This is a mid-week update on topics connected to the City budget, including concerns raised by a number of residents about the removal of publicly posted flyers announcing Community Vision for Takoma’s community conversation tomorrow evening at the Fire Station.
I was alerted a few days ago by a resident of Willow Avenue that a staffer from the City’s Neighborhood Services team had removed flyers about the event from phone poles, while leaving other flyers in place. Whatever our City Code may allow or prohibit in terms of public posting of notices, it would be improper if the City were to selectively enforce requirements based on the political content of notices. Just because someone may not like a certain message, the language in a specific announcement, or the purpose of an event, that doesn’t mean it’s any less deserving of being publicized, and no level of government should be censoring it. So, when this was brought to my attention, I contacted the City Manager and the Chief of Police to ask about both the specific incident and the general policy.
After looking into the situation, hearing back from staff, and from other residents who have had similar experiences, I can say I’m confident there was no intentional selective removal because the message may have been seen as critical of the City or the City budget. Neighborhood Services staff were not asked by other City staff to specifically target the Community Vision flyers. Frequently, as part of their daily work, Neighborhood Services staff remove posted flyers and the like, though there is a tendency to leave up those with a more narrow geographical focus, especially when they have been posted by children. That appears to be what happened in this case, though the kids’ flyers were subsequently removed as well.
In any case, it’s evident that the Code is somewhat vague and needs to be reviewed and probably scrubbed and updated. I think the community and Council should consider in a focused way what kinds of restrictions we want, including for example whether announcements about upcoming community events or missing pets should be treated differently from ongoing listings for jobs or services. Or should we ban all posted notices except in certain designated spots? If exceptions are made, should people be required to remove their postings after the relevant event has taken place? I suggested at last night’s City Council meeting that the Council take up this set of issues, and I’m pleased that Mayor Stewart and the City Manager agreed. I look forward to starting that process soon, and I’m hopeful we’ll have lots of input from residents when we do.
On the budget more broadly, as part of the City Council’s “reconciliation” process -- in which we consider changes to the budget and tax proposals submitted by the City Manager -- the Council made a series of preliminary decisions this week on such changes. The changes will form the basis for our final votes on May 8 and 15, and I don’t expect any major further modifications from this week’s work. For me, the results are mixed.
First, I’m pleased that we won’t see significant reductions in important programs that are important for quality of life in the City and/or beneficial to lower income residents. Beyond that, while I’m glad that as a result of our work this week, the Council is calling for a property tax rate ($0.5397 per $100 of properties’ assessed values) that’s around three percent lower than the City Manager had proposed, it’s still about two percent higher than our current level. I was on the losing end of several votes this week which, had they garnered a majority, would have moved the tax rate close to Constant Yield (the level at which we’d take in the same amount of revenue this year as last year, based on the new assessments).
One of the ideas that’s been suggested by the Mayor and others — at least as a starting point — for our future budget years is using the Constant Yield rate plus an inflation adjustment as our target for the tax rate each year. That would enable us to fund key priorities while keeping costs relatively constant. I don’t know whether I would support that approach, in part because within that frame there would be a wide divergence for residents based on the changes they may experience each year in their assessments. But I do agree it’s a concept that should be on the table for future discussions on the budget process, and, as the Mayor has noted, it’s more or less where we’ve ended up this year.
I’ll be reviewing the budget and reconciliation numbers carefully before the votes next week. You can see a summary of the data here: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/Documents/FY20-Budget-Reconciliation-Items-04.30.19.pdf.
As I’ve noted previously (http://www.councilmemberkovar.com/blog/2019/4/29/agendas-for-april-29-amp-may-1-2019-city-council-meetings) and as I reiterated in last night’s Council meeting, while this year’s budget process was more transparent than in previous years, I think there’s still room for improvement. So, I’m pleased that the Mayor has announced plans for the Council to have some sessions fairly soon on how the budget process can improved. It’s those sessions that could include consideration of ideas like the Constant Yield plus inflation concept. It’s important for us begin those discussions relatively quickly after we complete this year’s budget, so challenges from this year are fresh in our minds and so we can make additional changes well in advance of next year’s budget cycle.
In that context, some of the issues likely to be discussed tomorrow night at the Community Vision event may be helpful in informing the Council’s future budget process discussions. While I’m not able to be at the event due to a previous engagement, I look forward to hearing about the meeting. As I mentioned in last night’s Council meeting, I did have concerns about some of the language in the flyer (yes, that flyer) announcing the event because I thought it lacked a broader context of Takoma Park’s traditional focus on activist government as a means of promoting progressive policies. I thought the flyer seemed, frankly, more conservative than I would have expected. I raised this with several of the event organizers, and I note that the more recent version of the announcement does a somewhat better job of capturing the City’s progressive legacy.
For more detail about my thoughts on all these issues, you can see video of my remarks at last night’s Council meeting through the following link (starting at the 25:15 mark of the May 1 video and running about four minutes): https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/meetings-and-documents/city-council-video/. You can read the City Manager’s written statement on the flyer removal situation here: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-manager/city-manager-comments/2019/cm-comments-20190501.pdf, and also see video of her (roughly two minute long) comments on that topic at the 43:30 mark of the May 1 City Council video.
I acknowledge this message covers some complex inter-woven matters, so as always I encourage those with questions or concerns to contact me directly.
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One