The Montgomery County Council today unanimously approved a $4.8 billion County total operating budget for Fiscal Year 2014. The FY14 operating budget, and adjustments to the Fiscal Years 2013-18 six-year Capital Improvements Program, will go into effect on July 1.
After some debate about cutting the energy tax, the Council tentatively agreed to the budget last week.
Those two major changes from County Executive Isiah Leggett’s recommended budget will be paid for in part by adjustments to the six-year Capital Improvement budget and a transfer of roughly $14 million from other county funds into its general fund. The 10 percent cut in the energy tax, which was instituted three years ago, will mean the loss of $11.6 million in revenue.
The Council unanimously agreed on the budget, despite councilmember Phil Andrews’ contention that Leggett’s proposed pay increases for county employees were too large. Andrews said he will vote against the County Government portion of the budget when it is formalized next week. Councilmember Marc Elrich said not enough money was dedicated to restoring social service cuts that came during the recession.
“I think if most of our residents were given a choice between reducing their average energy tax bills by just 65 cents per month or restoring some of these services, they would choose the services,” Elrich said in a statement.
The Council also added $100,000 to Leggett’s 10 percent bump in county library funding to increase the purchase of e-Books. In the six-year Capital Improvements budget, the Council differed on some of Leggett’s recommendations by keeping funding for the Bethesda Metro Station South Entrance on track, accelerating more than $17 million for street resurfacing and sidewalk repairs and adding $4 million for bridge renovations, including on the Elmhirst Parkway bridge in Bethesda.
In a statement, Leggett commended the Council for its work in finalizing the budget, but took issue with the energy tax cut. The Council approved 99 percent of Leggett’s recommended budget, which is fairly typical:
I am, however, particularly concerned about two Council actions that create an $18 million problem this year and create greater difficulties in balancing the budget in FY15 and beyond.
The energy tax cut of 10 percent reduces revenues by $11.6 million in FY14 and well into the future. One of the many reasons why I recommended retaining the energy tax at the current level is that a substantial portion of the tax comes from federal and other tax-exempt facilities in the County that otherwise pay nothing to the County for the services that they consume. This reduction reduces our budget flexibility in future years.
I also do not believe the Council should “borrow” $6.7 million in funds I set aside to pay for retired County employees’ health benefits. Those funds will have to be repaid next year, which will result in higher future obligations.
I understand the Council’s desire to meet its own policy goals and the tremendous demands that make these decisions so difficult. My goal is to continue to improve our fiscal stability that we have worked so tirelessly and collaboratively to achieve.
The parking fee structure for downtown Bethesda will change, as Leggett recommended. The Council also agreed to add 40 police positions and double the amount of School Resource Officers from 6 to 12.
Flickr photo by dan reed!
Some of the most affordable rental housing in Bethesda is on the way out and Montgomery County Councilmembers can’t seem to agree on how to create more.
On Hampden Lane, 12 rental units that run from $1,150 to $2,405 a month will be replaced by The Lauren, which has announced its pending arrival with signs on the property that proclaim the luxury condo will be offering “Residences from the several millions.”
On Battery Lane, four garden-style apartment buildings have been approved for new zoning which would allow property owner Glen Aldon to raze the buildings and build three new, likely more expensive ones on the land.
On Tuesday, Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda) moved to table a bill that would have given tax breaks to developers who offer at least 25 percent affordable housing units in their projects. The county requirement is 12.5 percent.
That caused the sponsor of the bill, Councilmember Nancy Floreen, to question the Council’s commitment to affordable housing. Floreen introduced the bill in 2011.
“This is the sort of thing that makes me very angry,” Floreen said. “I’m sitting here with eight other colleagues, who time and time again, in every other context that involves not making a decision say they’re all for affordable housing. But when it comes time to actually do something we can come up with reasons. Everyone is very smart. Everyone wants to think some more.
“This has been before us for a year-and-a-half, so to suggest that we’re rushing to judgement is breathtaking,” Floreen said. “I just got to say, ‘Fine, be who you are,’ but I think it’s outrageous that my colleagues will not take any action on this.”
Affordable Housing Incentive Creates Tension On County Council — Sponsors of a bill that would give a tax break to developers who include 25 percent affordable housing units in their projects weren’t happy when Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) moved to table the bill during Tuesday’s session. The existing requirement for developers is 12.5 percent affordable housing. [The Gazette]
Georgetown Square Giant Pharmacy Goes 24-Hours — Giant Food announced this week that its pharmacy at the Georgetown Square Giant (10400 Old Georgetown Rd.) is now open 24 hours a day.
Bikeshare Contractor May Have Underpaid Workers — The U.S. Labor Department is looking into whether Portland-based Capital Bikeshare vendor Alta Bicycle Share underpaid some of its workers during a more than two-year span. [Washington Post]
Flickr photo by Bill in DC
The mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase is using the recent Apex Building redevelopment episode as part of her campaign platform before the Town’s election tomorrow.
In early April, Montgomery County Planning Department interim director Rose Krasnow said a nearby developer had proposed a Minor Master Plan Amendment that would examine razing the Apex Building (7272 Wisconsin Ave.) in exchange for more density in properties extending east along Montgomery Avenue.
The razing of the Apex Building would allow the county and the Maryland Transit Administration to build a Bethesda Purple Line station that would include an underground Capital Crescent Trail crossing of Wisconsin Avenue, which had previously been ruled out.
Town Mayor Pat Burda said she received a call from a County Councilmember about the proposal and immediately intervened, an example of how her experience and relationships can help the Town deal with the development of downtown Bethesda.
The Town of Chevy Chase, a half-square mile area of predominantly single family homes, has historically been wary of development that might encroach. At a candidate forum on April 25, all three candidates for two Council seats said they’d prefer if the Purple Line light rail was never built, for fear that it will bring development in surrounding communities.
On April 22, the County Council’s Planning Committee agreed with Council staff, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier and Krasnow to keep all properties bordering the Town of Chevy Chase out of the Minor Master Plan.
“This seems both illogical and somewhat wrong. I’m getting a phone call from the mayor of the Town next to this, who doesn’t know about your deliberations until I call over there and say, ‘Do you know about this,’” County Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large) told Krasnow and Carrier at the April 22 hearing. “Which is not the way we do things in Montgomery County, at least I didn’t think we did them that way. But apparently that is the way we do things now.”
In her candidate’s statement, Burda leads by explaining how she lobbied County Councilmembers to exclude properties bordering the Town from the Apex Building Minor Master Plan:
A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a county councilmember letting me know of a potentially harmful development for our Town: the Planning Board was considering rezoning properties adjacent to the Town along Wisconsin Avenue, Elm Street Park and Montgomery Avenue and wanted to do it on the fast track. Thanks to this heads-up, I immediately set up a meeting with another county councilmember and got on the phone to several others. Through this direct access and quick action, the properties adjacent to the Town are no longer under immediate threat.
This outcome was only possible because of the hard work that I and others on our Council have done over the years to foster strong relationships with our county and state officials. This type of relationship will be particularly critical over the next few years as the County continues to look for ways to increase density in the down-county area. Experience does matter.
Image via Montgomery County Planning Department
For the first time in four years, Montgomery County employees will get a pay raise after the County Council today approved County Executive Isiah Leggett’s negotiated $32 million in increases for FY14.
The lone dissenting vote was from Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) who argued Leggett’s agreed upon increases with the County’s three employee unions were too large.
Leggett negotiated a 3.25 percent cost-of-living increase that will come in September. Police officers will get a 2.1 percent increase and career firefighters will get a 2.75 percent increase in July.
Eligible employees will get step increases of 3.5 percent on their anniversary date.
From Andrews’ statement:
County employees deserve a pay raise after three years without a step increase and four years without a general wage adjustment, and I support (and proposed in March) a reasonable and sustainable increase in pay of 4-6 percent for county employees for each of the next two years. However, the pay raises of 13.5 percent over two years for most non-public safety county employees; 14.7 percent over two years for most police officers, and 19.5 percent over two years for most career firefighters agreed to by County Executive Leggett and the County Council are excessive, irresponsible and unsustainable. These pay raises will cost taxpayers $31 million in FY14, $73 million in FY15, and $85 million in FY16.
Leggett argued that after four years of holding the line during the Great Recession, county employees deserved the raise:
Our cost cutting efforts were necessary, but they called for great sacrifice from County employees. Over the past four years, the average County employee has contributed over $30,000 to help close $2.7 billion in budgetary gaps. Based on the actions already taken, each employee will continue to contribute up to $6,500 a year well into the future.
The County Council agreed.
County Executive Isiah Leggett today said his controversial tree canopy bill is a fair compromise between conservationists and builders who do tear-down home projects in Bethesda’s older neighborhoods.
Leggett’s Tree Canopy Conservation bill, before the County Council now, would require builders or land owners in small lots to pay a fee for lost canopy during large home addition or home rebuilding projects. The county’s Department of Environmental Protection has used overhead imagery of Bethesda neighborhoods where “mansionization” is common to show the loss of tree canopy over the last decade.
The fees would go into a county-operated tree replacement fund.
“This bill strikes what I consider to be a balance between those who want more stringent regulations to protect trees and those who feel that additional protection is a burden,” Leggett said. “It’s a good balance in my opinion.”
The building industry, at least initially, did not agree. On Friday, Leggett joined Caren Madsen and Arlene Bruhn from Conservation Montgomery to talk up the bill and plant a tree near the Bethesda Library to celebrate Arbor Day.
“Not only are we having what we call mansionization, in addition to all the sediment challenges we have, we lose the trees,” Leggett said. “You simply can not easily replace those trees that are lost. We must act now to protect and restore the valuable community resources that we believe are in this bill.”
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) will be in Bethesda tomorrow to help plant two trees in celebration of National Arbor Day and to encourage the County Council to pass his controversial tree canopy conservation bill.
The bill, which would require private property owners in small lots to pay a fee for lost canopy, is aimed at the many homeowners in older Bethesda neighborhoods who are taking down old homes and replacing them with supersized ones.
Leggett and the county’s Department of Environmental Protection argue this has led to significant loss of tree canopy that until now hasn’t been on the county’s radar because development was taking place at bigger lots. The bill proposes to take the fees and create a county-managed fund for planting new trees nearby.
In their presentation to the County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee earlier this year, Environmental Protection officials used overhead images of Bethesda neighborhoods to show the loss of tree canopy over the last decade.
The Transportation and Environment Committee is expected to make a final recommendation on the bill in June, after work is finished on the FY14 budget.
On Friday, Leggett will join Conservation Montgomery, which is in favor of the bill, to plant a yellowwood tree and dogwood tree at the Bethesda Library overlooking Caroline Freeland Park.
A press release says the Bethesda Garden Club and B-CC High School students will water the trees during the summer.
Leventhal was in Bethesda on Monday to talk about his trenching bill, introduced earlier this year, that would require MCDOT to adopt a five-year plan for the renovation, repair and replacement of streets and roads as a way to avoid the digging, patching up and then possible re-digging of streets by different utilities such as Washington Gas, Pepco or WSSC.
Leventhal said the bill would help the county avoid situations like it had last year in Silver Spring, where a road that had been resurfaced was set to undergo trenching and patching work from WSSC just months later. He thinks the coordination could allow different agencies and utilities to plan their work for the same time, minimizing disruptions and saving costs in the long term.
“It’s about sharing the costs,” Leventhal said.
Kelly Gibson Caplan, a community outreach representative for Washington Gas, said lowering costs was the main reason Washington Gas has expressed support for the proposal. Leventhal said he was surprised at MCDOT’s apparent opposition to the bill and characterized WSSC and Pepco’s reaction as “benign neglect.”
Members of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board, which was having its monthly meeting, seemed receptive to the idea. The group had already cited it in a list of FY14 budget priorities it presented to the County Council last week.
An organization named NewDEAL, which “champions pro-growth progressive ideas,” today announced it has chosen Hans Reimer (D-At large) as one of 11 new rising elected officials from across the country. According to a release from the Montgomery County Council, Riemer was chosen by co-chairs Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) because of his work to attract younger people to the county.
Riemer has taken a prominent role in the county’s yet-to-be revealed Task Force. County officials hope to attract younger people to stimulate the economy and not fall too far behind D.C. and Arlington. In a video for NewDEAL, Riemer said part of that movement could come in the form of new liquor laws to enhance night life, changes in street design or planning and a focus on affordable housing issues.
In a March forum entitled “Can Young People Live In MoCo,” Riemer led a discussion in which many said they’d rather pay comparable or even slightly higher rents to live in areas such as D.C. with better nightlife, walkability, transit access and access to jobs.
“Montgomery County, Maryland, which has a greet suburban community, hasn’t attracted many of these younger workers who are powering these new companies, which are the innovation hubs of the economy,” Riemer said in the video. “So we need to focus on how to urbanize some of the pockets of growth areas, and make them the kind of place that young people want to live and spend their money and go out.”
WSSC officials today said they still don’t know what caused the major water main break on Connecticut Avenue last month, but that the fiber optic monitoring system meant to warn of breaks did not fail.
WSSC chief engineer Gary Gumm told the Montgomery County Council’s Transportation & Environment Committee that the acoustic fiber optic (AFO) monitoring system did not warn of the break because it only detects pings or snapping sounds of steel wires that support the system’s major water PCCP mains. Because the steel wires at the Connecticut Avenue break did not snap before the break, WSSC had no notice of what was coming.
“That is a distinction however that has very little comfort to our community because the purpose of the AFO system is to give us warning,” said Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) who organized today’s hearing the day after the break. “That’s a source of great anxiety for our community.”
A resident did report a leak near the 60-inch main at 1 p.m., about seven hours before the March 18 break, which led to a geyser of water near the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Chevy Chase Lake Drive in Chevy Chase. The damage left downed power lines, a torn-up lane of Chevy Chase Lake Drive, traffic problems on Connecticut Avenue and a mandatory water use restriction for the county.
Gumm said the crew that responded to the leak acted appropriately, determining it came from a valve that could be repaired the next morning.
The full forensic report is expected in June.
“We did not know that this type of pipe might fail without the wires breaking first,” Gumm said. “Water was seen bubbling out of a valve on Connecticut Avenue. In hindsight, a mistake was made there. …What I think we learned with this one is I think they did everything that they’re supposed to do. When these valves are in the vicinity of some of these larger pipes, again I think we need to take a little more time, put a little more effort to try and make sure we’ve isolated it to the valve and not to the PCCP line.”
Gumm indicated that the atypical shape of the pipe at the point where it broke might have had something to do with the break, which WSSC has categorized as a catastrophic failure. Gumm said 11 other large mains have been repaired or replaced since 2011 because the AFO system detected snapped wires. One other repair is scheduled to begin in May.
When pressed for more details on how atypical the pipe was, Gumm said only about three percent of WSSC’s large PCCP water mains are similar.
Berliner and Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At large) also questioned WSSC general manager Jerry Johnson and Gumm about the agency’s inspection and repair schedule. The scheduled shutdown of several large water mains at the time of the March water main break, including a 96-inch main from WSSC’s Potomac filtration plant to Tuckerman Lane, ultimately led to the mandatory water restrictions. The 96-inch main has been closed since the fall.
“Perhaps we have learned in this exercise that we could have done a little better. Instead of waiting for the entirety of the report or recommendations for repairs, our contractor vehicles do allow us as we know things to get started on them,” Gumm said. “We could probably shave some time off the repair process by doing that.”
Berliner asked Johnson for a comparison of WSSC’s performance to systems in other jurisdictions. He also discussed WSSC’s request for 80-foot setbacks for all buildings near major water mains such as the one that broke in Chevy Chase and repaving work from WSSC contractors after standard neighborhood water main repairs.
The full report WSSC officials gave the Committee today will be published on Montgomery County’s website.
Photo via WSSC
Property owners near the Apex Building in downtown Bethesda are offering a way to accomodate a Purple Line Station that connects with the Metro’s Red Line and keeps the Capital Crescent Trail path underground, but two County Councilmembers are questioning the process.
On Friday, owners of a nearby building submitted a Minor Master Plan Amendment that suggests the nonprofit that owns the four-story Apex could raze it and allow the county and Maryland Transportation Administration to build a comprehensive Purple Line station that would solve the CCT dilemma.
The building, at 7272 Wisconsin Avenue, contains the Regal Bethesda movie theater, offices and a restaurant. It also sits atop a location that could be home to a Purple Line station that could access the Metro platform below and accomodate an underground CCT crossing of busy Wisconsin Avenue.
In return, property owners in the Plan would want zoning revised so they could redevelop. A building similar to the Clark Construction Building at Bethesda’s Metro Center is suggested for the Apex site.
“First and most importantly, the absolute cost of construction of the Capital Crescent trail in conjunction with the Purple Line improvements will be reduced dramatically — in the order of $40 million dollars,” read the application from the Gaithersburg-based Meadow Lo Corporation, which owns a separate building near the CCT and Pearl Street. “Zoning for the Apex Building property must be intense enough to incentivize the current owner, or its successor, to abandon the existing structure and allow its demolition in order that the optimum combination of METRO and companion public facilities can be constructed.”
Today, without a review of the Amendment by the Planning Board, interim Planning Department director Rose Krasnow recommended that the County Council move the project ahead of others in its work schedule because it will provide the most public good.
But two Councilmembers on the Council’s Planning Committee — Marc Elrich and George Leventhal — sounded off against the Minor Master Plan Amendment process in general, arguing it will allow individual property owners to bypass the typical Master Plan process and exert undue influence for new zoning on specific properties.
“I’m disturbed by this Minor Master Plan Amendment process as it has played out,” Leventhal said. “Instead of a process that has gone around the county and responded to broad policy suggestions, we’ve now opened ourselves up to the lobbying of specific landowners who want to be upzoned. …I think that will intensify.”
The Apex Building proposal would also include the existing 2nd District Police Station and extend as far east as the Sport & Health Club on Montgomery Avenue. Elrich questioned why nearby buildings, and not just the Apex Building, were involved in the Plan application.
Krasnow suggested starting Planning Staff work on it as soon as possible to be ready for the Purple Line, which would knock other Minor Master Plan Amendments off the schedule.
The Pooks Hill Plan was included as one of three suggested Plans to start soon, a move Elrich questioned.
“Pooks Hill is another spot zoning,” Elrich said. “You put a fig leaf of transit-oriented redevelopment around the project that’s over half-a-mile from each Metro station. It’s not a transit-oriented development, but that’s all this is about is rezoning it for Marriott or the specific landowner. I’d like this process if it was done in the spirit of planning, not in the process of people coming in and saying I want spot zoning.”
The Planning Committee must review the new schedule before it is approved. But if it is, Krasnow said the Apex Building and Pooks Hill Plans would come to the County Council for final approval in 2015.
Image via Montgomery County Planning Department
Lately, springtime in Montgomery County has usually meant debate on raising parking rates in downtown Bethesda.
This budget season will be no different, but this time around County Executive Isiah Leggett is seeking more parking revenue through a revised rate structure, not the straight up increases of past years.
Leggett’s FY 14 budget proposal for the Bethesda Parking Lot District (PLD) would make on-street meter parking $2 an hour, parking lot spaces $1.25 an hour and parking garage spaces 80 cents an hour. Existing rates are $1.25 an hour for any parking space up to four hours and 80 cents an hour for any long-term parking in excess of four hours.
If approved by the County Council, which will introduce the changes this morning, the new rate structure would take effect on July 1.
Bethesda business leaders unsuccessfully argued against parking rate increases in each of the last two years, arguing the increases would discourage customers from coming to the area. They also argued that any extra revenue would not help plug county budget deficits since all PLD revenue goes to parking improvements or to the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the county-funded Business Improvement District in charge of maintaining and marketing downtown Bethesda.
In 2011, the county raised long-term parking rates for more than three hours of parking from 65 cents to 75 cents an hour against the wishes of the business community. County Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) said the increase was necessary to fund the PLD’s reserves with the coming construction of the Lot 31 underground garage, then estimated at $86 million.
In 2012, the county raised parking rates at on-street, lot and garage meters to $1.25 an hour for short-term parking of up to four hours and up to 80 cents an hour for long-term parking of more than four hours. Monthly parking passes were also increased to $150 a month. Leggett proposed no bump this year for monthly passes.
Unlike in past years, the county has not proposed a Saturday rate. Parking is now free in county garages and lots on the weekend and at on-street parking meters on Sunday.
Leggett’s recommended FY 14 budget includes the expansion of a pilot smart meter program to all on-street spaces.
In the past, county leaders have argued the increases are meant to encourage people to ditch their cars without making them too much of a burden for those who will drive.
The Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes on Tuesday, April 23 at 1:30 p.m. Berliner’s Transportation & Environment Committee will review the changes and likely make recommendations to the full Council at its budget worksession scheduled for April 26.
A decision on controversial legislation that would force homeowners to pay for tree canopy lost in new home or home addition projects won’t come until the summer.
Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) said at a meeting of the Transportation & Environment Committee this morning that final recommendations from the Committee to the full Council won’t come until after work on the FY 14 budget is finished.
Certain aspects of the Tree Canopy Protection bill, as proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), were made more clear in a memo used at this morning’s worksession.
Leggett and officials from the county’s Department of Environmental Protection proposed the measure as a counter to new home building on existing residential lots they say has meant the loss of much tree canopy in many of Bethesda’s older neighborhoods. In an earlier presentation, they showed satellite imagery of a neighborhood along Fairfax Road from 2002 and 2012 with noticeably less tree cover because of take-down home construction projects.
The bill would require property owners who get rid of tree canopy in any building process that requires a sediment control plan to pay into a county fund. That fund would work to replace that tree canopy nearby using a sliding scale of fees based on the amount of tree canopy lost.
The building industry quickly came out against the proposed fees and council members still want to see how the legislation compares with other jurisdictions.
“I’m pleased that we’ve closed the gaps with our various stakeholders and I think know we are within range of making this happen for our community,” Berliner said. “I’m hoping we are coming to the end.”
The Committee did agree to exempt Park and Planning property from the legislation, which the Department of Environmental Protection did not object.
Also on the table is a credit that would lower the cost of removing tree canopy if a property owner protected 25 percent of the tree canopy on-site or made “unusual” efforts to save trees. Builders opposed to the bill have argued that existing stormwater management laws make it difficult to protect trees even if the builder and property owner would prefer to.
Photos via Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection
Examiner Editorial: Do Away With Rockville Pike ‘Death Lane’ — The ever provocative Washington Examiner editorial board yesterday came out against the State Highway Administration’s proposed extra lane for Rockville Pike at Cedar Lane. The Board labeled it a “death lane,” because an independent traffic analyst hired by residents against the project concluded it would cause safety issues in a merge area. SHA officials at the March 19 meeting cited in the editorial denied that, saying the designed merge area is standard throughout the state and country. [Washington Examiner]
Walter Reed Cracking Down On Parking Restrictions — Military officers have been patrolling the entrance of the base’s 1,100-space patient garage to keep staff and visitors out so veterans have spots. [WTOP]
Bethesda Magazine Profiles Marc Elrich — One developer calls Elrich, the At-large councilmember from Takoma Park, “the most dangerous politician in Montgomery County,” and “basically anti-capitalist.” Elrich said he’d strongly consider running for county executive if County Executive Isiah Leggett decides not to run for another term. [Bethesda Magazine]