Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?

Dear Readers,

Where, oh where can the city find an extra $578,000 to replace the funds cut by the state?

In the road, that’s where! The city manager just found it there, gushing out of the speed cameras! She found almost enough to keep the city humming along through the fiscal year. She’s short $135,705, but that may be partly “offset” by vacant staff positions.

There IS a catch to this revenue source, however! The speed camera funds can ONLY be spent on projects that “improve public safety.”

So, some adjustments to job descriptions have been made. One police officer has found himself transferred to a “traffic-safety position,” though his duties remain largely the same. Through a clever combination of such re-purposings and no-brainers (yes, new speed bumps, traffic circles, and sidewalks come under public safety), city manager Barbara Matthews says she can fill most of the gaps in the budget.

The council, overwhelmed by the volume of information in Matthew’s proposed budget amendment, and wanting to allow time for citizens to ponder and comment on it, postponed voting on it at the Oct. 5 meeting. Your Gilbert hopes you Dear Readers, especially those who bellyache about about the council’s allegedly profligate spending and oligarchic treatment of residents, will take the opportunity to study the amendment and give the council feedback before the vote.

Your Gilbert imagines the gyrations staff will have to to through to “find” further traffic safety aspects of other expenses. The purchase of paper clips, for instance, would keep them off the road where they could cause tire punctures. Some job titles may change. “Traffic Safety Mayor Williams?” “The “Traffic Safety Community Center and Sam Abbott Pedestrian Center?” Oh, wait! We forgot to stick “sustainability” in there!

Going Down?

As much as city staff and politicians have insisted that the speed cameras are for safety, NOT revenue production, this looks to Your Gilbert like another step down the slippery slope. There was no mention of safety when the city manager mournfully announced that speed camera revenues are declining due to a new state law raising the MPH above the speed limit cameras are allowed to issue tickets.

Ironically, at the previous week’s meeting Councilmember Clay scoffed at the idea of speed traps, saying only speeders call them that. She was ruing the fact that fines from traffic violations go to the state, not the localities where the violations occurred. Mayor Bruce Williams told her it was set up that way to prevent localities from creating speed traps – at which point Clay’s scoffing began. Apparently, she’s never heard of (or believed in) cash-hungry towns setting real traps with a tempting section of open highway, an obscure or nonexistent sign marking a speed limit reduction, and an ever-present police officer in hiding, ready with speeding tickets, handcuffs, and the authority to impound vehicles.

Er, so now our cash-hungry city is using a tempting section of open highway, obscure or nonexistent warning signs, and an ever-present camera to keep the city coffers full. No, that’s not QUITE a speed trap, but it has the faint odor of one.

Or maybe that’s the sulfurous fume of sin taxes – like those slapped on tobacco and liquor. Or like the state’s cut from legalized slot machines (which the council passed a resolution AGAINST). Speeding fines are not a tax, but like all those other schemes the revenues are being used to fund government programs using citizen’s money taken by non-progressive means.

Wright Thinking

The city council seems to be like the dinosaur in the old gag – the one who is so big it takes a few days to feel a bump to his tail because it takes that long for the message to reach the brain.

Four weeks after the aforementioned state-cutbacks yanked over half a million dollars from the city budget, worry furrowed councilmember Josh Wright’s brow as he questioned whether, given the budget slash, the city should be making renovations to the Public Works Department this year. That money, he said, might be needed for more basic necessities. Furthermore, he said, the city should take a serious look at an idea raised earlier – giving the city streets back to the county so they have to maintain them. Not only would this save the city the expense, it would remove the need for part of the Public Works renovation.

Wright was on fire*, he went on to propose that the city ban the use of styrofoam containers in city restaurants and vendor stands. The mass of plastic debris left after the recent Old Town Street Festival was an inspiration, apparently.
He brought up a few other environmental issues. He spoke in favor of the city exercising the option buy its light poles so it could control maintenance and what kind of bulbs to install. He also advocated changing the parking permit law to give a discount to any vehicle that gets 40 MPH or better. Currently it gives a discount only to hybrids. When the city manager began objecting to that change due to the additional staff time it would take to look up any given vehicle’s MPG, Wright jumped in saying “I thought of that” and said that the figures are readily available on an EPA website and would take “less than a minute” to look up.

Green Gab

Councilmember Dan Robinson, saying that Wright’s mention of a Styrofoam ban “got me going,” jumped in to support that and a plastic bag ban as well. He also spun a loose set of ideas about the city supporting a biodiesel cooperative, the Green Guild.

Perhaps Wright and Robinson were energized by the election, though neither has a challenger this fall. Mayor Bruce Williams, who does have a challenger, piped up with his own environmental initiative. Williams, looking unusually formal in a suit and tie, said details would be available after a meeting on Wednesday, but it had to do with converting garbage into diesel and electricity.

Councilmember Terry Seamens, who also has a challenger this election, said that perhaps the council was getting the cart before the horse. He suggested submitting the ideas to the newly formed Task Force on Environmental Action, whose mission it is to recommend an overall city environmental policy.

The Task Force appointees were officially voted in along with new members of various other city committees – all in a consent agenda passed at this meeting, btw.

Standoff Continues

The standoff with the group currently occupying the city council chambers continues. Officials still don’t expect a resolution to the situation for months. In fact, that resolution may now be prolonged due to the council’s rejection of terms offered by an architect firm to redesign the lobby just off the chambers. The architects vowed to return with new, more acceptable designs.

– Gilbert

* “On fire” is a relative term. A normal person “on fire” would exhibit a lot of passionate, dramatic speaking and gesturing. A councilmember “on fire” means he or she speaks at length without using the word “whereas.” Or “sustainability”..

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.

6 Comments on "Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?"

  1. Steve Davies | October 9, 2009 at 3:30 pm |

    [this comment was edited by the author and reposted at his request]
    Excerpt from gilbert’s column:
    “[Wright] also advocated changing the parking permit law to give a discount to any vehicle that gets 40 MPH or better. Currently it gives a discount only to hybrids. When the city manager began objecting to that change due to the additional staff time it would take to look up any given vehicle’s MPG, Wright jumped in saying “I thought of that” and said that the figures are readily available on an EPA website and would take “less than a minute” to look up.”
    Re: Councilman Wright’s proposal to base parking permit prices on the miles per gallon supposedly gained by the car for which the permit is being issue
    I thought permits were for the space being taken up on the street. So, if it’s a car (hybrid, pick-up, Classic or whatever), you have to pay.
    I wrote the quoted paragraphs below in an email recently to Councilman Wright, who believes that if the council as a whole agrees that something “makes sense to do,” it should be done now. He was speaking in the environmental context, and in the context of the new task force being appointed to look into environmental policies and practices in the city.
    Here’s what I said:
    “On the issue of whether the council move ahead on certain items when there is general agreement that they “make sense to do,” well, whether they make sense all depends on your perspective. For example, the resolution mentions that the [new] task force should “prioritize achievement of the largest gain for the smallest investment,” i.e., employ some form of cost-benefit analysis. [note to avid readers of Granola Park — I edited this slightly because the resolution does not specifically say “cost-benefit analysis” — Steve Davies]
    “Yet no such analysis has ever been applied to the city policy (which I had never heard of till the other night) of giving owners of hybrid vehicles a discount on parking stickers. Now there’s a suggestion that we start using gas mileage, not vehicle make, as the criterion.”
    “But is that justified? Should the person who drives a 50-mpg car for 50 miles each day be rewarded, while the guy down the street who drives his pick-up once a week is penalized?”
    “There’s no way of knowing who is using more gasoline or polluting more. And as we’re often reminded, we are supposed to keep our tires properly inflated to get the best gas mileage — and change our oil regularly and do all sorts of things to keep our cars humming along. (I know all do not have cars, and I applaud them for that. But come to think of it, where’s their break, since they don’t even need parking permits?).
    “So, some cars may not get the mileage per gallon they are advertised as getting. But to know that, you’d have to install devices on the odometers, or get the driver’s gas station receipts. (My wife and I have two cars. I work at home, she takes the Metro every day. We drive our cars, absolutely, but we’ve also had them for a while. I’m not sure why we’re encouraging the manufacture of new vehicles, even if they do use less gas.)
    “Wait a sec! I got it! We can just expand the license plate scanning to odometers. We’ll allot each resident X number of miles per months (based on the manufacturer’s suggested mileage; your mileage may vary). If you exceed the allotment, you’re given a warning (yellow card). If you go over twice, you get a red card (ejection, banishment from Takoma Park).”
    This part didn’t go to the councilman. It’s exclusive to Gilbert!:
    Put another way, how many people spend $22,000 (for the basic Prius) so they can save $20 on a parking permit? (I admit I don’t know the price; my neighborhood is sufficiently off the beaten track to not have permit parking).
    Also, I have to go with the city manager on this one. Does Wright mean staff time of a minute per vehicle? We’re going to regulate based on EPA estimates? In that case, I want a graduated fee matrix with decision points scattered along a Bayesian curve.
    Actually, I think we should get out of deciding what a parking permit costs based on vehicle make OR alleged miles per gallon. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare and totally unsupported by data of any kind.
    Steve Davies

  2. Thanks, Steve! Glad to see that some non-sanctimonious residents are willing to speak up against at least some of the hare-brained ideas that pop up around here and that the Council i too willing to entertain! As if they did not have enough other issues on which the Council members should concentrate…

  3. Tom Gagliardo | October 11, 2009 at 2:57 pm |

    I never majored in math, but I did download the City Manager’s “Second Reading Ordinance Regarding FY 2010 Budget Amendment No.1”. Whew, what a title.
    Under the heading “Fiscal Impact” I found:
    1. Net revenue decrease $804,131
    2. Net expenditure decrease $42,253
    3. Net fund transfer $129,628.
    Seems like a big hole to me? What am I missing.
    The Background data also raises numerous questions, which I would place under the rubric “How does one get so much so wrong so often?” OK things change, but is there more to the story?
    P.S. As Bill Clinton likes to say when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
    P.P.S. Can I be excused from coming to the council meeting, Gilbert? If not when is it that this topic will be discussed?

  4. Tom, no, you have to go to the council meeting – you or someone who else who can do math (unlike Your Gilbert)!
    It is first up on the agenda at the next meeting, Monday, October 12.
    – Gilbert

  5. Maybe this is the part you are missing, Tom.
    The city manager said she was able to decrease the city’s expenditures by $416,853. She found the money for that in the speed camera revenue. She includes in the reduction the money she saved finding a new, less expensive insurance deal for city employees.
    Safe Takoma, Inc. handed back $24,965 of unspent grant funds to the City.
    Subtracting those amounts from the approximately $578,000 shortfall leaves $135,705 that the city needs to close the budgetary gap.
    – Gilbert

  6. Takoma t.v is largely a vanity project. I don’t care to watch someone else’s home movies.
    A huge surplus would be realized if the city were to get out of housing. It duplicates many services already performed by the county.
    The values of rental properties would go up. As would tax revenues.
    The head in the sand attitude by most of the council about the true costs of rent control is unforgivable.
    When you have an area that only publicly owned, or subsidized housing is put in, you call it a ghetto.

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