Here’s a link to the agenda for the April 11, 2018 City Council agenda: https://takomaparkmd.gov/meeting_agendas/wednesday-april-11-2018/. There are several important issues up for consideration this week, and I expect we’ll run late. The meeting begins with a Public Hearing on the City budget for Fiscal Year 2019, which starts July 1. Then we’ll vote on a contract for the resident survey. That will be followed by a discussion on repeal of the Inventory Tax (which applies to businesses) and a discussion on the Takoma Junction Site Plan.
Public Hearing on FY 2019 Budget. https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2018/council-20180411-1.pdf. Since the proposed budget was only formally presented to the Council last week, I’m still absorbing its contents, as no doubt many residents are, too. I’ll be providing detailed information about my views on the budget in the coming weeks. I’m providing here some initial thoughts.
A few words on process first: the City Manager presented her proposed budget to the Council last week. You can see it here: https://takomaparkmd.gov/public-notices/fy19-proposed-budget-posted/. It was also written up in this month’s City Newsletter. In addition, staff were available at an Open House on the budget this past weekend in the Community Center. The proposed budget will form the basis for the Council’s work on taxes and spending for the coming year. Starting April 16, we’ll have special budget sessions three Mondays in a row in addition to our Wednesday meetings. The Monday meetings will feature detailed presentations from the City Departments, plus Council discussions. Our Council meeting on Wednesday, April 25 will include Public Hearings on both the budget and the local property tax.
Residents needn’t confine themselves to the hearings in order to weigh in. You can speak in the public comment period about these topics at any of our regular Wednesday meetings. I’ll also be looking into setting up other times for Ward One residents to get information about, or offer opinions on, the budget. Folks are also welcome to submit comments to me via email or by calling me or meeting with me in person. The Council will continue working on the proposal in April, and in May we’ll begin refining the budget and setting the tax rate through our amendment process, with the final vote tentatively scheduled for May 16.
I’m pleased that in my first two years on the Council we worked successfully to maintain key municipal services and increase support for some new priorities like affordable housing and programs for lower income youth, while holding the line on taxes. For the current year’s budget, we cut the tax rate below Constant Yield (the point where the City brings in the same amount of tax revenue as the previous year), though even at Constant Yield, some residents can see modest bumps in their tax bills, depending on the extent to which their property assessments have risen.
For Fiscal Year 2019, I’ll be working with my Council colleagues to support some of the newer priorities we’ve agreed on, and to keep taxes at a reasonable level. Again, I’ll be saying more about the proposed budget as the process unfolds. For now, in terms of both spending and the tax rate, it’s just a proposal. Nothing has been agreed to, and a vital part of the process will be residents offering their opinions. Please let me know what you think, ideally in April, as the final budget begins to take shape in early May and it can be harder to make changes at that point.
Resident Survey Contract. https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2018/council-20180411-2.pdf. The City periodically surveys residents to gain insight into their views on local issues and governmental priorities. The funds for the survey were included in the budget, and I plan to vote for the contract. I do plan to seek clarification on the process for developing the questions that will be in the survey, as I think Councilmembers should have a role in helping to make sure the questions produce useful data.
Inventory Tax. https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2018/council-20180411-3.pdf. When I first ran for Council in 2015, I heard from small business owners in the City about the unfairness of the Inventory Tax. We impose the highest allowable level of this tax, and it has a disproportionate impact on businesses that sell retail items (as opposed to, say, providing services). To the extent the City wants to be a welcoming place for smaller businesses, I think we should move toward repealing or substantially reducing the tax, and I’ve been pushing for that goal since I joined the Council.
One of the options that enjoys some support on the Council is repealing the tax and installing a higher commercial property tax rate to make up for the “loss” of a little over $300,000 annually that would result from the repeal. That approach isn’t my preference, as the tax hike would still be passed along to businesses. My view is that, if we want to support our local businesses and make the City more attractive for smaller operations, we should repeal or cut back on the inventory tax without seeking to replace all the “lost” revenue exclusively from the business community. Of course this approach would mean absorbing the lost revenue within the overall budget. So, there are no perfect solutions. One alternative I like is exempting a portion of each business’s inventory from the tax. That way, the vast majority of businesses would no longer be required to pay the tax, and there would be less of an impact on the overall budget.
https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2018/council-20180404-takoma-junction-combined-site-plan.pdf. With an updated Site Plan for the Junction development presented last week by NDC, we’re now entering a phase of more intensive review. The Council is slated to discuss various aspects of the project during each of our next five Wednesday night Council meetings, with the potential for votes on the site plan in May. As with the budget, this is a complex matter on which I’ll be providing more information and commenting in more detail going forward. Meanwhile, here are a few key points:
· With the traffic studies delayed in part because of bad weather, a number of residents have expressed concern about the community and Council possibly not having sufficient time to consider the results of the studies before a final vote. It’s crucial that we have a good understanding of potential traffic impacts before any vote on the Site Plan. When the Council passed the resolution last fall laying out our concerns about NDC's Concept Plan and the structure for the traffic studies, we adopted an amendment committing us to ensuring that there’s adequate time to review the traffic studies. I voted for that amendment, and from my point of view if there’s a need to delay a potential Site Plan vote to allow more time to review study results I would support that.
· My three biggest concerns about last fall’s Concept Plan were the third floor (an idea I disagree with, given that the surrounding commercial buildings are generally one and two stories high), the insufficient amount of street level open space, and the jumbled up nature of the area where truck unloading, trash handling, and outdoor restaurant seating were located. I’m pleased that the third floor has been removed from the plan. On the other two points, there has been some improvement, but more work on both is needed in my opinion. I also think the placement of the elevator in the new plan is ill-advised, and I would like to see it moved to the end of the project closer to the Co-op. During last week’s Council meeting when I asked the NDC representatives about doing that, they seemed open to the idea. There are other aspects of the project, including the ingress/egress for the underground parking and the functionality of the lay-by, on which more clarification is needed. So I look forward to discussion on all of those points in the coming weeks.
· There will be plenty of opportunities for residents to comment on the proposal before there are any Council votes. As with the budget, there was an Open House this past weekend. In addition, residents will be able to offer their opinions during the comment periods in any of the upcoming Wednesday Council meetings, as well as by email. I’m going to be meeting with residents, one on one and in groups of various sizes, and otherwise making myself available to listen, and to talk about the project. I encourage anyone who has concerns or questions to be in touch with me. I’d like to hear from as many people as possible before we vote.
As always, please be in touch if you have comments about any of these agenda items.
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One