Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Rockville Mayor and Council discuss FY-17 budget priorities

Rockville's budget season is officially underway, and a preview of the FY-2017 budget was presented to the Mayor and Council at last night's regular meeting by Deputy Director of Finance Stacey Webster. Some information will not be available until the February 8 meeting, including whether or not tax increases - such as the property tax - will be necessary.

But if the Mayor and Council accept the general outline presented by staff last night, there would be a 5-6% increase in trash fees, and a two-cent hike in what commercial property owners at Rockville Town Square pay toward the parking fund annually. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton asked what that spike in trash fees would cost the average Rockville resident. Webster said it would be about $20 to $25 out of residents' pockets in FY-17. She said a number of factors led to the suggested increase, including a renegotiated city refuse agreement, new vehicle purchases, and labor costs.

Finance Director Gavin Cohen said the Rockville Town Square parking tax hike would cost property owners there about $12,000. He added that the new revenue would help cover the installation and adoption of "smart" parking meters.

Councilmember Mark Pierzchala, known for being well-prepared for meetings, identified a discrepancy in the newest unassigned reserves figure for FY-17. He noted it was now below the target established in the FY-16 budget. Webster explained that the number had to be revised due to new concerns about revenue, particularly in light of the Wynne decision and the recent mistake by the Maryland Comptroller's office in allocation of revenues to municipalities such as Rockville. The latter gaffe means the City will likely have to return an unknown amount of funds it mistakenly received from Annapolis.

In the context of those concerns, Webster said, she did not recommend the City reduce the property tax at this time. Councilmember Beryl Feinberg asked her colleagues if there was any inclination among the body to pursue a property tax reduction or credit for FY-17. There appeared to be no takers. Pierzchala said he was not only concerned about the factors Webster mentioned, but about the increasing forecasts of another national recession.

Webster said that Rockville is in a position to keep water and sewer fees flat this year, but cautioned against reducing the amount of unassigned reserves. She said the money that would free up would likely be outweighed by the negative message such a move would send to bond rating agencies, upon whom staff had impressed last year's increased commitment to reserve funding. Webster said those agencies expect the City to continue on that course to retain its prized Aaa bond rating.

With the recent election having just passed, the Mayor and Council also sought to deliver on promises made during the 2015 campaign. Newton noted that the Rockville Senior Center is in urgent need of both a full-time social worker, and a dedicated staff member who can help manage the aging-in-place Village programs being established across the city. She also pressed for one of her top priorities, increasing the number of police officers in the city. Newton said Rockviille's population, demographics and law enforcement challenges are not what they were 30 years ago. Rockville Police Chief Terry Treschuk concurred with the Mayor's comments. "It's time we had a frank discussion about the Police Department in this city," Treschuk said, "and lay it all on the table."

Pierzchala said he was hesitant to add signifcant numbers of new officers without first examining how current personnel are deployed and other efficiency options. Newton and Treschuk's remarks suggested that such analysis would be part of the overall discussion. But Newton argued that additions to the force are clearly warranted, with Rockville officers answering over 70% of calls within the city last year. She said Montgomery County officials have told her the efforts of the Rockville Police have allowed County Police assets to be redeployed to other priorities.

Feinberg brought up another proposal supported by several candidates last fall, the construction of additional recreation centers around the city. She suggested Potomac Woods Park as a prime location, because it already has utility lines running out to it, and existing recreational facilities in place.

Newton encouraged residents and staff to come forward with needs that could be addressed in this budget, saying it is important that the document reflect their priorities while maintaining the City's sound financial management.

Photo courtesy City of Rockville

Monday, January 11, 2016

Rockville construction update: Galvan at Twinbrook Metro (Photos)

The signs are up for Smashburger and Floyd's 99 Barbershop at The JBG Companies' Galvan development, by the Twinbrook Metro station on Rockville Pike. While both tenants' spaces are still under construction, the Safeway grocery store has been open for awhile. There is both garage and street parking available at Galvan.
The sign is up
Smashburger storefront
Smashburger interior
under construction
Floyd's 99 sign
No haircuts just yet
Floyd's still
under construction

Safeway and public art

Friday, January 8, 2016

Multiple injuries in wreck on First Street in Rockville

At least one person was trapped, and several victims were transported to local hospitals, after a 3-car crash on First Street at Maple Avenue in Rockville last night. The street had to be temporarily shut down while Montgomery County Fire and Rescue personnel tended to multiple injuries at the scene. No word yet on what caused the wreck.

Photo by Pete Piringer/MCFRS

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Driver attempts to hit officer as police chase covers MD 355/270 corridor from Germantown to Bethesda

Montgomery County Police pursued a stolen vehicle Wednesday night throughout large portions of the jurisdiction. Around 11:45 PM, police spotted a stolen, white Mercedes Benz with Virginia tags, and began a chase around Gunners Branch Road in Germantown.

Multiple units, including at least one K-9, pursued the Mercedes through the Watkins Mill area off of MD 355, with the suspects reportedly weaving all over the road. The chase continued through Old Town Gaithersburg and the heart of Montgomery Village, before turning north on Brink Road to MD 27, and back to 355 again.

While racing through Montgomery Village, one officer called for a helicopter. As the County Council foolishly declined to fund a County Police helicopter a number of years back, that means waiting for a Maryland State Police chopper to come from outside the County. A while later, an officer pleaded with the dispatcher, "Can you get the helicopter started?"

Returning to Germantown, stop sticks were deployed at Observation Drive to no avail. Based on scanner reports, it appears the driver of the Mercedes aimed the vehicle at one of the officers attempting to deploy stop sticks. "Be careful with the sticks - he went right at that officer," a colleague warned via radio.

A second attempt with stop sticks failed in Germantown. "We set 'em up, and they were missed," an officer radioed.

The suspects then returned to southbound 355, turning onto Montgomery Village Avenue and then onto southbound I-270. "Let DC and Virginia know we might be coming their way. P.G., too," an officer told the dispatcher.

Sure enough, the suspects passed River Road and Clara Barton Parkway, and crossed the American Legion Bridge into Virginia.

"Cut off all the lights and let him go!" an officer shouted into the radio.

A Virginia State Police cruiser passed him, and was attempting to continue the pursuit on the Beltway as Montgomery officers withdrew from the chase.

Alas, the radio channel for the Virginia State Police Division 7 is currently offline, so the outcome of the pursuit is not known at this time. There was no report on the pursuit on the Fairfax County Police channel.

Once again, this is a reminder of the dangers County officers face on a daily basis in protecting our community.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Twinbrook Library to reopen January 23

The newly-renovated Twinbrook Library will reopen to the public on January 23, with a public ceremony hosted by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.

Updates to the building include an ADA upgrade of the restrooms and parking spaces, the addition of two collaboration/conference spaces, a new combined information and circulation customer service desk, an updated preschool children's space with new shelving, more furnishings, fresh paint and carpet where needed, programming of outdoor green space, more electrical outlets and enhanced Wi-Fi, and a 3-D printer and laptops you can borrow in-house.

The grand reopening ceremony will begin at 10:00 AM on the 23rd.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

MoCo threatens residents: Keep government liquor monopoly...or else! (Photos)

Signs tweeted by
Justin Fidler
Montgomery County's political machine is in full panic mode as public opposition to the County government's monopoly control of liquor increases in volume. Punches are being thrown, and landing. But new government signs printed at taxpayer expense are threatening those very taxpayers with "sky is falling" outcomes and punishments, should the unwashed masses dare to boot Big County Government out of the liquor business at the ballot box this November. This follows another taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to maintain the monopoly that I reported on just yesterday.

The County is even using schoolchildren as human shields, threatening to derail construction projects at Walt Whitman, Pyle, Ashburton, East Silver Spring, Greencastle, Montgomery Knolls, Pinecrest, Piney Branch, Woodlin, Christa McAuliffe and Col. E. Brooke Lee if voters reject the government liquor monopoly. This even as many of the same elected officials are clamoring to approve classroom-busting, high-density development in those same school clusters in the coming months. Oops.

What else will happen if you pursue your quest for better beer and wine lists, and the right to purchase Bud Light at CVS?

"Liquor stores on every corner," thunders the sign. 

Here's a good one - the monopoly actually touts its authority to keep certain liquor products it arbitrarily decides are a little too wild for you, the heavy-tax-paying adult, out of your hands. Boasting of its "power to exclude" certain products - now there's a heckuva way to convince residents that this is a good system. Just what we want: less choice, right?

They also made another gaffe in the process - they state that Montgomery County is only the second-best jurisdiction in Maryland when it comes to alcohol abuse and drunk-driving accidents. So we're not the healthiest in America, as our elected officials boasted? No, not even in the state, according to the County's own propaganda.

Councilmember George Leventhal tussled on Facebook with restaurateur Roberto Pietrobono (Gringos & Mariachis, Olazzo), who asked, "At what point in time would you be fed up if you were in our position as restaurant owners? For me it's been 15 years." Leventhal replied that he hoped the proposed "special orders" change would solve Pietrobono's woes.

Alas, as regular readers here already know, the "special orders" plan won't do that. It will allow the Department of Liquor Control to retain the power to declare which products are special order. It will allow the DLC to levy a tax on those new private liquor transactions, which as anyone who knows about business realizes, will raise the cost of product for consumers and hospitality businesses (of course, the County Council is not known for its vast knowledge of operating businesses). How does that make Montgomery County competitive with the District again?

Are you smart enough to decide the fate of liquor control in Montgomery County?

According to the Sentinel newspaper, Councilmember Leventhal says you aren't. Of Leventhal's opposition to a ballot referendum on the issue, the Sentinel reported "he did not think voters should decide whether to privatize alcohol because they would not understand how it would affect the county.

Leventhal posted that he thought only restaurant industry insiders were concerned about the County having monopoly control of liquor. But his colleague, Councilmember Hans Riemer, who also favors government retaining monopoly control, recently acknowledged the biggest complaint heard is the inability to buy beer and wine at grocery stores.

It's clear that the people have spoken. Now, will the politicians listen?

As a resident, is your current inability to buy Bud Light or a bottle of chardonnay at Giant, and your being forced to pay more for alcohol than those in the District, really "of little interest" to you?

Monday, January 4, 2016

MoCo Liquor stores hand out flyers to preserve monopoly, days after DLC delivery disaster (Photo)

Flyer being handed out, as
tweeted by Justin Fidler
Montgomery County-operated liquor stores are handing out literature to customers that threatens to raise their property taxes by "$100" if the County's Department of Liquor Control loses monopoly control over booze. The flyers state they have been printed by the County Office of Public Information, which is obviously funded by taxpayer money. What they don't state, is that just days ago, the DLC failed to make scheduled deliveries to restaurants, bars and beer-and-wine retailers at the height of the critical holiday season. More on that in a moment.

Of course, County Executive Ike Leggett has already stated his intention to raise taxes in the next budget, as the County Council's fiscal mismanagement over the last 14 years has created a structural deficit with no end in sight. And, no, raising taxes every year to cover ever-increasing spending is not a responsible record for a public official.

Councilmember Hans Riemer, who has posed as a critic of the liquor monopoly to promote himself through the local media, has ironically ended up defending the current regime along with seven of his colleagues. Roger Berliner, who represents District 1 on the Council, has declined to oppose new attempts to end the monopoly. Delegate Bill Frick - who like Berliner represents Bethesda, where bars and restaurants have been hurt by the current monopoly - has joined Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot in efforts in Annapolis to allow private competition within the county.

The flyer states that the current monopoly "doesn't cost taxpayers a single dime." Well, not only did these flyers cost the taxpayers, but the current County-controlled system requires both consumers and private businesses to pay more for liquor than they would in the District. So that statement is false.

Riemer's compromise, to allow competition for "special order" products, not only conveniently allows the DLC to define which products are "special orders," but would also allow the DLC to levy an arbitrary fee the consumer would end up paying - a tax, in other words. Tax? No wonder Riemer and the Council are for it!

But the flyers are essentially a gaffe for the County liquor regime, as they are being handed out mere days after yet another DLC holiday delivery disaster. As the Seventh State blog reported December 31, a DLC blunder resulted in missed deliveries to restaurants and bars between December 23-29. Don't worry, DLC Director George Griffin assured them, orders would be back on schedule by New Year's Eve. Oh, and there was a little matter of an order backlog... No big deal if you own a restaurant, bar or beer-and-wine store, right? - it's only one of your biggest times of the year during the holidays, after all.

This comes after the DLC was criticized last year for being unable to fill orders for items as basic as Maker's Mark during previous holiday seasons. You can't make this stuff up, folks.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of County residents want government out of the liquor business, the benefits of high-quality retailers in competition with each other, and the simple ability to pick up Bud Light or a $9 wine bottle at the grocery store. Despite odd claims that the state is responsible for the current inability to do the latter, the reality is that requires the same sort of state-level law change in Annapolis that Riemer is seeking for his current plan. The only difference is that our elected officials aren't asking for it. Hmm...why is that?

This is not the first time we as taxpayers have been forced to pay for PR materials promoting a position the majority of residents oppose (Ambulance Fee, Bus Rapid Transit, anybody?). It should be the last.