PHOTO: Former councilmember Reuben Snipper with councilmembers Tim Male on the left, Fred Schultz on the right and mayor Bruce Williams on the far right. Photo by Bill Brown.
GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
Reuben Snipper returned!
The former Takoma Park city council member is back after three years living in Rome. Just in time for city elections! However, he didn’t seem interested in running for his old seat, now held by Jarrett Smith.
He did rise to speak during the weekly Citizen Comment period at the Sept. 15 city council meeting. He spoke about “my favorite hobby horse,” the city’s money reserves. Afterwards, just about everyone else spoke about money reserves too.
It was unnerving. Suddenly it was Topic A. When did this happen?
Probably when the mayor put “City Financial Policies” on the agenda.
So, what the heck is a reserve? It’s a stack of bills the city puts in a little metal box and shoves under the desk. Not literally, of course. In reality, they give the money to Spike. Spike is a trained squirrel. She buries the reserves in the municipal building grounds. It’s an unusual method, but it is cheaper than putting the reserves in a bank. There are no fees and Spike works for peanuts.
The city has a bunch of reserves. The city charter says it has to have at least two: The Emergency Reserve, which now has around $455,000. That’s for emergency situations. Like, when we run out of peanuts.
These two know what reserves are. Incoming financial director Kara Onorato on the left and soon-to-retire financial director Yovonda Brooks on the right at the Sept. 15 city council meeting. Photo by Bill Brown.
The other charter-mandated reserve is the Equipment Replacement Reserve. They’ve got $3,756,000 in that one. That’s for major capital items. Capital items are big, heavy things: buildings, machinery and equipment. Like the peanut storage warehouse.
The charter says the city can have “other reserves” as the council sees fit to create. That would be the Facilities Maintenance Reserve, which is used for non-equipment-type expenses, like when the mayor lets Spike throw a party in his office and the carpet gets ruined – the cost of the new carpet would come out of that.
Then there’s the unassigned reserves. That’s like the $20 bill you keep under the back flap of your wallet in case the only bar in town that hasn’t kicked you out yet is the one that doesn’t take plastic and all you have is a pocket-full of peanuts you swiped from the city warehouse. Oh, like that hasn’t happened to you!
The cash amount in these reserve funds goes up and down depending on what the yearly contribution is (your tax dollars at work) and how much is spent.
Snipper urged the council to keep the unassigned reserves at the two-month minimum – the amount that is needed to keep the city going for two months of salaries, fuel, toilet paper, phone service, cookies, etc. This is called the “Two-Month Guideline.”
Later the council and staff, including the new financial director Kara Onorato, later discussed establishing city financial policies. The policies they use now tend to be situational and changing. This sometimes raises eyebrows and questions around budget time.
This was just the first discussion and it was BORING. Way boring. WAY, way boring.
It had something to do with best practices. We lost interest, especially when we realized there won’t be much to report on this until the end of the discussion. Why bore you as well, Dear Readers?
Former councilmember Reuben Snipper tries it out from the other side of the dais. Photo by Bill Brown.
We did notice that reserve funds got mentioned. Seth Grimes asked if it was a fair characterization of the Equipment Reserve Fund to say that “we put money into the reserve, we take money out of the reserve – its approximately equal – and we somehow end up with a new police car.”
“Except in years when it is really different.” replied city manager Susanne Ludlow. She said the fund was depleted a few years ago when the city stopped contributing to it. There was not enough to cover some hefty expenses, which led to the city having to make larger contributions to the fund to catch up.
“I have no problem being over-cautious, so long as it’s not over-over-cautious.” quipped Grimes.
Councilmember Fred Schultz promoted the use of loans to pay for some capital expenses, such as the upcoming library renovations. He said he’s perplexed when residents say the city can’t afford it because it doesn’t have the cash. Given current low interest rates, he said, taking out a loan is a bargain. People need to understand about how debt service works, he said.
Councilmember Terry Seamens said devising financial policies would make the city more professional organization. He urged looking at other municipalities to see what their policies were, including how they handle equipment reserves.
Yovonda warns council
An annual tradition is over. Every year at budget time, an exhausted city manager thanks financial director Yovonda Brooks for doing the heavy lifting. Brooks seems to be held in great awe by them.
This is her last month. The council recognized her with a resolution, calling her “exemplary,” and noting that she bailed the finance department out when she joined in 2005. Since then, she has won for the city nine straight Certificates of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting by the Government Finance Officers Association.
She addressed the council. Thanking them for their support and recognition. She’s enjoyed working for the city, she said. “I really will miss everybody.” But, she looks forward to relaxing in retirement. She said the finance department will be in good hands as Kara Onorato takes over her position as finance director.
She left the council with a friendly warning “Do not let it return to the way it was . . . I hate to see my hard work go to waste. Keep those reserves sufficient!” she said, smiling – but eyeing the council sternly.
Yovonda Brook, Takoma Park Financial Director addresses the city council, Sept. 15, 2015. Photo by Bill Brown.
City elections are coming up. The traditional Nominating Caucus ritual will unfold Tuesday, Sept. 29 in the city council chambers. It is entertaining, Dear Readers, you should attend. The order of Ward nominations is chosen at random. This year it will be: Wards 6, 4, 2, 1, 3, 5. Nominations for mayor will follow.
No news on additional candidates to report.
Meanwhile in the US Congress race, former Montgomery County council member Valerie Ervin announced this week she has halted her campaign for Chris Van Hollen’s 8th District congressional seat. Hollen is running for Barbara Mikulski‘s US Senate seat. Mikulski announced in early March that she’s not running of re-election, setting off a scramble all the way down the political ladder as everyone tries to move up a rung.
The Maryland Scramble blog reported former Montgomery County councilmember Valerie Ervin’s announcement that she’s dropping out of the US Congressional primary race.
She chose to get out because of “money—or more accurately, the lack of it” she wrote.
“You see, I’m not wealthy.” said her statement. “In politics today, fundraising is the sign of a campaign’s viability. Not your ideas about how to serve your constituents, not your track record of service, not even the groundswell of grassroots support—but your ability to raise money. And unfortunately, I just haven’t been able to raise enough.”
“Right now in Maryland, we see male candidates for office routinely raising more money than the women in those races. We can and must continue to recruit and train more women and people of color to run for office. It’s the only way we can create an inclusive democracy that speaks to the needs of all citizens.”
“Unfortunately, our current political system doesn’t make much room for everyday Americans like me—especially women, people of color, and the non-wealthy—to compete on a level playing field.”
Ervin said “I’m pulling back the curtain on our political system.”
Sorry to spoil the pity-party, but in this case bigger factors were that she was late getting into the race and she didn’t build a big enough voter base.
State Senator Jamie Raskin kicked off his campaign in April. Most of the other candidates started around the same time. Ervin announced on July 1.
Raskin has been consistently passionate and outspoken about his progressive policies. He’s hard to avoid at civic and political events, he’s EVERYWHERE. He was everywhere before he started the congressional run, too. Ervin, stepped down from her council seat in mid-term to take the position of executive director at the Participatory Democracy Project in New York. When in office, she was seldom seen in Takoma Park, except occasionally in the July 4th parade. That’s no way to build a popular base.
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