GRANOLA PARK: Two cents worth

PHOTO: Location of the 56 foot building the Washington Adventist University wants to build – with county-wide ramifications. See the item below under subhead “Screwy.” Photo by Bill Brown.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

Monday’s city council meeting was Suzanne Ludlow’s premier as the official city manager. Other than the title change and the little tiara on her head it was much the same. She’s been acting city manager since February and filled the same role in 2013.

We’re glad the city took our advice and just promoted her instead of all that tedious candidate searching and training. No more parsing the words of yet another inscrutable city manager. Ludlow is scrutable. And isn’t that the best thing that could be said about a person who is describing a city budget?

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Speaking of the city budget – the brand-new city manager presented next year’s at the council meeting, April 6.

And, . . . she’s raising taxes! Looks like the council is going along with it, too.

If you’re a Takoma Park homeowner, you’ll be paying a slightly higher rate. It’s being sold as a “2-cent” raise, which sounds teeny-tiny. Why it adds only a mere, piffling $60 to your property taxes if your house is valued at $300,000, and $100 if your house is valued at $500,000. Chump change, right?

Yeah, well, look at the full figures. Adding in the county’s property tax ($1.17 per $100 in value) to the city tax at the old .57 rate, the owner of a house valued at $300,000 would have paid $5220. Now, that homeowner will pay $5280. The owner of a $500,000 house would have paid $8700, now will pay $8800.

When you’re shelling out dollars in the thousands just for the privilege of living in your own home, every little bit extra hurts. And that’s on top of mortgage payments in most cases.

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Two city councilmembers wisely missed the budget presentation. Tim Male and Kate Stewart preserved their sanity elsewhere.

The worrisome part is how the new city manager and the council saw 2016 as a lean year before a number of fat years. The county assesses homes every three years, and this year is the start of a new assessment. Property values were low due to the recession three years ago. They’ve gone up since then – and the dais denizens were giddy about the upcoming windfall.

Which implies that they plan to keep the .59 increase when the new, higher property values are set. In other words, it looks like there’s another tax raise coming.

If your $500,000 house becomes a $600,000 house and the city tax rate stays the same, you would go from paying $8,800 to $10,560 in property taxes.

Hopefully the council and city manager will come to their fiscal senses and keep the AMOUNT taxpayer pay steady (and lower would be nice) by adjusting the tax rate lower. Just maybe the council will keep in mind through this year that new programs, parks and services mean more staff, more staff wages, and higher taxes to pay for them.

The budget’s not done yet. The council is meeting twice a week to review it. Thursday they reviewed three department budgets. The council has to vote on it, yet. Before that comes the “reconciliation” – in which the council and city manager bargain and patch, finding or re-distributing funds for programs that need it – or for councilmembers’ pet programs.

Screwy

It’s not often you ask “whose screwy idea was this?” and get an immediate answer.

But Councilmemeber Seth Grimes got an immediate answer.  The Washington Adventist University chief financial officer came to the microphone and said, “Our attorney.”

The Washington Adventist University wants to build a Health Professions and Wellness Center on Takoma Park’s Maplewood Avenue, a narrow residential street bordering the university’s campus. The center would replace an old building and tennis court. It would be 51 feet tall, set back from the street 29 feet.

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Maplewood Avenue, WAU campus on the left, residential neighborhood on the right. The tennis court and old building would be removed for the new building. Photo by Bill Brown.

The building itself is not the screwy idea – though councilmember Jarrett Smith, whose ward the site is in, said “my consistuents will not accept a building in the 50-60 foot range across the street from them.” Local zoning limits height to 35 feet. It’s not screwy to think that the residents and university can work out a compromise.

What’s screwy is how the university went about getting that zoning height waived.

The university went over the city council’s head to the county council. Somehow they got county councilmember Nancy Floreen to sponsor an amendment to the county code, exempting WAU from the height limit, allowing up to 65 feet. WAU and EVERY OTHER RELIGIOUS-EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION IN THE COUNTY!

The mayor, the council, the staff, the audience (except for the chief financial officer), Your Gilbert and the thousands watching at home simultaneously made the “WHAAAA?” scrunchy-face. WAU’s chief financial officer Patrick Farley cleared his throat and tried to look innocent.

“It’s like using a sledgehammer to tack a postcard on the wall,” said councilmember Fred Schultz.

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Councilmember Seth Grimes.

Why didn’t they go for a zoning map amendment rather than a zoning text amendment?” asked Seth Grimes.

Why, he asked didn’t they ask for a simple “spot exemption” to the zoning rules for that one building?

“Who offered the opinion that a variance would not be granted here and on what basis?” he said.

In other words, “whose screwy idea was this?”

It poured more coal in the council’s fire box to see that the current code exempts religious-educational institutions like WAU from site plan approval and a conditional use hearing.

It heated the council’s boiler even hotter that the county council’s hearing on this is set soon – April 14, giving the city little time to react.

So, the steam-powered council is rolling full-speed ahead to that hearing with a strong opposition statement – to be written and voted on next Monday, the 13th.

– 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.