Greenery

Dear Readers,
Can the city live up to it’s plucky-yet-expensive environmentalist ideals at the same time the recession is steamrolling every government budget in the universe?
These things are costly: adding a sustainability coordinator to the city payroll (just after the city laid off employees and froze wages), the purchase of every streetlight in the city, and the construction of a roundabout in Takoma Junction! Ka-ching!


Those were some of the top recommendations of the Task Force for Environmental Action when it presented it’s final report in July. The city council was pleased with the report – though the mayor quickly pointed out that spending a lot of money, especially for a staff position, was unlikely this or next year. The next budget year is expected to be even worse than this one for the state, county, and city, he pointed out.
The task force was well aware of the budget situation, which was mentioned in the report. They said the more costly measures could be put off – part of a five year plan. They also pointed out that some of their proposals, such as the purchase of city streetlights, would eventually reduce city expenses.
Citizens would face direct costs and benefits as well. The task force recommended adding a monthly by-volume fee for trash pickup, and upping storm water fees. Residents would save money directly, however, under a proposed group-purchasing plan.
Blower Ban Back!
Oddly, the council barely mentioned the leaf-blower ban. The original ban was sicced on the council by a group of city environmentalists last year. After the council tried to pull the ban’s teeth, they shoved it in a cage and handed it to the task force to deal with along with all the other proposals. Perhaps they were hoping it would be reduced to a bulleted item far down the priority list, where it could be safely ignored. No such luck.
Then there was the fracas over Steve Davies, one of the ban’s more vocal proponents, who volunteered for that task force, but was, he charged, skipped over. Councilmember Terry Seamens, who had not made all his allotted appointments, appointed Davies. Davies was soon elected co-chair of the task force.
And, gee, guess what? There was the ol’ gasoline leaf-blower ban in the task force list of top priorities. Yet, hardly a remark was made about it. In fact hardly any objections were raised about all of the task force recommendations.
Trash Talk
The mayor did start to poke and probe the trash fee. He wondered if the new wheeled trash cans suggested for the proposed program would be a problem on Takoma Park’s hills. He worried that they would roll away.
Task Force Co-Chair Joe Edgell, who presented the report, said “you can always find a reason not to do it.” He pointed out that Tacoma, WA, which has such a program, has a lot of hills, too, and runaway trash cans have not been a problem.
The trash by-volume fee was pitched as a “Rewards for Recycling” incentive program to reduce waste. There would be no fee for recycling, which would include organic waste. The fee would be only for non-recyclable waste.
Tacoma, WA has such a program, and their fees were cited as an example. In the “other Tacoma” one 20 gallon trash can costs $25.25 monthly. A 30 gallon can costs $35.35. A 60 gallon can costs $57. And, a 90 gallon can costs $79.35.
City Uncoordinated
The top recommendation was to hire a sustainability coordinator, and give him or her “sufficient staff.” The failure to do this was the main reason the last set of environmental proposals were not implemented, they said. The current staff and volunteer committees were asked to take it on, but the staff especially was too busy and did not have the expertise.
Light Costs
The city would save a pile of money, the task force said, if they purchased the city’s 1,700 street lights and upgraded them to be more energy efficient. They would save 30% to 50% in electricity costs. Currently the cost of street lights makes up half the city’s electricity bill.

Road Rage

Though the task force calls for improved “human powered transportation” – more bike paths and sidewalks – it also calls for improved automobile traffic-flow. Environmentalists get road rage of a different sort when they get caught up in badly timed traffic light cycles. They get their 100% organic cotton panties in a twist seeing the extra pollution created by idling cars.
A traffic circle in Takoma Junction would help improve traffic flow, they said. They urged that this and other proposals already submitted by the Takoma Park Charette should be implemented.
Out There
The most far reaching proposals were to form a solar cooperative, a municipal electric utility, and a public/private purchasing program.
The task force recommended the city facilitate installation of solar panels on community buildings. This would be funded by citizens who would like to have solar power but don’t have optimal sun exposure. Energy savings would be passed on to them by the city.
By current state and county law it may not be possible to form a publicly owned municipal electric utility – powered from renewable sources. The task force urged the city to look into the feasibility of doing that.
The city could encourage energy efficiency and green-powered energy by loaning upfront capital to residents and businesses. These would be paid back over time. Also the city could arrange a group purchasing program on products such as home appliances and heating and cooling units.
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Fees and Bans
The task force recommended a 20% increase to the current $48 residential storm water yearly fee. They suggested these fees could fund the city’s tree planting program. Takoma Park’s tree canopy is aging and needs replenishing, they said.
The city “should consider” prohibiting the use of chemical, non-degradable lawn fertilizers and herbicides, the report says. “At the least,” the city should educate the public about how such chemicals enter the watershed and end up in the Chesapeake Bay.
The report is comprehensive, addressing such issues as deer population (must be controlled), open burning of trash, twigs, and branches (should be banned), slapping a fee on plastic bags, and a “strict” anti-idling ordinance.
So, no more leaving the motor running while you read granolapark, Dear Reader. Those wasteful days are OVER!
They are over if the council enacts the recommendations, that is. Now we wait and see whether the council embraces the report or gives it a weak handshake.

– Gilbert
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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.

7 Comments on "Greenery"

  1. Gilbert:
    Thanks for the write-up of the TFEA report, which is taking a while to make it into the Takoma Park mainstream. It was originally sent to the council at the end of April; they didn’t put it on the agenda until July. The council has tentatively scheduled “staff comments” on the report and a discussion of its recommendations for the Oct. 11 meeting.
    A note about cost: Many of the recommendations could be implemented for little to no up-front cost. I believe concerns about enforcement of a blower ban can be addressed satisfactorily; the same with an anti-idling law. And on the streetlight purchase recommendation, it would only work if the city partnered with a bunch of other similarly situated municipalities, and a private company that would maintain the lights and, presumably, make some money off the operation (a public-private partnership). That way the city wouldn’t have to shell out huge
    amounts of money (or perhaps any money) up front.
    I hope people will read at least the parts of the report that cover their own areas of interest. To encourage that, here are some links. Those who want to read the report can go to http://www.eswr.com/tfea/ for a link to the full document. The air quality chapter is available in HTML at http://www.eswr.com/tfea/aqweb.htm, and individual chapters can be downloaded at http://takoma20912.blogspot.com/p/environment.html (new blog) The city’s TFEA web page is at http://takomaparkmd.gov/committees/tfea/index.html

  2. Steve,
    A sustainability coordinator probably can’t be hired for a couple of years yet – a step the task force says is essential to achieve the plan it proposed.
    If that is the case, will the whole plan be on hold for two years? What parts can be implemented without a coordinator? Will the city be in the same place it was before – with a plan on the shelf but no staff-people with the time and expertise to implement it?
    – Gilbert

  3. Gilbert —
    Your point is well taken. There’s no question the report emphasizes the importance of hiring someone to oversee implementation of the recommendations.
    But much can be done without a full-time person.
    First, however, on the coordinator issue — Without our own money, the city will have to look elsewhere (grants) or bite the bullet and raise taxes and dedicate the increase to environmental programs, including the hiring of a coordinator.
    Another option is to shift priorities within the budget, freeing up money from one area that would be applied to environmental programs. I think we spent close to $40,000 on yet another survey of city residents last year. Might that money have been used in a more productive way?
    Lastly, the streetlight recommendation needs to be investigated by council members, staff and interested citizens, who would work with other municipalities, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. The TFEA heard a presentation from a representative of the NCPPP who was enthusiastic about the potential for purchasing the streetlights.
    Please understand I am not saying that this is a “slam dunk,” but an idea that needs to be seriously examined and researched. We don’t need to hire a contractor or anyone else to do the research and networking; we just need to work with MWCOG and gauge the interest of other municipalities in our area (Kensington, Greenbelt, Garrett Park, et al.). The more people who are on board with this, the better chance there is of success. In the end, it’s possible we could save enough money through implementation of that recommendation to afford hiring a sustainability coordinator.
    Speaking only for myself — the report says this as well, though perhaps not as forcefully as it could — there are many recommendations that do not require the hiring of a full-time coordinator. Given the current fiscal situation, I believe the council should look at what can be done now (biggest bang for no or few bucks) and start there. There will be missteps, I’m sure, but the sooner we actually get going on some of these things, the sooner we’ll start learning from our mistakes. One last point on the report: it’s not set in stone. The council does not have to agree with every aspect of it, but can use it as a guide for sustainability.
    You ask, will the plan be on hold for two years? That’s a question that the council must answer. They are the people elected to make the hard choices. I would hope they wouldn’t use the lack of funding for a coordinator as a reason to do nothing.
    A good first step would be a detailed line-item accounting of our current environmental programs. Quite simply, where is the money going (specifically) and how are we benefiting from the outlays?
    Finally, the link to the HTML version of the air quality chapter of the report won’t work as written in my first comment. The comma at the end must be removed — http://www.eswr.com/tfea/aqweb.htm
    Thanks for giving me the space. If anyone wants to talk, I’ll be at the Olive Lounge at last call.
    But only if they’re buying.
    Steve

  4. Valerie Tonat | September 8, 2010 at 9:05 pm |

    Wow. This report and its recommendations make me feel like I’m paying 75% extra on my property taxes for a set of proposals for micromanaging resdents’ everyday lives and financing a collection of micro projects that are awfully close to enviro hobbies. We’re at a point where have to make economies in the cost of city government. We should be assessing what our priorities are in RETAINING services, not adding more projects, programs, personnel and costs to pursue this task force’s goals. The timing of this task force report is perhaps entirely out of step with a period of budget austerity.
    How does this work in the specifics? Are we handing over trash collection to the county, are we adding extra fees to the city taxes I already pay for trash collection, are we borrowing to build a new public works facility that we may not need if we hand over trash collection to the county? Are we laying off personnel and cutting programs or are we hiring a sustainability coordinator and founding our own sort-of power company?
    I’m thoroughly confused. In the words of The Clash, “Should I stay, or should I go?” Or put another way, are we doing austerity budgets that preserve essential services (like public works) and hold on to the extras most valued by residents (say, the Rec. Dept.), or are we expanding city government to implement a raft of environmental projects?
    And btw, a stormwater fee is a stormwater fee, not a tree fee. The task force seems to be dreaming up programs and proposing ways to raise additional revenue to fund their new projects. Again, my city taxes add 75% to my property taxes. And under the market value phase-in those property taxes are going up 10% a year if tax rates stay the same. So on the one hand, my property taxes are going up and on the other, the city’s revenue is falling. It hardly makes sense to start adding to city expenditures right now. We should be streamlining city governmentto keep it within the current revenue stream. And maybe we should begin with a moratorium on task forces that aren’t involved in that streamlining.
    Sorry, but proposing to raise my fees for city services at this juncture just makes me cranky.

  5. The task force noted the bad timing – hence the 5-year plan and admission that staff additions would be unlikely soon.
    Many of the questions you raise are no doubt the same ones haunting the councilmembers’ thoughts. Whether to turn over trash/recycling collection to the county is NOT one of them. The council reviewed that question in great detail earlier this year, and the factors were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping what is perhaps THE most popular city service.
    Note that the task force said that some of their recommendations would save money (in the long run, anyway).
    — Gilbert

  6. Just a note to Valerie Tonat, whose comments are valuable and should be directed also at her councilmember and the mayor: No money was directly spent on the task force. All of the members were volunteers who put in many hours of their own time, meeting twice a week (and usually more, since we broke into subcommittees that met separately from the full group).
    The only (very minimal) cost would have been staff time — of City Clerk Jessie Carpenter (thank you, Jessie), who handled the application process for task force members and posted items to the city’s web page, and of Public Works Director Daryl Braithwaite, Arborist Todd Bolton, and City Engineer Ali Khalilian, all of whom provided insights and information. Oh, and there was the cost of electricity for the lights in the meeting rooms of the community center.
    We took our cue from the city council, which specifically directed us to be as comprehensive as possible without regard to cost. Not to say they did not also emphasize the need for our recommendations to maximize impact for outlay (the whole overused “bang for the buck” approach).
    They wanted a report that could be used for the long term. Whether that’s what they got is for others to judge. But I don’t believe it’s fair to take your frustration out on the task force. We were just doing what we were asked to do — and what we volunteered to do.

  7. Ms.Tonat is correct in identifying the urge of some to micromanage the lives, homes, and businesses of others.
    Its not their money.
    Every tax dollar you add to a home owners burden detracts from their equity. It is not the net price of a house, but the monthly payment and the city has been happy to add to our taxes and steal our equity.
    It may well be time to turn in most of the duplicated services to the county, shrink it to public works and trash, and give each stake holder perhaps as much as $30,000 dollars of their equity back.
    Its the location, and the people, not the city government, that makes an area desirable.

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