This is the City Council’s final week with an extra budget session, meaning we’ll be meeting tonight (Monday, April 29) and Wednesday, May 1. Here are links to agendas for the meetings:
Both meetings will include a continuation of our work on the 2020 City budget and the local property tax rate for this year. The formal votes on those topics are expected to take place in our May 8 and May 15 Council meetings, with key decisions on spending and the tax rate likely to be made at this week’s meetings, in particular on Monday night. On Wednesday, we’ll also be voting on four non-budget items: a resolution on refugee resettlement; the land exchange with the County to give the City control over the New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center; a tree maintenance and removal contract; and an appointment to the Arts and Humanities Commission.
Office Hours: On Wednesday, May 1 from 10:00 AM - Noon I’ll be holding office hours at the Girl & the Vine (7071 Carroll Ave.). Stop by to discuss local issues -- no appointments needed.
Takoma Success Fair (Saturday, May 4, 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM, City/TPSS Co-op Parking Lot). The Success Fair brings together resource partners to support the development and success of City residents of all ages and stages in life. Through partners in education, job training, and personal development, residents will be introduced to new paths and innovative programs to build their personal plans for success. This event is an alternative to a career or college fair in that it provides non-traditional, inclusive pathways to success.
TKPK5K. The eleventh annual Takoma Park Safe Routes to School 5K race will be held on Sunday, May 5, starting at 8:00 AM. Registration and sponsorship details are here: https://www.tkpk5k.com/
House and Garden Tour. Historic Takoma’s annual House & Garden Tour is on Sunday, May 5 from 1:00 - 5:00 PM. This year’s tour -- entitled “Politics and Prayer” -- explores the history of Union Chapel and the first local election as part of celebrating Takoma Park Presbyterian Church's 125 years in the community. The tour begins at the Church (310 Tulip Avenue). You can purchase tickets online (https://www.historictakoma.org/) or at the Church on the day of the tour.
Budget and Property Tax: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/Documents/FY-20-Budget-Reconciliation-Items-lrgr-font.pdf. In last week’s Council meeting, I made remarks outlining my sense of where we are on the budget and taxes. You can see video of my comments via this link (start at the 1 hour 45 minute mark): https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/meetings-and-documents/city-council-video/
Tonight we’ll be discussing budget “reconciliation” options. That’s the name of our process for considering increases or decreases in funding (using the City Manager’s proposed budget as our base document), with corresponding adjustments to the property tax rate. As described previously, a net spending reduction of about $650,000 would let us keep the current tax rate, while a reduction of around $730,000 would permit us to adopt the Constant Yield rate. That’s the rate at which the City takes in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year. We can get close to that level if we avoid taking on a lot of new programs and initiatives. This budget largely does that, though I think we can go further.
The reconciliation link above includes a list of potential budget cuts the Council has been discussing. Based on my initial understanding of the impacts of the spending involved, I support most of the reductions on the list. The main items on the list I don’t support are eliminating the community grants program; reducing the commercial district improvement funding by the full amount (I do support cutting it in half); lowering the funding for the Old Town Business Association and the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority (both are already cut in the proposed budget); and scaling back the Folk Festival monies.
With those four items removed, the remaining reductions on the list total about $815,000. There are two items on the plus side of the ledger I support: restoring $34,000 in funding for our Sustainability programs; and adding $50,000 for a consultant to help plan the Recreation Center project. With those two add-backs, the net change in the budget is approximately $730,000. If the property tax rate were commensurately reduced we’d end up right around Constant Yield.
I want to emphasize that these are my initial thoughts on reconciliation. It’s possible, based on feedback from residents, additional information staff may provide, or arguments advanced by my colleagues, that my position on some of these items could shift. In any case, decisions on budget cuts or increases will be determined by votes of the full Council. I don’t know at this point where my colleagues are on these points or whether they may suggest other changes.
These numbers suggest to me that we ought to be able to get pretty close to Constant Yield. My current thinking is that, if the Council were to agree to budget cuts that would potentially allow us to reduce the tax rate below that level, I’d prefer to stick with Constant Yield and allocate any monies beyond that to our reserves. We’re committed to increasing our reserves over the next few years to hit a target level of 17 percent (roughly two months of spending).
Even if the tax rate is brought down to the current rate or to Constant Yield, the reality is that some residents may still see their property tax payments go up, depending on their re-assessments. And this year, that could be affected by the Federal tax changes pushed through by Congressional Republicans that cap deductibility of State and Local taxes. However, I don’t favor making deeper cuts in program funding or reducing personnel, because I think that could begin to take us away from the approach that has enabled the City to have innovative programs and provide support to a lower income residents and those who are less well off.
These factors are to some extent in conflict. And, while there were improvements in the budget process and the financial data in this year’s cycle, we still have a ways to go. I’ve joined with several of my colleagues in suggesting that we have future Council work sessions to discuss options for additional improvements, including taking steps to enable us to put in place more longer term budget planning, and to rely less on year-to-year adjustments. In that context, I’m pleased that Mayor Stewart has mentioned the idea of conceivably having our budgets based annually on Constant Yield with an inflation adjustment.
I’m not at this point ready to say I would definitely support that approach, and of course there’s more than one way of calculating inflation. But I think a budget process of that type would help give residents and City officials more certainly in thinking about the future. Another valuable idea suggested by some residents is developing better ways of calculating the cost of major projects or initiatives in terms of the staff time devoted to them. I think that’s also a concept worth exploring. In addition, my Council colleague Cindy Dyballa has proposed expanding some of the existing tax credits that we provide to residents who have lived in the community for several decades, and I ‘d like to see where we can go on that idea as well. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to schedule at least a couple of Council sessions to focus on these and related issues while this year’s budget experience is still fresh in our minds.
Depending on the results of our discussion on Monday, we’ll continue our reconciliation discussion on Wednesday, again with formal votes slated for May 8 and 15. Meanwhile, it will be very helpful to hear from residents. So please feel free to contact me with your thoughts on these issues. I apologize if in the press of budget emails I’ve neglected to respond to a few. I’ll scan again for any that are unanswered, and if you’re waiting to hear back on something specific that goes beyond what’s in this message, remind me and I’ll respond as quickly as possible.
Refugee Resettlement Resolution: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190501-1.pdf. Given Takoma Park’s Sanctuary City status and our policy of allowing all residents (regardless of citizenship status) to vote in local elections, among other factors, I think it’s important to reaffirm the City’s support for resettlement of refugees and our openness to having them live here. I’ll be voting for the resolution.
Takoma Park Recreation Center Land Exchange: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190501-2.pdf. Renovating the Recreation Center is an important Council priority, and the land exchange is a necessary step for moving us toward that goal. As noted in an earlier blog, the County legal team requested some modifications to the previous version of the land exchange resolution prior to our scheduled vote earlier this month. Those changes along with a few amendments from the City are reflected in the revised version of the resolution. I plan to vote in favor of the resolution.
Tree Maintenance and Removal Contract: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190501-3.pdf. Before voting, I’d like to get some information about the specific trees involved, as well as the process for public input on those that are scheduled for removal.
Arts and Humanities Commission Appointment: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190501-4.pdf. I’ll be voting yes on the proposed appointment.
As always, I welcome questions or comments about any of the issues covered in this message, or other local matters of concern.
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One