). Corporate MoCo Council Adopts Supply-Side Economics

The top three stories fit together and have meaning for the new year and beyond. The Day of Reckoning is Near summarizes the county’s dire fiscal picture as it heads into a challenging FY22 budget discussion in the spring. Jawando Calls for a Tax Hike kicks off an inevitable dialogue about taxes, one which will only get hotter before the executive makes his budget recommendation on March 15. And What Happened to White Flint? – December’s runaway winner – lays out the story of how the county’s premier development plan has been held back by our slow rate of job growth. Budget headaches, taxes and economic problems are about to collide.

Welcome to 2021, folks!

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Who’s the Boss?

By Adam Pagnucco.

One of the challenges of running the executive branch is to present a unified front to the public. The executive branch has thousands of employees and hundreds of subject matter experts in fields ranging from transportation to IT to law to environmental management to social services to… you get the idea. It’s incredible how much the county government does and how much its employees know. But at the same time, it works for one person: the county executive. He or she is the ultimate policy maker for the executive branch. After hopefully listening to input far and wide, the executive’s decision on an executive branch position is final. And every person inside the executive branch must respect it.

Or at least that’s the theory.

This principle broke down in full public view with regards to MC 4-21, a state bill affecting only Montgomery County introduced by Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19). The bill would enable, but not mandate, the county to transfer administration of speed cameras from the police department to the transportation department. Stewart believes it makes sense to have one agency in charge of both traffic safety and road improvements, and since the police department does not manage road projects, he thinks the transportation department should do both. County Executive Marc Elrich supports the bill and there is no indication in documents sent to the county council that he has any reservations about it. That should be the end of the story; the executive (as well as the council) supports the bill and the state delegation, which will decide its fate, will take that into account when deciding how to vote on it.

But that’s not the end of the story. The county’s director of intergovernmental relations wrote this to the council in addition to noting the executive’s support:

The Office of the County Attorney (OCA), the Department of Transportation (MCDOT), and the Department of Police (MCPD) have expressed concerns about MC 4-21. Specifically, OCA explained that while the local bill is only enabling, “DOT is not a law enforcing agency and is not equipped to act as one.” It pointed out that the bill “would have Montgomery County as the only jurisdiction in the State where no law enforcement individuals are reviewing speed camera citations and signing off on violations.”

Well, OK. The bill is an enabling bill, not a mandate. If the bill passes, the executive would have a voice in determining whether the shift in responsibility is actually implemented. Is the Office of County Attorney arguing that its boss – the executive – should not have that voice when the executive openly desires it?

There is more. When the MoCo state legislators’ land use committee convened to consider the bill on December 17, representatives of the police department acknowledged that the executive supported the bill and then proceeded to argue against it. Among their statements were that Baltimore City allegedly screwed up a similar program, the MoCo police had 15 years of experience in speed camera management that was a “national model,” and the state legislators should “make sure this is not an emotional decision.” They also characterized D.C.’s speed camera program, which was shifted to their transportation department, as “the worst program in the nation, hands down, by far.” One police official proudly declared, “We do not succumb to political influence!” in front of – you guessed it – seven state politicians in the meeting. He concluded that a transfer of responsibility “would do irreparable damage to this program as well as programs throughout the state.”

But the executive supports the bill.

Set aside the specifics of the bill for a moment. When the executive makes a policy decision, such as whether to support legislation, it is not merely a personal gesture. The executive is elected by voters to make decisions on behalf of the executive branch. Its employees are bound to carry out those decisions. Sure, the executive branch doesn’t exist in a bubble – it has to respond to other governmental bodies as well as a host of outside circumstances. But within its boundaries, the executive’s decisions must be respected. If not, then the departments turn into free agents and no one is really running the place.

You can bet that when the police openly tried to kill a bill supported by the executive, the state legislators who witnessed it noticed. They are not the only ones. The county council knows about it. No doubt other departments are watching. It’s impossible to say what gave rise to the police rebellion. Do they feel that the executive does not listen to them? If so, the executive’s information gathering process needs improvement. But if the executive does not remind his subordinates who their boss is, then the executive branch won’t have a boss. And that would make the county damn near ungovernable.

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Corporate MoCo Council Adopts Supply-Side Economics

The Montgomery County Council talks a good game when it comes to progressive politics, but their policy choices are straight out of the corporate conservative Republican playbook.

Consider their most recent action to lower impact fees that pay for public services, like schools, on development.

Heeding calls by Empower Montgomery (which advertised being founded by David Blair until he ran for county executive), the Council is eliminating moratoria on development required by law due to the county’s failure to provide public services needed for existing residents in these areas. The Council didn’t solve the problem providing the public services needed to meet legal requirements but by simply eliminating the moratoria.

In the past, councilmembers have argued against moratoria on the grounds that the impact fees from new development are vital to providing these services. No one has trumpeted this line more strongly than the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee Chair Hans Riemer.

In an October email blast, Riemer justified the Council’s last corporate welfare giveaway (eliminating real estate developments on WMATA property from property taxes for 15 years) by pointing to the impact fees they will generate:

These projects generate more construction jobs and more one-time revenue for the County, such as impact tax revenue that can be used to add school and transportation capacity.

Now, the Council has voted substantial cuts to the impact fees that they touted as the reason to eliminate the moratoria and pass the property tax giveaway for developers. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but this nevertheless remains an impressive feat of quick dumping down the memory hole.

The Council’s decision sounds like straight supply-side economics. It contends that reducing impact fees will result in more development. If they believe that this will result in an impact tax gusher, it’s the exact same fantasy that fueled massive deficits under Reagan, Bush and Trump, when tax cuts for the wealthy did not swell the nation’s coffers. Otherwise, they are bringing in more people who will require services but leaving the county even less equipped to pay for needed infrastructure.

The Council has conveniently left the decision as to what cuts should be made due to revenue reduction to County Executive Marc Elrich. They’ll lay the blame for the fall in revenue and cuts at his door even though their policies will cause the problem.

Elrich vetoed the bill despite unanimous Council support. As they vote to override it and further starve public infrastructure, the Council will cast Elrich’s fiscally responsible decision simultaneously as far-left crazy and anti-affordable housing.

During his ten years on the Council, Hans Riemer has cast himself as the leader of efforts to provide affordable housing. He vilifies Marc Elrich’s policies as the source of the problem. Yet it’s Riemer and his allies, like two-three-term Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, who pushed this supply-side legislation, who have long been running the policy show in this area.

That hasn’t stopped them from regularly declaring current policy a failure to justify their latest idea. Obliviously, the Council regularly passes new legislation that Anderson, Riemer and friends claim will address the lack of affordable housing while simultaneously lamenting the continuing decline of affordable housing.

But don’t let the rest of the Council off the hook either. It voted to raise your property taxes while cutting those on favored developers (Councilmembers Hucker and Jawando opposed the latter). And all voted to reduce impact fees even though they all ran on improving public services.

Supported by monied interests, this show has been running for a long time. The Council gift wraps another tranche of money to wealthy interests that lobby for it in the gauzy rhetoric of affordable housing and social justice. The policy failure is then used to justify the next giveaway. Recycle and repeat.

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Top Seventh State Stories, November 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

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

1. Will MCPS Reopen?
2. MoCo Democrats Issue Statement on Ballot Questions
3. MCPS Reopening Looks More Unlikely
4. Who Has the Edge in the At-Large School Board Race?
5. Elrich Extends Response Deadline for Public Information Act Requests
6. Council Drops the Other Purple Penny
7. Sitting Judges Get Temporary Restraining Order Against Pierre
8. Does Downcounty Pick the At-Large Council Members?
9. Scandal: County Employees Got COVID Pay They Were Not Entitled to Get
10. Winners and Losers of the Ballot Question War

Three of these stories were leftovers from the election and dominated the first week. Of the rest, two of the top three relate to whether and how MCPS will reopen – a huge issue that has yet to be resolved. Parents may disagree on exactly what MCPS should do, but all of us (I’m one of them!) are intensely interested in the outcome.

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Elrich Vetoes Impact Tax Cut

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive Marc Elrich has vetoed a bill passed by the council that would effectively cut impact tax collections. While the bill passed the council on a 9-0 vote, making it unlikely that Elrich’s veto will be upheld, the policy debate lays out stark differences between the executive and the council.

Impact taxes are charged to development projects in order to pay for the additional demands for infrastructure that they create. MoCo levies two: a school impact tax and a transportation impact tax. Both are used to finance the capital budget and are dedicated to schools and transportation projects respectively. The county council periodically adjusts impact tax rates, credits and discounts, and various structural aspects of how they are administered.

This year, the planning board proposed as part of a new subdivision staging policy (which sets the county’s policies on infrastructure) a package of tax changes. Bill 38-20 instituted a range of changes to impact tax collections that would effectively reduce the county’s receipts. Among the planning board’s proposals were to cut the school impact tax rate to 100% of the cost of a student seat from the current 120% of the cost of a student seat and to apply discounts to single-family detached and multifamily units in desired growth areas to incentivize growth, both of which would cut receipts. These cuts would be partially reduced by a new utilization premium payment applied to development projects in areas with crowded schools.

To offset the impact tax losses in Bill 38-20, the planning board proposed Bill 39-20E, which would raise recordation taxes. Currently, recordation tax receipts are split between the operating budget’s general fund, the capital budget (especially schools) and rental assistance programs. And so the planning board’s vision was to cut impact taxes and raise recordation taxes to spread the cost of financing infrastructure across both new and existing development.

Lots of changes were made to the planning board’s proposals but the bottom line is that the council passed Bill 38-20, which cut impact tax receipts, and has not yet passed Bill 39-20E, which would raise recordation tax receipts to help pay for lower impact taxes. (The latter had significant opposition from the real estate community.) The recordation tax increase is not dead, however; the council will return to that issue eventually if for no either reason than to examine the capital budget next year.

That leaves the county executive, who repeatedly expressed concerns about the changes to impact taxes and other growth policies throughout the fall. Elrich believes that Bill 38-20 will cost the county $12.5-20 million a year in lost impact tax revenues, all of which go to paying for school construction and transportation projects. (That number is subject to dispute.) Elrich also never bought in to the trade of lower impact taxes for higher recordation taxes. He would rather use higher recordation taxes to cover operating budget shortfalls or more school expenditures than to offset lower revenues from impact taxes. Accordingly, Elrich vetoed the cut in impact taxes even though it passed the council on a 9-0 vote. The council will win the policy debate for now, but the politics (and the budget maneuvers) will go on.

Elrich’s veto message is printed below.


MEMORANDUM

November 30, 2020

TO: Sidney Katz, President, County Council

FROM: Marc Elrich, County Executive

RE: Veto explanation: Bill 38-20 Taxation – Development Impact Taxes for Transportation and Public-School Improvements – Amendments

With new development comes increased infrastructure needs; the newly renamed “Growth and Infrastructure Policy” (Growth Policy) reduces the funding available to provide the necessary infrastructure while the need to provide infrastructure is more critical to our success than ever. While I have long been concerned with how impact taxes work and I believe that there are alternatives that should be implemented, I cannot support simply reducing the necessary revenues without an appropriate replacement. Therefore, I am vetoing Bill 38-20.

The primary purpose of the Growth Policy is to put forth policies for adequate infrastructure – schools, transportation and more – that accompany new development. While I have other concerns about the bill, my primary concern is the projected revenue loss, which is estimated to be between $12.5 million and $20 million per year based on an analysis of projects in the development pipeline.

These reduced revenues are occurring at a time when we know we don’t have enough funding to address current needs or other infrastructure investments needed to grow our economy and maintain our status as a desirable place to live. For example, legislation to increase state aid for school construction will require the county to provide local matching funds; traditional state aid costs the County $3 for every $1 from the State or an average of $200 million annually. It is important to ensure the County will be able to continue to match traditional state aid for school construction as well as the approximately $400 million in additional state aid expected from the Built to Learn Act. (This Act will take effect immediately upon the legislature’s expected override of the Governor’s veto of the “Kirwan” bill.) School overcrowding and a $1.5 billion-dollar backlog in new construction, renovation and modernization needs burden our school system – one of our prime assets.

In addition, regional business leaders have said that improved transportation is central to economic development, pointing out the importance of efforts like Bus Rapid Transit.

Yet at a time when we know that (post-Covid19) we need improved transportation and relief for overcrowded schools and delayed modernizations, this Growth Policy reduces our ability to finance those needs.

These and other increased needs are coming while we are lowering our General Obligation bond borrowing to slow the growth of debt service costs, which lowers the amount of infrastructure we can fund with bonds. Less bonding and fewer impact tax revenues will not allow us to address our education and transportation needs. Even as the Growth Policy reduces revenues, the need for the infrastructure will not disappear. Either the funds will have to come from somewhere else, largely from county residents, or we will have to forgo important infrastructure improvements which will make righting our economic ship even more difficult.

I laid out my concerns in a letter I sent to the Council on September 10 (attached) and I highlighted my concerns again in another letter on November 10 (attached). My staff also raised several issues throughout the process. While I appreciate some of the improvements to the Growth Policy, including the improved annual school test and the clarification for agricultural storage facilities, I cannot sign this bill as it is currently written.

The Council has stated that it will consider an increase in the recordation tax to fill the gap from the reduced revenue, but that discussion is not currently scheduled. Furthermore, using an increase in the recordation tax shifts the costs from the developers of the projects to people refinancing or buying homes as well as to purchasers of commercial properties. Additionally, in these uncertain budgetary times, any potential revenue source may have to be reserved for other needs.

If competitiveness is the issue vis-a-vis our neighbors, then we should consider how our neighbors raised the money to meet their infrastructure needs. I think we will find that their focus was not on ways to reduce the revenues coming from development – rather, the opposite – they looked for ways to ensure the resources needed to provide the infrastructure for a growing community.

I regret that in the middle of this pandemic we have not had the opportunity for a more fundamental discussion of other methods to achieve adequate public facilities under the Growth Policy. While I recognize that one of the driving forces behind the recommended changes is to generate more housing, we know this will generate more residents in need of services, more students in our schools, and more people traveling to their jobs. This strongly suggests the need to increase revenue sources, not reduce them. I would welcome an opportunity to work with the Council to identify fair, alternative methods to fund the necessary infrastructure. For example, our office is working on how we could structure development districts, which have been successfully implemented in Northern Virginia and which were recently recommended by the Economic Advisory Group. Without such a replacement, I cannot support a loss of revenue. That’s not providing adequate public facilities by any measure. We can do better.

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