Showing posts with label Independent Transit Authority. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Independent Transit Authority. Show all posts

Thursday, October 1, 2015

MoCo residents on ITA at public hearing: "This is a lunatic idea"

Residents opposing the proposed Independent Transit Authority at last night's Transit Task Force public hearing again heavily outnumbered proponents of the unelected taxing authority, and Bus Rapid Transit.

What stands out is how the Montgomery County political machine is starting to sound more desperate as the ITA battle rages on. As Silver Spring resident Larry Dickter noted in his testimony, the ITA has "little if any public support." Even County Council President George Leventhal has suggested that the ITA bill not be submitted to the state legislature at this time. It's unclear what support the ITA has on the County Council or among Montgomery County legislators at this point, following 3 public hearings at which said public has overwhelmingly slammed the idea.

How desperate are ITA proponents? They're criticizing opponents for being white. You can't make this stuff up folks. Tom Liderto of Takoma Park, an ITA and BRT proponent, said that whites now make up less than half of the population in the county, but were the vast majority of the citizens testifying. He advised the task force that they might be hearing "a lot of loud voices from a minority."

A sure sign of desperation is when you have to pull out the race card. Your initiative has no public support, and a majority turns out to oppose it? Start attacking the crowd on the basis of race, age, etc. "I wanted to testify. But I'm white. So, I'd better do the right thing and stay home."

Likewise, it's intriguing to hear a particular faction of the County's Democratic Party adopt the talking points of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. The so-called silent majority Liderto was referring to is gaining popularity as a talking point among that group. County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson and former Leventhal staff member and blogger Dan Reed are among those who have cited a silent majority, who they say fervently favor the urban density, urbanization of the suburbs and war-on-cars transportation policies Anderson and Reed are advocating for.

Perhaps in the same county where Councilmember Hans Riemer takes a $500 campaign check from Mitt Romney's Bain Capital and $4000 from Mitch Rales, two Wall Street pioneers in outsourcing American jobs to China, this shouldn't be all that surprising, I guess.

Does a millennial telling older residents in the room that they should stop opposing BRT because he'll be alive in the coming decades and they won't sound kind of desperate? Yep. Cold, but desperate.

You'd be pretty desperate, too, if you were in their position.

The hearing wasn't all that far along, when task force Chair Mark Winston felt compelled to engage Montgomery County Civic Federation President Paula Bienenfeld in a back-and-forth exchange over how she should testify. Bienenfeld had already shown up the task force for its hypocrisy when asking who among them took transit to the hearing. Only Delegate Marc Korman (D-District 16) raised his hand. Do as we say, not as we do.

"We're not here to respond to questions," Winston advised Bienenfeld. "I believe you can answer questions," Bienenfeld responded, noting that taxpayers are funding the task force.

Do as we say, not as we do. It was a bit of a theme last night. Another proponent of BRT recalled that he and wife quit working at Montgomery College's Rockville campus "twenty years ago," because the drive from Takoma Park each morning was too stressful. Wait a minute. The Red Line runs from Takoma Park to Rockville. Even in 1995. If they didn't use transit then, why would they use an even-slower kind of transit now?

A very expensive kind of transit, in fact, especially when you break the cost down per rider and there's no indication there will be many.

Resident Kevin Harris, who is also a former planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said there has been "no data presented to show that BRT would solve the problems we're facing. We still have not been presented with the most basic traffic data" to justify BRT. The economic development numbers cited by Sage Consulting were "completely implausible," Harris said, terming Sage's work "wildly irresponsible modeling."

Harris questioned the task force's objectivity and and accuracy, "if you've already made your recommendations without data." "Performance metrics have never been established," Michael Pfetsch of Pinewood said.

Jerry Garson, resident and MCCF Treasurer, also questioned the task force's numbers. "I'm a CPA," Garson marveled, and "I can't figure it out." He pointed out that the task force calculations show "no administrative costs in the first five years of operation," an impossibility.

Silver Spring resident Carole Ann Barth took a creative approach in skewering the ITA's political and developer allies, casting them as "greedy piggies" in a fable-style tale, whose grand plan for pulling one over on residents doesn't end well.

Another resident, Harold McDougall, said he and his neighbors are "afraid of losing our homes" to an eminent domain grab by a future ITA for BRT. "We're tired. We're just depressed," he said. He noted that BRT was ginned up by a small interest group of developers and "Rockefeller-funded advocacy groups. There's big shots on one side, and little people on the other."

Many felt the task force has failed to consider any other solution but BRT and the ITA. Harriet Quinn of Silver Spring said the task force approach "excludes a comprehensive look at our overall transportation needs." Dickter argued the County would be better off improving existing roads and Ride On, "instead of obsessing over [BRT]."

A large number of speakers promoted similar alternatives: free Ride On service (which would cost a fraction of what is proposed to be spent on BRT, has none of the administrative or personnel costs BRT and the ITA would add, and has proven successful on Metro, where diehard riders are those who receive free or heavily-subsized fare on the system), completing unbuilt master plan highways like the M-83 Midcounty Highway Extended (and shamefully tabled recently by the Leggett administration), car sharing services like Uber and Lyft, Bridj, Express Metrobus and RideOn Plus services (these are existing proposals), autonomous vehicles (in the future), and using technology to make roads and transit systems more efficient as Houston has done successfully, without spending billions or even millions.

Robert Nelson of the Goshen area said, "I see very little benefit to our area" in the Upcounty, noting that the M-83 would be far faster for Goshen residents trying to reach the Shady Grove Metro station than the BRT system.

Jean Cavanaugh of Silver Spring was one of many who cited residents' "rapidly-rising tax burden." That burden is increasingly a regressive one, and four of the five task force report's revenue proposals would tax residents.

Do we need four new taxes to pay?

The League of Women Voters thinks we need five. Barbara Ditzler, representing the LWV, argued for new income, property, vehicle, development and fuel taxes.

This, on top of an already-looming property tax increase warned of by Leggett for next year.

Putting the ITA on the ballot to be decided by voters was suggested by several speakers, including James Williamson of Silver Spring. "Doesn't he trust the voters," Williamson asked of Leggett.

Eric Hensal termed the ITA debacle "red light district politics" by developer-funded elected officials who "cannot build a parking deck in Silver Spring." The ultimate goal of the ITA scheme, Hensal predicted, is to "socialize cost and privatize gains for the developer community."

Cherrywood HOA President Paul Jarosinski similarly described the ITA and BRT as a "bonanza for developers." The ITA sounds like "a good script for a crime movie," Jarosinski observed. "A parallel shadow government agency where you handpick five stooges."

Robin Ficker of Boyds, the man most responsible for the successful passage of the charter limit on property taxes approved by voters on the 2008 ballot, testified as well. "The Council is made up of a group of scaredy cats," Ficker said, delivering his remarks standing at the table as he does in court as a prominent attorney. "They're scaredy cats, because they know they can unanimously vote to exceed the charter limit," Ficker said, and would prefer an elected ITA take the heat from taxpayers instead. "They can never get enough money. That's all this is about."

Ficker also ripped the county's delegation to the state legislature for their failure to return sufficient transportation dollars to the County. "They're not doing their job in Annapolis," Ficker declared.

Stephen Poor summed up the feelings of most in the room, telling the task force, "You should just stop."

Pinning the future on BRT ignores the reality that cars are, and will continue to be, the dominant mode of transportation well into the future. Todd Solomon, who actually favors BRT, noted that - according to the Federal Highway Administration - a record number of vehicle miles were traveled by Americans in the first 6 months of 2015. And that a monthly record was just set this summer.

It doesn't sound like mass numbers of Americans will be "getting out of their cars" anytime soon. But will Montgomery County's elected officials be getting their hands out of our wallets?

Same answer.

The next move by the task force will be to begin their final review of the public draft report at their October 7 meeting.

Friday, September 18, 2015

D.C. Council punks MoCo's Transit Task Force with 10 hour public hearing

Bus Rapid Transit - are you
ready to pay 5 new taxes for
Yesterday I reported on the Montgomery County Task Force shutting off sign-ups for its September 30 public hearing after only a few hours Wednesday. Apparently, some on the task force are incapable of sitting and listening to more than 50 speakers.

A supporter of the task force posted a comment on my article, saying the task force shouldn't be expected to listen to citizens until 3:00 AM. But Wednesday night, the D.C. Council did just that.

BRT will have its own lane,
and take a car lane away
from you on some of
MoCo's most-congested
roads, reducing automobile
capacity by 33% on those
District of Columbia elected officials held a public hearing from 5:00 PM Wednesday until 3:00 AM Thursday morning, listening to 70 speakers and additional city officials beyond that number.

Now, of course, the sensible thing to do in either jurisdiction would be to hold a second hearing, to accommodate the number of residents who wish to comment.

But what a great contrast. On the same day the task force shut off the phone lines, and shut out citizens to ensure a short evening for themselves (and let's be realistic, to limit the number of negative citizen comments, and make the opposition to the Independent Transit Authority and Bus Rapid Transit appear to be smaller than it is), the D.C. Council put in an all-nighter.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Public shut out of MoCo Transit Task Force "public" hearing

Task Force
report suggests
5 new taxes on
County residents
to pay for BRT

The Montgomery County Transit Task Force is at it again, attempting to shut an angry public out of a so-called "public hearing" September 30 at 6:00 PM. To be held once again in the 3rd floor hearing room at the County Council Building at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville, the hearing is ostensibly for the public to comment on a Public Draft of the "Report of the Task Force".

This document was supposed to be posted on the Transit Task Force website "on or about" September 16, 2015. Then the public was supposed to have a chance to sign up to comment on it. A set of arbitrary rules were imposed prior to the sign-up "window" opening.

To quote the Task Force hearing announcement (which I have not seen in either of the two newspapers widely-circulated in the County so far):

Members of the public wishing to speak at the forum must sign up between Wednesday, September 16 at 9 a.m. and Wednesday, September 30 at 10 a.m. To register to speak, call 240-777-7165, Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.; TTY users call Maryland Relay. People signing up must provide their name, address and contact information. Those registered to speak may not substitute or cede time to others.

A maximum of 50 people will be able to present their views during the public forum. Speakers will have three minutes to make their comments and are encouraged to submit written remarks – which may include additional information and materials. If 50 people sign up before September 30, no additional names will be accepted and there will not be a waiting list.

These ground rules were unacceptable and unorthodox in themselves, as is the 6 PM start time, when most citizens are stuck in traffic trying to commute home.

Seriously - 50 people can speak, in a county of 1,000,000, on a ton of new taxes that will be paid by residents countywide?

Then things went from bad to ridiculous on Wednesday.

When I called only a few hours after the phone lines opened, I was told all 50 speaking slots had already been filled. And that my name was being put on a contingency list.

A county public hearing filled and closed to the public after just a few hours on the first day of signups? Outrageous.

First, I'd like to see the list of these 50 people, and find out how many of them are from the MoCo political machine, developers and organizations overtly or covertly funded by development interests.

But secondly, this arbitrary decision should not be permitted to stand.

The taxpayers should demand to be heard at this "public" hearing.

If any member of the Transit Task Force is incapable or unwilling to sit and listen to public testimony for as long as it takes, he or she should resign immediately. They are clearly not up to the task the County Executive has charged them with, if that's the case.

Even if some on the task force are too lazy to sit in a chair for a few hours to listen to the public, they should at least be scheduling a second hearing, so that those of us citizens who have more energy than they do can testify.

Now, about that report.

The TTF writes that it considered alternative ideas to replace the proposed ITA, and like Bill Clinton's famous "I've worked harder on this than anything I've ever done in my life," reached the shocking, surprising conclusion that what it (and the developers behind the curtain) want - the ITA - remains the only solution.

Page 12 contains a laughable argument for Bus Rapid Transit (one of the major reasons the County needs the ITA, as BRT won't qualify for federal funds, and the $5 billion BRT system couldn't be funded without exceeding the Ficker amendment cap on property taxes), claiming it is needed to keep all of the jobs that supposedly will be coming to MoCo from going to other jurisdictions.

This argument is preposterous on two fronts. First, the County has failed to attract a single major corporate headquarters in over decade. So, under the current moribund business climate, there aren't any jobs coming. But BRT will allow urban redevelopment of suburban areas like Rock Spring, Wildwood, Georgetown Square, Aspen Hill, etc. Those mixed-use developments will only create jobs for baristas and jeans-folding boutique salespeople. Only a moron would spend $5 billion to attract low-wage retail/restaurant jobs.

Finally, the TTF has proposed changes to the ITA bill that will again go to the state legislature in Annapolis in the coming months.

It has recommended staggered, 4 year terms for a 7-member governing board for the ITA. Interestingly, it suggests the possibility of term limits, which the County's political machine has fought against for decades for other offices. Is this an acknowledgement that term limits work? Interesting.

The ITA would be required to submit its Capital Improvements Program (CIP) budget to the Council for review and approval, as well as the operating budget for the ITA itself, and the transit projects it oversees and operates.

Amending the ITA budgets would follow the same process as amending those of County agencies, the report states.

Eminent domain seizures would have to be reviewed and approved by the Council, as well.

The report also suggests "that any tax rate set by the authority shall be subject to disapproval by the Council."

It should be noted, however, that this current language does not impose the same political disincentive to the Council as the Ficker Amendment cap does for property taxes. Therefore, it would be far less likely that a majority of members would vote to disapprove of the ITA tax rate. The Ficker cap requires all 9 members of the Council to vote for a tax increase over the charter limit.

There is also a provision for an "excise tax" "not to exceed 30 cents per gross rentable square foot of leased commercial space, subject to disapproval by the Council."

Speaking of the Ficker charter limit cap on property taxes, the TTF says that provision is now outdated, since the state legislature passed the Maintenance of Effort law which requires education funding to be maintained at an equal or higher level each year. It therefore says it favors allowing taxes to exceed the charter limit, but with some restrictions on the amount. It also suggests other sources of revenue that could be substituted for property taxes.

Those proposed revenue sources include the aforementioned excise tax, a local-option sales tax, an employment withholding tax, and a congestion tax. Heard enough yet?

The report veers back into laughable territory in discussing the serious issue of the higher interest rates the ITA would have to pay for revenue bonds, compared to the lower rate the County could get. Dismissing these concerns, the report says, "if there is such a premium it is likely to be insignificant."

Say what?

Several funding scenarios laid out seem to overestimate federal and state contributions, and lowball construction and operating costs.

And all of the taxes suggested are regressive, flat taxes, that would hit lower-income residents the hardest.

They want you to pay; they just don't want to hear your response.

Friday, June 5, 2015

MoCo Transit Authority public hearing trying to limit number of speakers to 40

A public hearing on perhaps the most controversial issue in Montgomery County - the proposal for an unelected Independent Transit Authority with unlimited taxing power to fund an equally-controversial $5 billion Bus Rapid Transit system - won't give every citizen a chance to speak, it turns out. A document uploaded to the County Executive's Transit Task Force website now says the number of speakers will be capped at 40. To quote the document, "It is planned that 40 people will be able to present their views during the Public Forum."

Other troubling details:

A May 23 memo from County Attorney Marc Hansen leaves gigantic loopholes you could drive a (rapid) bus through.

It claims, for example, that the unlimited eminent domain authority the ITA would wield is limited by Bill MC 24-15.

Not true.

Hansen states that the legislation "places an indirect limitation on the Transit Authority’s power to condemn, because it requires that the Authority submit a 6-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to the County for approval."

Whoops. Check out the actual legislation posted on the TTF website. On Page 5, Item 6 of the proposed legislation, it only says that the County "may include a requirement" for submission of a 6-year CIP. "May" does not equal "requires".

It also does not require the ITA to submit any budget for review by anybody. On Page 6, section II, it clearly states this: "MAY NOT REQUIRE THE TRANSIT AUTHORITY TO SUBMIT ITS CAPITAL OR ITS OPERATING BUDGET TO THE COUNTY FOR APPROVAL" (italicized emphasis mine).

To that broader lack of accountability, later in the memo Hansen clearly admits "The legislation specifically prohibits, however, the County from requiring the Transit Authority to submit its capital and operating budgets to the County for approval."

One other controversial provision Hansen does acknowledge is the proposed power of the ITA to create unlimited debt. This provision will, in Hansen's words, "prevent debt incurred by the Transit Authority from being considered as County debt by bond rating agencies."

Do the math - unlimited debt with no fear from County Council members of losing their AAA bond rating. Unlimited power by the ITA to raise taxes on you to pay back their unlimited debts. What could possibly go wrong, right?

Well, conversely, how about if the ITA somehow went bankrupt? Who would be left holding the bag for an unlimited amount of debt? It seems that the taxpayer loses under any outcome.

The document notes that state legislation may be written to create the taxing authority as soon as early September. It states that a second public hearing will be held in September, as well.

Written statements are being encouraged by the document, which civic activists recognize are utterly useless, as the general public and media rarely examine written statements submitted at these hearings. If it isn't heard live, or reported in the media afterward, it essentially is the proverbial tree falling in the forest.

Important to note if you plan to (try to) speak at this forum - you must sign up online by noon on June 17, by calling 240-777-7165. The hearing will begin at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, June 17 in the 3rd Floor Council Hearing Room at the County Council office building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Public forum on controversial MoCo Independent Transit Authority set for June 17

The Montgomery County Transit Task Force has set a public forum on the controversial proposal to create an unelected taxing authority that could raise unlimited taxes on residents to fund Bus Rapid Transit and other projects. Residents and union leaders overwhelmingly rejected the idea at a raucous public hearing earlier this year. Yet County Executive Ike Leggett is bringing the Independent Transit Authority (ITA) proposal for another swing, via his Transit Task Force.

That task force is holding meetings to discuss the new taxing authority in Rockville amongst themselves. But there will be a "Public Forum" on the unpopular proposal on June 17, from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM, in the 3rd floor Hearing Room of the County Council office building at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. In the meeting agenda posted online, it says the topics will be the ITA's organization, transfer of functions from existing county agencies (a major point of contention for UFCW Local 400/MCGEO Union President Gino Renne), and - most important to you, the taxpayer - the financial and fiscal implications of the new taxing authority. Questions the task force wants your feedback on will be provided to the public via the Transit Task Force website prior to the forum. However, just what the ability of the public to speak at the forum will be is not specified. Is it a public hearing with a 3 minute speaking time? Or is it a forum where the public will simply be spoken to?

It must be noted that, like the BRT hearing 3 years ago, this forum is being held in the summer. Parents no doubt know that this June 17 meeting will come just after the end of the Montgomery County Public School year. That means many will be leaving for their first summer vacation, which will certainly hold down attendance.

That's probably not an accident. You'd schedule a forum for summer, too, if you were trying to ram through an unelected body that can be handpicked by the County Executive.

An unelected body that can exceed all existing caps and restrictions on tax increases (in fact, the task force is going to be discussing on June 3 the "merits of empowering [the] County to exceed Charter limitations in several respects"). Not the negatives, of course!

Keep in mind that this is the same task force that suggested you should pay a new, 15% property tax increase to fund the BRT system that will primarily benefit real estate developers. You would pay, not the developers, and this was a countywide tax proposal. Do the math.

It's also the same task force whose chairman Mark Winston - as I reported two years ago - could directly benefit financially from the creation of the ITA and a BRT system. Winston, leading the effort to "get you out of your car," memorably admitted "it has been a while" since he rode a bus himself. Something he has in common with the "pro-transit" County Council and Planning Board, as well.

Remember also that this unelected ITA, as described in the legislation the task force is discussing, would not have to show its budget to any elected official. To quote the actual legislation, the ITA would not be required "to submit its capital or its operating budget to the County for approval."

Incredible. Unelected and unaccountable.

Don't forget that the proposal also allows the ITA to take on unlimited debt. It also allows the County Council and Executive to transfer unlimited amounts of debt to the ITA - and then the ITA could use its literally unlimited taxing power to make you pay those unlimited amounts. Unreal.

The ITA would also have unlimited power to seize private property, and sell it at a sweetheart price to developers who contribute to the elected official who appointed them. It would have the power to carry out the demolition of homes and businesses, and not have to answer to the outrage of the landowners at the ballot box.

And speaking of ballots - the legislation would include a provision that would make it impossible for you, the citizens, to put a referendum on the ballot to bring the ITA taxing power under any control or limitation.

This proposal was thoroughly rejected by the citizens and county employees - yet here it comes again, as they do what they do best in the MoCo political machine: ram it through.

Save the date.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


Using transit, 
"you lose an enormous amount of 
your productive hours waiting"

Tell me about it.

The disrespect of the citizens of Montgomery County in the Independent Transit Authority scandal continued Friday night, as the Montgomery County Delegation to the Maryland state legislature held a public hearing on bill MC 24-15 at the County Council Building in Rockville. After all the deception and dirty tricks of the previous 6 days, the shenanigans extended to the hearing itself.

Despite promises that the hearing would present a balance between those for, and opposed to, the bill that would create an unelected transit authority with unlimited taxing and eminent domain power, the deck was stacked in favor of the bill. Citizens already forced to race home from work to Rockville for a 6:00 PM start time arrived to find County politicians and developer-backed advocates for the bill ensconced at the top of the speakers list. That was just the beginning.

Not only did citizens and Ride On employees have to sit through a whopping 15 supporters of the bill before even getting a chance to speak, but those speakers and their allies in the delegation dragged out their testimony to around 90 long minutes. 90 minutes of mostly hot air. At one point, the delegation's chair, Shane Robinson (D-District 39) even spent time giving shout-outs to former delegates. Why they were even there makes no sense, but how about a "shout-out" to your constituents - the people who pay your salaries?

Earlier, Robinson tucked away the First Amendment, admonishing the crowd to forgo applause, "booing, and hissing." God forbid we'd have to hear any expression of the anger of the public after the outrageous deception that brought forth this ITA proposal.

Speakers for the proposed legislation were given extra time, and more extra time beyond that to fully flesh out ideas, cover all the bases, and complete actual thoughts. The taxpayers who paid for the hearing and the microphones? Two minutes, a full 60-seconds less than the 3-minute standard for public hearings at every other level of government. "I am John Smith, and I oppose the bill because...." [beep beep] "Wrap it up!"

The chair of the County Rapid Transit Task Force, Mark Winston, who was previously found to be in a position to benefit financially from the approval of a Bus Rapid Transit system and the development that would follow, had the laugher statement of the evening: "There is nothing sinister being proposed in this bill." Winston said the formation of the transit authority would "increase the sense of urgency" regarding construction of new transit projects in the county. But all of the urgency is really coming from the developers who will benefit from passage of MC 24-15.

Delegate Ben Kramer (D-District 19), one of the few outspoken critics of the bill (and one of the few who wisely voted Nay on the late filing of it in Annapolis) on the panel, asked Winston "are we perhaps putting the cart before the horse?" Kramer compared the idea of granting an unlimited funding mechanism before the details of the authority and the projects are even known to a kid demanding college tuition from his parents. That kid has no specific plans about college, Kramer said, but is simply "lookin' for you to pay for it," an allusion that drew raucous laughter from the packed hearing room.

Another Nay-vote, Delegate Eric Luedtke (District 14) was similarly skeptical of the bill, and the process that brought it to a sudden public surfacing last Friday. He mused aloud whether or not it might be sensible to simply have a public process and discussion on this at the county level through 2015, and then put forward a better bill in the 2016 session 12 months from now.

Luedtke's on-point questions also brought out a very significant aspect of the proposed authority I had never even considered. Because the ITA would not be backed by the "full faith and credit" of Montgomery County, it would therefore have to pay markedly higher interest rates - at taxpayer expense.

A common-sense idea from Delegate Aruna Miller (D-District 15) - who did vote for the bill, by the way - was to have the transit authority issue be put to a voter referendum in 2016.

But voters were still waiting to have their say last night. And waiting. And waiting.

Amy Ginsburg, Executive Director of Friends of White Flint, enthusiastically endorsed the bill, saying her group "looks very favorably" upon it. She claimed "the community rallied around" it, but strangely, none of those feverish fans ever showed up at the hearing last night to provide evidence of her statement.

Finally, a few detractors got a turn at the mic. One of them, Town of Chevy Chase Councilmember John Bickerman, scored several blows on the authority, and his testimony was referred to and seconded by many speakers through the long hours that would follow. He noted that the actual language in the bill "doesn't sound at all like what" its proponents testified at the hearing. The bill is actually a "backdoor property tax, an effort to circumvent the cap on property tax," he argued. One of Bickerman's comments which got a favorable response from the crowd, was his astonishment that "you have a public hearing on Friday night at 6:00."

Paula Bienenfeld, representing the Montgomery County Civic Federation, asked the delegation which of them traveled to the meeting by transit. No one raised their hand. The Montgomery County Council has famously had the same response when previously asked. Yet both bodies are asking the public to "get out of their cars." Winston, the Rapid Transit Task Force Chair once said "it has been a while" since he rode the bus. Hypocrisy at its best in all 3 cases.

Finally, someone pointed out the elephant in the room - the dirty tricks speakers list.

Twinbrook Civic Association representative Christina Ginsburg criticized the way the delegation "stacked this hearing" with supporters in the early, favorable slots (several reporters left early, and did not hear [and therefore will not quote] the later speakers). The crowd cheered, and one voice in the crowd bellowed toward Del. Robinson, "You said it would be pros and cons!!" That promise, of course, turned out to be hogwash.

Attacking the decidedly-unusual process by which this bill has been brought forth, Ginsburg said, "I'm appalled that you're lending your names and reputations to this kind of chicanery." She added that none of the jurisdictions cited as models in the county report allow what's in this bill.

"Kill this bill," county resident James Williamson said. He was skeptical of claims that the county should be trusted on this legislation. "Just look at the great work we did with the Silver Spring Transit Center," he noted sarcastically. County resident Tanzi Strafford concurred, citing the county's "history of incompetent transportation management." Williamson seconded Miller's suggestion of putting the matter to the public via referendum.

Joan Fidler of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League called the bill "a solution in search of a problem," and then went on to slice and dice it - and its proponents' arguments - to the delight of the crowd.

Jean Cavanaugh was one of several civic leaders to note that the short notice of the bill and public hearing did not permit enough time to engage membership on the proposal. Her Seven Oaks Evanswood Citizens Association's Executive Board is opposing the bill.

The Greater Four Corners Alliance is also in opposition to the ITA bill, and its representative Kevin Harris referred to the "undemocratic process" it has been rushed through.

Eileen Finnegan said Hillandale residents question the need for such a transit authority, and its Executive Board is likewise opposed.

Allen Myers, representing the Maplewood Citizens Association in Bethesda, said that a similar ITA proposal was only approved in the state of Florida after two voter referendums.

The Cherrywood Homeowners Association was also opposed. Their representative, Paul Jarosinski, said resident opposition was "almost unanimous." Jarosinski called the county's BRT plan "a forced redevelopment plan, rather than a transit plan."

Cherrywood's neighbors, the Greater Olney Civic Association, is equally opposed, particularly in light of the ITA's "unspecified borrowing and eminent domain powers." GOCA is also concerned that ITA debt would ultimately become the responsibility of the County, and its taxpayers.

Union leader Gino Renne expressed several reservations about the bill, including the open question of what would happen to current labor contracts under the ITA, and the fear of privatization. The room and hallway were packed with union members wearing yellow shirts. Some carried signs protesting the bill.

Even supporters of the bill thought it could use some significant changes.

Jay Corbalis, development associate at Federal Realty, argued "we need to offer more than sitting in traffic" as transportation options for young professionals. But he added that the development firm doesn't "support a blank check" such as the bill's language currently implies. Corbalis also said Federal Realty wants checks on the ITA's powers, and a cap on the amount taxes can rise.

Author, transit advocate and Bethesda resident Ben Ross (Action Committee for Transit) said he is concerned that the ITA proposed is not restricted to transit. Ross was particularly concerned that ITA funds could end up going to garage construction. He argued parking districts should not be placed under ITA control, and said the "bill as currently drafted won't provide that."

A spillover crowd, angry constituents, and the first sunlight to hit the ITA proposal since it was drawn up behind closed doors almost certainly will result in some changes to this bill. It could even be delayed a year for more public feedback, if politicians don't want to end up like their ousted counterparts in Arlington County. 

But don't expect the ITA to disappear, with so much developer profit at stake.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Document as reuploaded January 28, 2015
A Powerpoint presentation reportedly delivered by Montgomery County officials to as-yet-unidentified groups - prior to public announcement of legislation that would permit creation of an unelected Transit Authority with taxing powers last Friday - has been taken down, and reuploaded to the County website with a January 2015 date added.

While there is nothing necessarily nefarious about the change, it certainly plays into the existing controversy over the timeline of to whom the plan was disclosed to and when, prior to last Friday. There is a dispute between County officials, and citizens who oppose the plan, as to whether development interests had more notice of the plan details than residents. The latter only got their first look at the specifics of the proposal 6 days ago.

The change was reported by the Stop the Backroom Montco Transit Authority Deal Facebook page, operated by citizens organizing to fight the proposed new transit agency and taxing authority.

Previously, the document was dated "December 2014," a date prior to the January 23, 2015 public announcement of the Independent Transit Authority legislation and details.
Original date stamp
Patrick Lacefield, Montgomery County Director of Public Information responded to the blog prior to yesterday's date stamp change. He asserted that the Powerpoint presentation had been delivered to "a whole range of community organizations" since County Executive Ike Leggett's Inaugural Address December 1, 2014.

The County has not yet published a list of the "community organizations" to which the presentation was made. If your civic association, organization or business group received the presentation, please comment below or confidentially via email. I personally never heard any public announcement of a presentation that could either be attended, or requested to be delivered to a civic association or group, during the time period in question.

A public hearing on the state legislation that would permit creation of the Transit Authority will be held Friday, January 30, at 6:00 PM in the 3rd Floor hearing room of the County Council building at 100 Maryland Avenue. Those interested in testifying can sign up online by 12 PM on Friday.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015



I told you this was coming back in 2012, and now it's here. A new tax that will cost many Rockville homeowners around $300-$1000+ a year has been planned by Montgomery County since that time. But the problem they've faced is, how to introduce the largest across-the-board tax increase in County history, but avoid the political damage to themselves?

Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich has previously suggested having developers pay the cost for the $5 billion boondoggle known as Bus Rapid Transit, given that the system will generate more real estate developer profits than actual riders - even according to County planner Larry Cole' original ridership estimates (before he got a good talking-to from the MoCo political machine, and hastily revised his numbers).

If you follow county politics, home of the $72 million tax-cut for developers in White Flint, you know that developers aren't going to pay for this. You, the taxpayer will foot the bill, even as you deal with the traffic worsened by BRT taking lanes from cars on MD 355 and Georgia Avenue, reducing capacity on those already-jammed roads by 33%.

But how to do this politically? After all, the BRT is such a weak project, it qualifies for no federal funding, and proponents have been unable to identify or procure a single penny to build it.

Introducing the Montgomery County Independent Transit Authority.

While no one was paying attention, MoCo elected officials did a run-around the public. First they hid a state bill that would give them authority to create this Independent Taxing, er, Transit Authority. Then, after the deadline for bills from the Montgomery County Delegation, the bill was snuck in.

No public hearing. No public announcement.

The only way I found out about it, was that I was signed up for a County email list, and received a fact sheet on a Friday afternoon - and if you're in the PR and politics business, you know that's the time of the week that politicians dump something they want the public to ignore.

More secrecy. An unannounced public hearing will be held by the same delegation that hid this unlimited tax-hike bill from you for weeks, this Friday in Rockville, a mere 7 days after the bill's existence was even made public. It only exists on this website if you do a Google search, and 99% of the public doesn't even know it should look for it at all. It's outrageous.

What will Bill MC 24-15 do?

Not all of the implications are even know or understood by the public yet.

Here's what's known so far:

The bill will permit creation of a 5-member Independent Taxing Authority board. Those 5 members will be chosen by County Executive Ike Leggett, subject to approval by the County Council. They will have the power to raise taxes on everyone, including the poorest residents of the county. In fact, residents in places like Poolesville, Westbard, Potomac, and Damascus - who won't even have BRT to use in their areas - will have to pay the tax, too.

Most significantly, there is no limit to the amount of taxes the ITA could raise, even within one year. Leggett's Rapid Transit Task Force recommended a 15% property tax hike, which is what would lead to yearly payments in the hundreds of dollars for even those who own condos in older buildings, or more than a thousand a year for those in luxury condos and McMansions.

And as unelected officials, they are entirely unaccountable to the voters. Of course, that's the brilliance of this scheme, in that the County Council and Executive will be able to shirk the blame for higher taxes off onto this hatchet team that can be as mean and nasty as they want, without any threat of removal from the public.

That is Taxation without Representation.

But wait, it gets worse. Check out Line 6 of Page 4, and Line 7 of Page 7 of MC 24-15/House Bill 104, and you find out that not only would this Transit Authority be able to take on unlimited debt, but that the County can even shift debt and financial obligations to it. Theoretically, the County Council could transfer the "assets and obligations" of any boondoggle or pet project - including the Silver Spring Transit Center - to this body. And you would be stuck with the bill, while the County Council avoids having to be the body raising your taxes to pay for it, and gets to spend more money on its sugar daddies, the developers.

That makes the ITA a virtually unlimited vehicle to raise taxes and blow the County budget even beyond its already-ridiculous $5 billion proportions. And there will be absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.

According to Line 10 of Page 5 in HB 104, the ITA will not have to submit its capital and operating budgets for approval to the County.  To quote directly from the bill:

(6) Establish a budget process for the Transit Authority that:

II. May not require the Transit Authority to submit its capital or its operating budget to the County for approval. 

That directly contradicts claims that the County Council will have approval authority over its budgets.

But, wait, there's more.

Not only would the ITA be exempt from the "Ficker Amendment" to the County Charter, which provides what little restraint exists on the amount of taxes the County can raise in any year, but it gets even worse. According to 6C and 6D on Page 5 of HB 104, no amendment could be made to the Charter in the future that would restrict or cap the amount of revenue the ITA could raise at any time.

Meaning that, even if an activist like Robin Ficker were to collect signatures to get such an amendment on the ballot, it could not be applicable to the ITA.

While the tax issues may be the most blatantly abusive and offensive in this power grab, there are other provisions that must be examined, as well.

The ITA would have de facto eminent domain authority, and the ability to demolish homes and businesses. That raises the specter of the quiet plans to demolish 155 homes and businesses along Georgia Avenue between Olney and Wheaton for a BRT line. Don't like it? Too bad, the ITA is unelected, and would not be thrown out in the next election by angry residents (assuming they still had a house to reside in). And assuming a board member with ties to developers was appointed to the ITA (such as Mark Winston's ethically-questionable role on Leggett's Rapid Transit Task Force), the body could wheel and deal in the real estate market with public money, and developers could acquire private or County land at sweetheart prices, among other potential abuses.

There would also be a currently-undisclosed bureaucracy of new government employees who would be hired for the Authority, with the high-ticket pay and benefits one expects from Montgomery County. With many County departments currently understaffed for financial reasons, where would the money for that come from? From you, of course.

Who voted for this now-you-don't-see-it-now-you-do MC 24-15 bill?

Thanks to the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, that information is available.

In Rockville, Delegates Kumar Barve, James Gilchrist, and Andrew Platt all voted to approve this "late-filed" legislation.

Worst of all, this bill has all the wrong priorities. Completing our unfinished master plan highway system would move the most people for far less money. Yet this ITA would do nothing for highways, or even to repair the ones we already have. In fact, it will use dirty tactics to fund a BRT system that would actually reduce highway capacity, and that the vast majority of residents oppose.

MC 24-15/HB 104 must be stopped. One citizen group is already organizing against it, and there is a petition online. The gumption of the county's elected officials is something to marvel at, given they just got walloped by Maryland voters who rose up in a tax revolt, of all things.

With all of the leeway in this legislation, $300-1000 per resident, per year, could be just the starting point for the Independent Taxing Authority.

What's in your wallet?