Careful With That Ax, Ike! 2010 in Review

Dear Readers,

2010 was the year of the Ax Attack. The ax maniac was county executive Ike Leggett, the victim was the city budget.

What with the economy tanking and property values falling, the the council knew it was going to be a lean year. They could hear the ominous background music as tax revenues declined all over the state and county – ominous because the state and county collect the city’s tax money for us (in’t that sweet of them?), then they turn it over to Takoma Park. That is, unless something goes “spoing!” in their brains . . . and they clutch the money bags to themselves, muttering “IT’S MINE, ALLLL MINE!” their greedy fingers reaching for the AX as red-tinged visions of CHOPPING, and GOUGING, and SLICING fill their minds!

And that, Dear Readers in how the city budget got chopped early last spring – TWICE. The first time the city manager was forced to craft a cut-to-the-bone budget that affected every department. But THEN, just like in the movies where you think the killer fell off the cliff so it is safe to go into the house, but as the survivors walk into the parlor you see behind them in the shadows . . . the county executive raising his bloody ax!!!! And he chops $300,000 more!

The result was an even more pared-back city budget. It cut employees and hours of service, raised and created fees for just about anything that a fee could be placed on, and more. But, it was all done without raising taxes!

Traumatic After Math

The budget cuts and the specter of more, deeper cuts this year affected EVERYTHING the council did in 2010. It made them leery of any proposals that came with a price tag. For instance, they backed away from the Task Force on Environmental Action’s proposal to hire a sustainability coordinator – despite the council’s desire to get the city back on the “cutting edge” of environmentalism. Same with a proposed dog-park once the high cost of building and maintaining one became clear (liability and logistical issues were also factors).

The penny pinching extended to the city’s largesse. When a public housing project administrator begged for tax waivers with which the council was generous in previous years, he got a lecture on money management. Much smaller waivers were granted and the administrator was warned not to ask for another extension.

Proposals that would earn the city money got a big hug and a plate of cookies. Fees and anything that would produce them became very popular: speed cameras, permits, use of city fields, facilities, and rooms, especially the new city auditorium.

Mob Rule

The new auditorium was finished just in time to host large crowds of peetybeeties* this year. The biggest mob showed up for the 410-Flower Folly.
Route 410 is a state route that crosses the city. Flower Avenue is a state route that runs along part of the city’s border. The state no longer wants that route.
The city and the State Highway Administration (SHA) have been going back and forth about this for about a year. Route 410 is in bad repair so the city asked the SHA to maintain it, as they have for decades. The SHA replied that they conveniently discovered that the city owns the land underneath it – therefore the city must maintain it.

“Oh, yeah?” said the city, “we don’t think so!”

“Enjoy your crumbling road” said the SHA.”

Relations improved as with the help of our district’s state legislators the city and SHA negotiated a deal. The initial SHA proposals were laughed out of the city council chambers, but both parties were closing in on something acceptable (to the city council) in the fall. The SHA was going to trade Flower Ave. for Route 410. They would also give the city a pile of money to fix Flower Ave.

All of this was in public meetings, not in secret as some peetybeeties later charged.

Standing Back-Jump

Some well-meaning but inattentive residents learned about the road-swap deal at the last minute, and went batpoop. There’s a back-story to this – decades ago the SHA tried to widen Route 410 from two lanes to four lanes wide. E-mails from citizens and activists, such as members of Hysteric, . . . er Historic Takoma, whipped up fears that the SHA was at it again – with the council’s compliance.
Neighborhood e-mail lists buzzed with rumor, misinformation, and anger. The council replied with lengthy e-mail explanations and mea culpas. Councilmembers set world records for back-jumps away from the deal.
A standing-room-only crowd greeted the SHA administrator who came to the next city council meeting. His reassurances that the SHA has no intention of widening Route 410 had too many loopholes for the activists. They begged the council to keep ownership of the road as a protection against widening it – despite the fact that ownership is no protection against an eminent domain seizure.

That road swap deal, therefore, is toast. Worse than toast, it is radioactive fallout. This year the council will strive to make some kind of deal that doesn’t rile the peetybeeties but gets both routes fixed, and perhaps leaves the city in possession of one or both. That’s if the SHA still wants to play – and pay.

Bad Sign

The issue that got the next-biggest crowd down to the council meeting chambers was a humble road sign.

Yep, it was a “no right turn” – or was it a “no left turn?” – sign at the corner of Maple and Ritchie Avenue, only effective during morning rush hours. You’d have thought it was a matter of life-or-death. But, then, in some people’s minds it was. They were visualizing their children flattened by a speeding cut-through-commuter’s car.

On the other side of the issue residents from adjoining neighborhoods complained that traffic would be shifted onto their streets. They also asserted that Ritchie residents had no right to restrict traffic on a public road. “Keep the grid free!” was their rallying cry.
In the end, Ritchie Ave. got the no-turn sign, and the county got the blame. It was MoCo’s fault because they closed off streets upstream from Ritchie just over the city line – diverting (it was feared) their commutuer-cut-through traffic to Ritchie.

Plowing Ahead

Remember Snowmageddon? The city, along with the rest of the region, got a record-setting flake-fall last February. The city responded reasonably well – judging from the kudos and congratulations the council handed out to the public works department and city emergency services. It didn’t all run smoothly, though. The council took a look at what worked and what didn’t. They took and made a lot of suggestions which may or may not have been followed up on.
The suggestions included: having a list of “vulnerable neighbors” (elderly, ill, disabled, etc.) who would need attention in the event of a power outage, opposite-side of the street parking on alternate days to facilitate street-plowing, emergency practice drills conducted by the city to prepare for any number of dire situations, and placing tall flags on fire hydrants so they can be detected by plows in heavy snowfall. The public works department was going to look into a new anti-ice beet-juice and salt mixture to put on the roads. The police were going to develop a back-up plan in case their public information officer was rendered incommunicado by power failure again.

The Wards

The council instituted “ward nights,” periodic council sessions that focused on one ward. These proved popular. A lot of folks turned out for a social-hour schmooze prior to the meeting, and a chance to address comments and questions to them during it.

The Works

The council proceeded with extensive public work department renovations with little comment other than periodic progress reports. This was a contrast to 2009, when the council and public frequently argued about the price tag, whether it would turn into another money-gobbling white elephant like the community center, and whether the city even NEEDED a public works department.

Last January, however, the council clenched its teeth and took out a $3 million bond to fund the renovations. Taking out a loan meant they didn’t have to take it out of tax revenues. Not right away, anyhow. There will still be yearly $226,000 loan payments. The council reasoned that interest rates and construction costs are low right now. If the city waits for the economy to get better, the costs will skyrocket, they said.

Shrugging Off-sales

The great non-controversy of the year – much to the puzzlement of many – was booze! Largely pushed by the Old Town Business Association the proposal was made to change the city’s liquor laws to allow a beer and wine store. Currently beer and wine can only be sold in town for restaurant consumption. Changing the law toallow that was a years-long fight back in the 1980s.

You could almost hear the new auditorium stage settling when the council opened the floor to citizen comments.

Oh, there were a few comments both pro and con, but on the whole the city shrugged. So, the council took the next step. They asked the state to allow Class B liquor licenses in the city. They also tacked on a request that the city be given veto power over who gets a license (the county would grant the licenses). That may not go down well with either the county or the state. If it doesn’t, the council will have to decide whether it trusts the county to hand licenses out only to the upscale wine and beer shops the city wants.

And Now . . .

But enough of the council you say, Dear Readers! What about Your Gilbert’s year? What were the 2010 highlights of Granola Park?

And so we come to the best bit, the grand finale, the big payoff . . .

The WINNER of the Best Granola Park Posting of 2010 goes to . . .

“Too Thrilling For Words” posted Feb. 26, 2010, the most heart-stirring account of a housing code revision you will ever in your long life have the joy of reading.
It begins (brilliantly);

It was the sort of meeting that makes you appreciate small town democracy.

But, that’s you, Dear Readers. It was the sort of meeting that makes Your Gilbert wish for a dictatorship where decisions are quick, concise and often deadly.”

The report includes a motorcycle crash, ninjas, quicksand, and an exploding fuel tanker. You can read it online in the Granola Park archives.

And to conclude, the Best Granola Park Quote of 2010 is . . . “The fog of war is nothing compared to the gumbo of budget reconciliation.” from the May 30 post “Read Their Lips

Can we take off this blasted tuxedo, now?

– Gilbert
*peetybeeties = PTBT = Pitchfork and Torch Bearing Townspeople.

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.