Last week the City Council voted on amendments to the proposed 2018 Takoma Park budget, setting the stage for final votes on the amended budget on May 10 and May 17. I don’t anticipate any further changes to the budget beyond what we agreed to last week.
My goal as we entered into the budget process was for us to continue making investments in initiatives that benefit residents and that make the Takoma Park a great place to live, while working to keep the City affordable. I think we made significant strides in those directions, and it’s a big plus that we were able to do so in a way that reduces the tax rate.
I’m pleased we were able to preserve funding for priorities like the Library renovation project and the Affordable Housing reserve, while also avoiding cuts to important municipal programs. Other key investments in the budget include: creation of a youth outreach initiative within the Recreation Department; property tax credits for lower income residents; moving forward on improvements to Ethan Allen and Flower Avenues; grants to community partner organizations; financial assistance to residents facing costly downed tree removal; a greater focus on community policing including better follow-up with residents who have been crime victims; maintaining local festivals, public events, and public art; a therapeutic recreation program for disabled residents; establishment of a Council internship program to promote engagement with the municipal government; and continued focus on expanding our tree canopy.
When we considered amendments to cut spending, my approach was to support reductions in areas where I thought the purpose behind the expenditures had not yet been fully worked out or the particular project had not been the product of a more public discussion involving the Council and the community. I also supported several budget cuts put forward by City staff.
To be specific, I voted in favor of the following spending reductions, all of which were approved by the Council: funding for unspecified commercial economic development improvements that may be recommended in the Economic Development Strategic Plan; unneeded funds for the Equipment Replacement Reserve and for the Facilities Maintenance Reserve; excess money for the Police Department tied to the vacancy in the Police Chief position and additional dollars we’ll receive from the County; and lower than expected City staff health care and workers compensation expenses. Most of these were non-controversial.
Separately, while I disagreed with an amendment to reduce funding for improvements to the staff area on the Community Center’s third floor (in part because I thought the Human Resources Department should have privacy to handle its confidential information), and the amendment to cut the budget for ADA sidewalk improvements (mainly because the bulk of that work is slated for Ward One), those two proposals were approved despite my opposition.
On the other side of the ledger, I backed some amendments which didn’t pass, including proposals to make deeper cuts to the commercial economic development improvements budget; reduce an “extra” $100,000 contribution to the Police Pension; and remove design money for improvements in the Police Department staff area and the Community Center Atrium. The Economic Development Strategic Plan is being worked on by an outside consultant, with a target date for completion in the early fall. It’s not clear if it will include any recommendations for improvements in the commercial parts of the City. If it does we can seek funding later, but it seemed premature to set aside those funds now. I would consider supporting additional funds for the Police Pension as part of a comprehensive plan to further capitalize the plan, but the financial health of the pension is trending in a positive direction and the budget already calls for us to contribute $1.4 million to the plan, as recommended by the independent actuaries. In that context, the additional $100,000 seemed like more of an arbitrary add-on. As for the Police Department and Atrium re-design, I thought that with the Library project likely to start soon it would be prudent to hold off on another significant project in the Community Center for now.
Finally, I opposed an unsuccessful amendment to pull $100,000 out of the Police Department budget (without specifying which specific Police activities would be reduced), and I voted against an amendment – that was approved – that set aside funding for an initial review of whether our Police Department should seek formal accreditation from the national organization that bestows that designation on local departments. On the former, I disagree in general with the idea of seeking unspecified cuts from City Departments. If there are areas within the Police Department that need to be reduced we should identify them. As for the accreditation idea, City staff indicated it was a roughly two year project (and one that could involve having to devote one staffer full-time to handling all the paperwork over that period). So I thought it would make more sense to wait until we hire a new Chief before thinking about going down that road.
Keeping track of all the amendments can be confusing, so I’ve included a summary below. The bottom line is that the amendment process produced a net reduction of $566,000 in the proposed budget. As a result of that net change, the City property tax rate for Fiscal Year 2018 (which starts on July 1) will be $0.5348 per $100 of a home’s assessed value. This is slightly below the .5358 Constant Yield rate (at which the City is expected to take in about the same level of taxes as this year). For comparison, the tax rate for this year was .5675, and the rate proposed in the budget was .56. Even with a rate below Constant Yield, some residents could see modest upticks in their tax bills next year, depending on their assessments.
For a house assessed at $400,000, the current year rate produces a $2,272 tax bill, the original proposal for next year (.56) gives a bill of $2,240; Constant Yield would be $2,144; and the lower rate we actually adopted ends up at $2,139.
Another budget item with a financial impact on residents is the annual stormwater fee. The budget called for raising it from $55 to $92. A toughening of the State of Maryland’s stormwater calculation, has meant Takoma Park’s progress on reducing and treating stormwater is less on track than before. That led City staff to identify additional projects to complete in the coming year. While I think it’s important for us to continue taking steps to remediate stormwater, next year the City will be conducting a survey of impervious surfaces in part to assess whether the fee structure should be changed. Until then I think we should avoid major fee increases. For this reason I voted to limit the increase to $10 (meaning an annual fee of $65). I was on the losing side of that vote, and then the $92 dollar fee was endorsed on a 5 – 2 vote (I voted no).
Fiscal Year 2018 Takoma Park Budget Votes
PK voted for these cuts, which were approved
Commercial Econ. Dev. Improvements (5 – 2) -$50,000
City staff health care (7 – 0) -$80,000
Police Chief Dollars (7 – 0) -$7,000
Staff Workers Compensation (7 – 0) -$150,000
Equipment Replacement Reserve (7 – 0) -$80,000
Facilities Maintenance (7 – 0) -$50,000
Police Rebate (7 – 0) -$26,500
PK voted against these cuts, which were approved
Third Floor Office Improvements (4 – 3) -$80,000
ADA Sidewalk Repairs (6 – 1) -$100,000
Aggregate Total -$623,500
PK voted for these increases, which were approved
Council Intern (4 – 3) +$15,000
Tree Removal Fund (7 – 0) +$25,000
Maple Avenue Trees (7 – 0) +$2,500
Net Total -$581,000
PK voted against this increase, which was approved
Initial Police Accreditation (6 – 1) +$15,000
Net Total -$566,000
The following cuts weren’t approved (and thus had no impact on budget)
Police Dept/Atrium plan (2 – 5; PK voted for cut) -$140,000
Police Pension “extra” $ (3 – 4; PK voted for cut) -$100,000
Comm. Econ. Dev. Imp. (2 – 5; PK voted for cut) -$150,000
Comm. Econ. Dev. Imp. (2 – 5; PK voted for cut) -$100,000
Police Dept. Budget (3 – 4; PK voted against cut) -$100,000