Ward 3 Voter Guide 2014: Most pressing issues, Takoma Park

What are the most pressing issues facing the city? How would you address them?

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JEFFREY NOEL-NOSBAUM

On the city-level, I think as always, the most important and pressing issue is tax duplication with the County.  See my answer to the question further down for my ideas on that. In addition, the other two issues that I would like to mention on the city-level are:

1) The Council’s main focus should always be on the budget and being responsible stewards of the city’s resources.  In addition to the budget, the Council should work to maintain the programs and services that help to make Takoma Park a great town and to promote that character in the private sector.

2) There is also a lack of broad civic engagement by residents in the City.  One shortfall is that in city elections, not enough people step forward to run or come out to vote.  I look forward to the Task Force on Voting’s final report and also feel that many of the recommendations in the preliminary report would make a difference on raising awareness and once we get competitive races and people voting, other participation will follow.

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ROGER SCHLEGEL

The city’s five most pressing issues are addressing climate change, maintaining incoming diversity, broadening access and participation, fixing the County reimbursement, and establishing a program-based budgeting approach.

Climate change is the most pressing issue, and I will discuss that issue in the most detail. I will discuss the issues of maintaining income diversity and broadening access and participation when I respond to the question (asked later in this survey) about how to address the city’s racial and economic divide. The underfunded County reimbursement (for services provided by the city to its residents) is a tremendous problem because young families of moderate incomes are finding it impossible to afford to purchase homes in the city. This double taxation is unjust and also reduces the ability of the city to think and act proactively and strategically. I will address this issue in my response to a question later in this survey.

Establishing a program-based, or goals-oriented, budget approach is another essential priority for Takoma Park. I have advocated strongly for such an approach for the past four years in testimony before the city council. Our current line-item budget process involves moving last year’s budget forward and tinkering with it around the edges. There is little attention given to the evaluation of whether dollars are being spent effectively; and in fact, there is little discussion about the relative importance of various items being funded. In general, if it looks like there will be enough revenue available, the city continues to fund a certain number of positions in each department, expanding positions if possible; and, with a few exceptions such as the sidewalk program, it relies on a combination of staff-based decisions and pressure from well-connected or vociferous constituents to determine what should be funded and what each staff member will do his/her available time and expertise. This approach is inefficient and rewards the squeaky wheels. It favors the unexamined continuation of the status quo and thus works against the value of progressive government; and it does not position the city well to respond proactively and strategic to long-term threats and opportunities.

With a program-based budget, the city council involves the community in the establishment of measurable objectives in a variety of areas. The measurable objectives are capstone targets which are likely to drive changes that will improve outcomes in a broader way. For example, a measurable objective for law enforcement might state, “By 2017, each patrol officer will know 20% of the adult residents on his/her beat on a first-name basis,” and a measurable objective for recreation might state, “By 2020, less than 10% of Takoma Park children will be classified as obese.” Each of these objectives provides an energizing sense of direction to, and encourages collaboration among, the many community-based organizations and individual residents who have provided input into the creation of the objective. Within the city government, each objective also provides direction to the city manager, who is charged with creating a program to accomplish the desired objective. Programs are organized by objective, not by department.

The annual budget process is driven by ongoing evaluation of each program, which leads to annual revision of each program’s objectives and implementation. Programs that are not successful in achieving their objectives are either refined or phased out. It is amazingly expensive to live in Takoma Park. A program-based budgeting approach would give residents much greater confidence that their dollars are being used effectively to tackle the city’s priorities A program-based budgeting approach would also free up dollars over time to pursue long-range strategic goals, such as purchasing open space or reducing the city’s use of fossil fuels.

A program-based approach to budgeting, with its reliance on well-organized community input processes, would broaden participation in community decision-making. And finally, a program-based budgeting approach would reduce the ability of individuals or small groups to co-opt the council’s time. With better measurement and monitoring of programs, there would be less need for constituent service as well; and the council could focus more of its time on its basic responsibilities of steering and oversight. But one issue underlies and unifies all the others, and that is the threat of climate change. Nearly all of us now recognize that climate change is the biggest issue confronting civilization. It follows from this that climate change is the biggest issue confronting Takoma Park.

As Jared Diamond observes in Collapse, his comparative study of societal breakdowns through history, it is lack of political will – not lack of understanding – that prevents societies from acting assertively enough to forestall environmental disaster. And Diamond argues convincingly that this political will must first be developed at the local scale. A major part of Takoma Park’s identity as a progressive community is our no-holds-barred opposition in the 1970s to the proposed construction of a freeway through town. This freeway, like the ongoing possibility of a future widening of Route 410 through town, was defined as an existential threat by residents – a threat which demanded widespread and unrelenting activism in response.

But the threat of climate change is a far, far greater existential threat to Takoma Park. The toddlers we see in Westmoreland or Spring Park today have a better-than-even chance of being alive in 2100, when there is a better-than-even chance that we will be well into a terrible, ongoing environmental disaster, with global average temperatures perhaps six degrees higher. If this future comes to pass, our beloved tree canopy is likely to be gone, taken down by violent storms, invading pests, and unrelenting summer heat or drought.  Imagine these little children as senior citizens in 2100 trying to make their way around town, trying to find beauty. Imagine the global political and economic turmoil that will result from unrelenting climate change by the year 2100, and consider how these upheavals will affect Takoma Park. True progressivism cannot tolerate an enclave mentality. We must think every day of our place in the world and of our responsibility to the world.

Yes, we are a tiny sliver of the planet. But if we can take bold action, other places can learn from our mistakes and improve upon our successes. What other choice do we have? Sometimes I feel that this question of climate change is so daunting for us to consider that we are somewhat paralyzed by it as a community. We seem to find it much more comfortable to become immersed in protracted debates about questions that are less important but seem to be more so in the moment.

In the past two years, the city council spent far more time discussing each of these issues than it did discussing a response to climate change: the very limited ban on pesticide use, the extension of voting rights (a matter which could have been settled painlessly with a referendum), and the question of ownership of Route 410. Were each of these issues more important for the long-term sustainability of our community than was the threat of climate change? It is perhaps human nature that many find it easier to engage in debates that descend into personal attacks than to work collectively to develop meaningful responses to an impending disaster.

And, by the way, installing a mostly gravel-and-concrete “green roof” on top of an open-air parking garage is not an effective use of available funds for environmental improvements. If I am elected as Ward 3 council member, I will work every week to make addressing climate change the leading priority for our city. We should start off every Council meeting with an update on the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.

The city has done well to hire a sustainability coordinator, but we must go farther, faster. This will require us to ask big questions: “How energy efficient can we become?” “How much of our energy can we generate locally?” “How much of food can we produce in town?” The answers to these questions must become community-wide goals which the city government, in concert with other organizations and with individual residents and property owners, strives to meet through the adoption and annual evaluation and revision of outcome-based programs and initiatives. A top priority, in my view, is to catalyze rapid investment in energy conservation and energy efficiency in our commercial buildings, institutional buildings, owner-occupied residences, and rental properties. A second priority is to figure out how to create opportunities for solar cooperatives.

This is essential, given our ongoing commitment to preserving the tree canopy. Residents who live in the shade should be able to pool their monetary resources with the solar potential controlled by property owners with plenty of sun (including the city and the schools) so that we can maximize our collective potential to generate solar energy. We should also aim to catch up with cities on the West Coast that have begun to transition portions of their urban forests into urban orchards, so that the tree canopy doubles as a local, free, nutritious food source.

We can reduce our gasoline consumption by establishing two or three reliable and frequent loop shuttles, perhaps centering on Takoma Junction. One shuttle would follow Maple or Carroll Avenue past the hospital campus, circle through the Takoma Langley shopping center and return by way of New Hampshire Avenue and Ethan Allen Avenue. A second shuttle would loop through the south side of town. A third shuttle would loop past the Metro station and Montgomery College, go out to the intersection of Flower and Piney Branch, and return by way of Flower and either Carroll or Maple. These loop shuttles could perhaps be electric powered if we can find one or two good places to install wind turbines in town or if we can insist that any new development on the City-owned property at Takoma Junction maximize the solar-electric generation potential of the site. We should continue to make the city fully walkable and push for the completion of safe bike lanes along key commuting routes such as Piney Branch Road.

We can mitigate parking and traffic problems by providing seed money for the establishment of a Takoma Park delivery service which could utilize electric and pedal-powered vehicles to deliver any good purchased anywhere in town to any resident in town within, say, four hours. Shop online, or shop on foot or by bicycle, and let the delivery service bring things to you along a continuously updated route that has maximum efficiency because it serves you and your neighbors at the same time. (Feel free to hop a ride on the delivery vehicle if it’s going your way.)

Finally, we should be doing everything we can to bring improved, faster transit options to New Hampshire Avenue. The corridor between the Takoma-Langley Purple Line station and the Fort Totten Metro will have tremendous potential for smart growth if we can start with bus rapid transit and eventually move to perhaps streetcars. (Speaking of streetcars, we know that a future phase of the District’s streetcar network will serve Georgia Avenue and the former Walter Reed campus; we should work to ensure that that line includes an extension along Butternut Street to a terminus at the Takoma Metro station.)

Here’s the vision: When we can establish bold, measurable objectives for reducing our ecological footprint, we will naturally begin making progress toward achieving many of our other aspirations. For example, our police will patrol on foot and bicycle more often. Perhaps youth will be able to find meaningful employment in energy efficiency projects, delivery services, and urban farming. Renters and residents of outer neighborhoods will be valued as full-fledged community members. We’ll find a way to encourage people to grow big trees while we also figure out how those with shady lots can participate in solar cooperatives with property owners who get the full sun. We’ll make this town fully walkable and bikeable, with easy access to goods, services, and recreation for all. And through all these efforts, we’ll begin to budget effective programs: we’ll get a goal-oriented government that evaluates and revises its approaches annually and thus spends our dollars fairly and wisely. The joy of living in Takoma Park comes from knowing that we’re part of a community with shared, progressive aspirations. Addressing climate change will help us recapture our progressivism in all kinds of ways.

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KATE STEWART

The pressing issues facing the city include:

1) maintaining Takoma Park’s unique character and quality of life as the city grows and changes;

2) building a sustainable future; and

3) improving communication and engagement with residents.

Maintaining Takoma Park’s unique character and quality of life:  As the community grows and changes, we need to be mindful to support the diversity and core values that make Takoma Park a unique and inclusive community. The City needs to encourage and support efforts such as the Community Kitchen under development at the Presbyterian Church, preserve and reinvest in affordable housing, and promote initiatives to improve the health of the community.

Building a sustainable future:  We must continue to build on recent efforts to protect the natural environment through programs such as incentives for solar and home insulation projects. Building a sustainable future also means making sure we have opportunities for young people and support programs to help seniors safely age in the community.

Improving communication and engagement with residents:  From the police to public works to recreation department — communication with city residents can improve. On the City Council I will work with the city manager to improve communication with residents of Ward 3 and the rest of the City.

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