GOVERNMENT GEARS: How tight the belt?

GOVERNMENT GEARS • BY NAOMI EIDE

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Last in a series by Naomi Eide focusing on how Takoma Park city government works, particularly the budget process.

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The Takoma Park city council voted to raise taxes and approve library redesign work at the April 27 city council meeting.

The council raised the tax rate 1.5 cents to 58.5 cents for every $100 of property evaluation, which allows the city to phase in city employee salary increases up to market rate.

Joe Edgell, Takoma Park resident and founder of Takoma Dogs, a group advocating for a Takoma Park dog park, said that the tax increase is relatively small and at some point people expect “a little belt-tightening.”

“We do pay a lot of taxes in Takoma Park and I think each resident expects the city to be responsible with the money that we pay. I think this city government has done a pretty good job at being responsible,” said Edgell.

“One of the things I think the city and the residents are hoping is that when property tax assessments rebound…the city will have a little bit more revenue and they can actually lower the tax rate,” said Edgell. “So they’ll have more revenue, the tax rate will be lower, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Dog park proponents want one dog park now, and another two, eventually.

Takoma Dogs marching in the 2013 Independence Day parade.

After a long discussion and negotiations between councilmembers, the city council voted to raise the tax rate 1.5 cents, instead of the originally proposed 2-cent increase.

The city has to raise the tax rate half a cent to maintain the same amount property tax revenue from last year. In Takoma Park, the assessable base, the amount of taxable property, decreased by more than $11 million, according to the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation.

Suzanne Ludlow, Takoma Park city manager, said that the property base is assessed every three years and is expected to increase before next year’s budget.

The assessable base sharply declined in 2013, costing the city more than $600,000 in potential revenue for 2013 compared to the 2012 potential revenue, according to the Md. Department of Assessment and Taxation.

Meg Finn, a long-time resident and real estate agent in Takoma Park, said that even with high taxes people generally stay in Takoma Park unless they move away out of the metropolitan area.

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Above: graph of the tax rate necessary to maintain previous year’s property tax revenue.

 

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Above: the constant yield rate is the tax rate (per $100necessary to maintain the previous year’s tax revenue.

“I do think people recognize that we are a pretty special place, that it’s a place that really has a sense of community which is fairly hard to find around here in the metropolitan area,” said Finn.

“For the most part, people are willing to pay for the services. It’s a very, progressive activist community. People feel like government does work,” said Finn. “We pay for it, but we get our services.”

With a tight budget and limits to the property tax revenue, the council worked to cut costs while still offering a high level of city services. The council voted to take away a proposed position in the city manager’s office while moving forward with the library redesign and adding $100,000 to the police pension.

The city also received an unexpected $250,000 grant from the state’s Community Parks and Playgrounds program, which will pay for the Sligo Mill Overlook Park. Funds originally set aside for the park will go toward the Darwin Ave. dog park development, creating some room in the budget, said Ludlow.

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The Takoma Park Maryland Public Library shortly after it was constructed in 1955.

At the council meeting on April 27, the council allocated $200,000 in next year’s budget for library design work in a 4-3 decision.

Councilmember Kate Stewart emphasized the library’s age and need for renovation sooner than later on the 60-year-old building. “Right now the library is held together by a lot of hope, duct tape and Band-Aids,” said Stewart.

The library design work would include design development and preparation of construction documents, according to Ellen Arnold-Robbins, Takoma Park library director.

The Takoma Park library is the only small community public library in Maryland, with more than 34,000 patrons and about 75,000 collection items at last count, including books, CDs and magazines, said Arnold-Robbins.

Residents of all ages spoke in favor of the library redesign at the public hearing during the city council meeting on April 27, including Josh Protas and his two young sons, Noah and Eli Protas.

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One of the proposed library expansion plans.

Libraries “at their core are a democratic institution and I think this library in particular helps to bring people together, people from all walks of life, learning together and providing valuable life skills,” said Josh Protas, a Takoma Park resident.

His son, Noah Protas, said that the library was a great public resource, providing valuable programs and service to the community.

“I greatly value the fact that I don’t have to take out an iPad and go in to some app and download a book, and that I can go to a public library still and pick up a book, a solid object that’s not just a digital thing, and read it,” said Noah Protas.

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Takoma Park Maryland Library.

While many residents supported the library redesign, some at the public hearing called for using the funds elsewhere in the tight budget.

“I think we should use the money that would be used for expanding a library, when there’s already other libraries, and put it towards programs that are going to help these kids, that are going to help the neighborhoods that really need it,” said Maxine Hillary, a Takoma Park resident.

The council still must decide on a design for the library, choosing whether to renovate and reorganize or expand the library.

Jessie Carpenter, Takoma Park city clerk, said the council votes twice to approve the budget, on May 11 and May 18, before sending the final tax rate to Montgomery County.

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Previous articles in the Government Gears series:

Acting Again

Nights of the roundtable

The process behind the city budget

City manager proposes tight budget, slight tax increase, fair salaries

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About the Author

Naomi Eide
Naomi Eide is Washington state native who spent her college years and beyond wandering the East Coast. She received her undergraduate degree from Providence College in Rhode Island where she studied history and music. Following a year working in corporate America, Naomi left her full-time job for the University of Maryland where she is currently pursuing her Masters of Journalism.