GRANOLAPARK: 2020 vision, council changes elections

General Election, 2016 at the Takoma Park Recreation Center polling station. Photo by Bill Brown.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

The Takoma Park city council voted May 10 to hold city elections on the same day as general elections beginning in 2020, and to extend the next council term to three instead of two years, essentially canceling the 2019 city elections.

City elections will not be on the general ballot, however. To do that, the city would have to give up it’s unique election features – such as allowing non-residents and 16-year-olds to vote. Voting for both city and general elections will be held at the three or four general election polling stations. The Maple Avenue community center will no longer be a city voting station.

The council’s desire to increase voter turnout, especially minority-group voter turnout, overcame negative aspects: additional cost, the need for many more election judges and the loss of some city traditions. The two dissenting votes were cast by Jarrett Smith and Fred Schultz. Smith said that while the change might get more minority-group votes, it will not encourage them to run for office – which he felt is the more pressing problem. Schultz, who declined to repeat the reasons he opposes synchronization, made one final bid to put the proposal before the voters in a referendum. Nobody took him up on it.

Three year term

Councilmember Rizzy Qureshi proposed the amendment creating a three-year term, skipping the 2019 election. He said that otherwise the council would have a one-year term, 2019-2020, which is not enough time to learn the job, especially the budget process. Councilmembers would have only a few months on the dais before having to go back to campaigning in the fall, he said. The council voted for the amendment.

“Reading the tea leaves,” said Qureshi, there could be three vacancies on the seven-member city council this fall. Councilmember Schultz said that a one year term would discourage potential candidates. One vacancy will be the Ward 2 seat. Councilmember Tim Male has announced he is stepping down. The other two can only be detected in Qureshi’s tea leaves.

Like Councilmember Schultz, we won’t repeat our objections. We hope it works out the way the council majority wants it to, but we’re ready with a truck-full of “we-told-you-so” if it doesn’t. We’ll miss the whole community coming together at the community center on election days. And we’ll miss the October nominating caucus – and the short election season it gives us. One more city election left, Dear Readers. Enjoy it.

Taxes down, storm water up

The council cast the first of two votes in favor of the final city budget. The tax rate, lowered during the council’s reconciliation process, will result, says the city manager, in lower tax payments from homeowners. The rate, 53.48 cents per $100 of assessed property value, is lower than the constant yield tax rate, the rate that would hold taxes at the same amount as the previous payment.

According to the city’s figures, though tax payments will generally be reduced, the rate will still result in a $296,697 property tax increase over last year. As fast-typing Twitter commentator Arthur David Olsen observed during the meeting, “Between small property tax cut & big storm water fee boost, $400,000 home owner about breaks even.”

The Department of Public Work’s proposed storm water fee increase from $55 to $92 a year was accepted, but not unanimously. The vote was five to two. Councilmembers Peter Kovar and Tim Male cast the dissenting votes.

The final vote approving the budget will be held at next week’s council meeting.

While some councilmembers celebrated knocking down the proposed tax hike, the city manager and Mayor Kate Stewart expressed disappointment in reductions, especially to this year’s reserve fund contribution. Reserved funds are basically savings accounts the city builds up for major expenses.

But they and the rest of the council have gotten an unusual amount of push-back this year from citizens. City politicians may have been following the county council’s example. The county council decided not to repeat last year’s whopping property tax increase. Constituent anger, as expressed in the passing term-limits referendum last election might have had something to do with it.

Impact

The city budget has the newly required “Racial Equity Impact” statement. Racial equity impact statements are to be included on every city ordinance, same as environmental and fiscal impact statements.

We note, however, that while the racial equity impact statement deals with the effect on citizens, the fiscal impact statement deals only with the effect on city programs. This seems like part of the disconnect that some on the staff and council have between tax revenues and the residents who pay them. They see that pushing the rate up higher makes more money comes out. Sort of like how shoving a knife deeper makes more blood comes out. Yeah, it’s cool how that works, but they need to think about what other effects it has. Maybe those fiscal impact statements should include the impact on residents, too.

Co-op

About a half-dozen Co-op staff, board and customers spoke to the city council during Citizen Comment period at the beginning of the May 10 weekly council meeting. They were following up on the Co-ops decision not to expand their store into the next-door development project. The project will be built by the Neighborhood Development Company on the city-owned Takoma Junction parking lot.

The reason the Co-op opted out of further negotiations is rent. The Co-op objected to NDC’s proposed base rental rate of $45 per square foot. Marilyn Berger, Co-op Expansion Project Manager, sent a public letter to the city council May 4 saying. “An increase in rent of this magnitude made our expansion into the Redevelopment Project economically unfeasible.” Less than a year ago, says Berger, they offered a $28.50 per square foot rate.

Developer NDC said that the Co-op never responded to their proposed rent. They only learned of the Co-op’s objections when they read the Co-op’s public letter to the city council.

That’s what NDC says in a May 8 letter, signed by Adrian Washington, NDC’s director and addressed to Berger. In it Washington expresses regret for the missed opportunity, and gives the developer’s side of the story. The letter is on the city’s website.

“We … presented you with a fair offer, and provided you the supporting evidence you requested,” says NDC.

“While we expected some push back from you – as is the norm in any negotiation – we were quite surprised that you simply walked away without ever providing us with a response, or even the courtesy of a head’s up,” says Washington.

The proposed rental costs are high, Washington says, because the Co-op asked for costly concessions. NDC had suggested the Co-op negotiate a deal with their current landlord, the owners of the Turner building adjacent to the development plot, to move from that site to a wholly new one in the development. The Co-op insisted on staying where they are and a conjoined expansion between the old and new buildings. Washington’s letter calls that an “extremely complex endeavor” – and a costly one.

Other Co-op demands, says the letter, include a “lay-by unloading area be built to accommodate 80 foot trucks, considerably larger than the 65 foot 18 wheelers you currently utilized, and that it be retained for your exclusive use. You asked for much more parking than a operation of your size would typically warrant, which would add to the size and complexity of the planned underground garage, already the most expensive single component of the development.”

The Co-op’s lease terms, say the letter, asked for the “exclusion of a wide array of other businesses (for example no wine shops, no educational facilities, no restaurants within 50 feet of your store, etc). These exclusions would materially increase the value of your operations while lowering the value of the rest of the project. Finally, you asked for a provision to allow you to walk away from your lease if your expansion was not generating profits satisfactory (in your sole discretion) to you.”

“You wanted us to pay for building the lay-by and the build-out of your interior space, even though your financials showed you have over $3 million in cash and you were granted $500,000 in funding from the State of Maryland for the expansion.” says the letter.

These were “terms and conditions that almost no developer would even consider, let alone accept” says NDC. Yet, “we elected to move forward and negotiate with you in good faith.

The letter ends by wishing the Co-op good luck and success. “Even though you will not be a part of the development we will be neighbors for many years to come.”

Another letter

The Co-op sent a letter to members May 12 saying they would keep the $500,000 state matching grant “to modernize our 76-year old building so that we can better serve our over 9,000 members and thousands of community shoppers, enhance our ability to support our social mission, and help ensure our success and viability for decades to come.”

There was no indication of what that modernization would entail or when it would happen. It could get complicated if the Co-op and the development are under construction at the same time.

– Gilbert

 

Twitter feed:
Follow @Granolapark

Like us on Facebook:
Granolapark

The Voice

About the Author

Gilbert

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog.

Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park’s mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.