Forward March!

Dear Readers,

Cancel the funeral! The body is still twitching. In fact, it’s walking . . . slowly . . . forward . . . !

What does “forward” mean, Dear Readers? Takoma Park Mayor Kathy Porter assures us it is “NOT committing to build the gym, NOT committing to which option, simply committing to the next step.”
The next step is on the road to Annapolis, where the city will continue to seek up to 3 million dollars in state funding. Fund-seeking will continue in the county, as well.

Applying for funding does not commit the city to building the gym. Though it seems a bit cart-before-the-horsey, there is a good reason, say the Mayor and councilmembers savvy in the Ways of the State.

This year the state has a budget surplus and next year it will have a “structural budget deficit,” according to the Mayor. Your Gilbert has no idea how a structural budget deficit differs from a plain budget deficit, but we are a bit mystified how wise heads in matters economical can see a budget surplus on one hand, a budget deficit on the other hand, and not bring the two hands together, using the surplus to eliminate the deficit.

Regardless, ours is not to reason why, ours is but to piteously cry “ALMS! ALMS!” on the state house steps. The deadline to do so rapidly approaches. And that, Dear Readers, is why the city steps forward, even without having chosen a specific plan, budget, or even whether to build the gym at all.

This determination to keep marching came at the Feb. 12 city council meeting, a couple of days following two public “Should the City Build a Gymnasium.” workshops that were poorly attended. Of those few who showed up, most opposed the gym. So did the majority of those (70 in all) who e-mailed or phoned in their opinions.

As Councilmember Terry Seamens noted, however, this does not necessarily indicate a majority opinion. At past meetings many more people have shown up to support the gym, and the majority of his constituents want it to be built, he says. This is no surprise, he admits, as the gym site is in his ward.

Seamens has noted the strong opposition in other wards, particularly among homeowners who fear an increase in their city taxes to cover gym construction and operating costs. Such an increase would be likely, though, and adding to the city tax would be like poking a raw wound, as property taxes have recently gone up. Councilmember Joy Austin-Lane also noted that for the first time in history the city tax rate is higher than the county tax rate, so homeowners are a bit moody right now.

The Mayor speculated, however that the city will likely do what it has done in the past in such circumstances, which is to lower the city tax rate so home owners pay the same amount.

That’s not to say the city won’t still tack on the costs of the gym above that. The estimated amounts (here comes the eye-glazing bit) for the owner(s) of a home assessed at $400,000, are $25 per 1 million dollars for 20 years, and another $25 per 1 million in operating costs. How much of the construction costs would have to be assumed by the taxpayers depends on how much the city raises in grants from the state and county. Those grants usually require the city to match them, but a county grant could be used to match a state grant, for instance. So, if enough grant moneys are available there might be no taxpayer construction costs (unlikely), or taxpayers may have to pony up half the costs to match the grants (more likely).

Unglaze your eyes, Dear Readers! What this means is that if the taxpayers have to shoulder, say, half the gym building costs, which in the higher estimates ($8 million) would amount to $4 million, you homeowners would pay an approximately additional $200 yearly for 20 years, plus a bit more for operational costs – if Your Gilbert has done the math correctly which is not a common occurrence.

To varying degrees all the councilmembers voiced support for the gym,. Councilmember Clay came closest to outright opposition, but she made clear that she is only reluctantly reflecting the majority sentiment of her constituents. Personally, she wants to see the gym built, but may have to vote against her own wishes out of duty to the voters, she says.

Speaking of stepping, Dear Readers, have you ever waded barefoot through a muddy, rocky stream? That’s what discerning community needs is like on this gym matter. One bumps into an number of pro-gym rocks and says, “Ah, the community stream bed is rocky – we need the gym”, then one steps in an anti-gym slimy spot and thinks “oh, no, the community stream bed is mucky – we don’t need the gym!”.

But, how much of the stream bed is actually rocky, and how much mucky? We only know what we bump into, metaphorically. In reality, we only know who shows up at meetings or writes letters.

What we need, then, said Councilmember Seamens, is a needs assessment, and other councilmembers agree. This could be the famous survey that council critics say was promised but never delivered. Given the highly complicated nature of the issue, Your Gilbert doubts the survey could ever be written which was neither too simplistic nor which would paralyze the average citizen with too much detail.

Furthermore, any survey at all would immediately be criticized by one side or the other as biased or inadequate.

The problem with this issue, as Your Gilbert sees it, is that it has a long, complicated history. Some of the gym critics are like people who walk into a movie at the last reel and sit there saying in a loud, irritating voice, “why did he do that?” “That’s dumb!”, What kind of a stupid ending is that? ‘Rosebud?’”

They don’t have the history, and they aren’t interested in learning or understanding it. They suggest, for example, just using existing gyms in the area. They are unaware that the city has already looked into the other gyms and found them heavily booked and under the control of the intractable Interagency Coordinating Board (IBC), an arm of the county school bureaucracy, which refuses to give priority use of fields and gyms to local needs, no matter how worthy.

Other critics are people who already have an ax to grind, and this just gives them a bigger grinding wheel. There is no convincing them, they see incompetence, duplicity, even evil in the events and on the council

Your Gilbert sees on the council a group of selfless people trying to do the right thing, and when it goes wrong, as these things do, trying to deal with it to the best of their ability. We have little patience with critics who insist, with the benefit of hindsight, that certain decisions or actions were obviously wrong. Nor can we stomache those who insist on viewing the current council actions through (indelicate word)-colored glasses.

That’s not to say that the heads making these decisions and actions rest easy, have no self-doubts, or are all in accord. That’s also not to say Your Gilbert supports building the gym – only that we support a thorough and calm process to make the decision.

The council is not exactly divided, but some councilmembers have qualms. Councilmember Joy Austin-Lane, for example is greatly concerned that the council has damaged its credibility and must avoid any appearance of repeating the sort of decision process that led to the orginal community center debacle. In particular, she was worried that, as with the community center, the city might commit to a gym at a certain cost, only to have the costs step up incrementally until they were high above the original. She urged the council to make sure the cost estimates were solid and, given past experience, to use the high end of the estimates, not the low one, when presenting the costs to the public.

Councilmember Seamens and Clay echoed this concern. Clay even promised to sit in a dunking booth in front of the completed gym if it ends up costing less than 8 million dollars. Your Gilbert noted that neither the Mayor nor any of the more sanguine councilmembers did not volunteer to sit in the dunking booth if the final costs were MORE than 8 million.

Clay also questioned the estimates for operating costs, which she felt were low and inadequate. They account for a part-time custodian and only one staff person on duty at any given time. Debra Haldeven, of the Recreation Department, defended this estimate, saying volunteers and other Rec. Dept. staff would also be on hand, but Clay was skeptical.

Councilmember Seamens’s worry was that they were missing potential downsides to the plan that would come back to bite them later. He was concerned about approaching the state for funds so precipitously. He may have been thinking about the rather abrupt reaction from the county, which when presented with the city’s funding request shot back some pointed questions: What is the total cost? How do you intend to finance the total cost? What is the schedule? When will the gym open? Will county residents pay the same fee as city residents?

Clay voiced the annoyance many felt over that last question, saying that if the county would hand over the money it owes Takoma Park due to double-taxation, the city would not have to go begging them for funds to build a gym.

Your Gilbert sincerely hopes the city will respond by saying that the county could chose whether to 1) give us our rebate or 2) repay us a few dollars at a time through a gym usage surcharge on non-city county residents.

Clay, Seamens, and Austin-Lane pushed for information to be made more readily available. For example, the question about use of existing gyms always comes up and it would be helpful to have information showing the ICB policy and the actual availability of local gyms. Much of the information exists, but not in one place.

Not only would this be helpful to the council but to the public. Public education is another step the council wants to make. Understanding the history and aims of the gym project will win more citizens over, they felt. As it stands there is an alarming polarization developing between homeowners and renters on this issue, the homeowners feeling that they are being required to subsdize a gym for renters. This only inflames those who feel they are already subsidizing renters through rent control.

The Mayor saw the path ahead as having “two tracks,” one is the fundraising effort, the other is public outreach. This will include making information available. It may also include some sort of needs assessment. How that will be accomplished is likely to be a source of controversy, no doubt one of many as the gym project lurches on.

– Gilbert

About the Author

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.

1 Comment on "Forward March!"

  1. Tom Gagliardo | February 20, 2007 at 1:11 am |

    Where is our sense of responsibilty, our sense of the greater good? This is beyond words. Stop, breathe deep. Do not ask our delegates and senator to fund anymore city construction — not until WE get OUR act together. Do ask them to strengthen the double taxation law.

Comments are closed.