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Welcome to my blog, which features frequent updates on local Takoma Park issues, including City Council meeting agendas, plus occasional commentary on national news and politics.

July 17, 2019 City Council Agenda

Dear Neighbors:

Here’s a link to the agenda for the July 17, 2019 City Council meeting: https://takomaparkmd.gov/meeting_agendas/city-council-meeting-agenda-wednesday-july-17-2019/. Before the meeting, at 6:30 PM there will be a presentation from Bill Musico, Montgomery County Permitting Services Specialist/Floodplain coordinator, to help the Council understand floodplain issues connected to the City Library renovation project. This will be the first of three key meetings on the Library project this month (see below for details). In the regular meeting, we’ll have two votes: on the City staff pay structure and on a Consent Agenda comprising appointments to three resident committees. Our work session will feature a review of the Montgomery County Hazard Mitigation Plan; an update from the Police Chief; and a budget amendment.


Coffee with the Mayor -- July 17. Drop by this Wednesday to talk informally with Mayor Stewart and me at Takoma Bevco (6917 Laurel Avenue) from 8:00 - 9:30 AM.

Suburban Deer Management Presentation -- July 17. A deer management specialist from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will lead a presentation and discussion at 6:30 PM in the Community Center Azalea Room.

Special Council Session on Tree Polices. On Monday, July 22 starting at 7:00 PM, as part of the Council’s work on the Tree Ordinance and tree canopy goals, we’ll have a special meeting with representatives of the Tree Commission and the Committee on the Environment to help us formulate and clarify our plans for moving forward on these issues

Screening of “The Occupation of the American Mind.” Many residents have commented -- pro and con -- on the scheduled screening of this film. On Friday I circulated a message to Ward One email lists with my views on this topic. Here’s a slightly revised, updated version of that statement:

When the film was initially scheduled to be shown last month, I received many expressions of support and opposition from City residents about the screening. My general view is that, as an elected official, I shouldn’t make decisions about which films should be shown under City sponsorship. On the other hand, given the large number of strong views for and against the screening, I felt that it would be preferable to show the movie with some context and an opportunity for people to comment, rather than simply screening it. In my experience, Q and A or a discussion tend to be part of presentations offered through our Arts and Humanities Commission, and a more thorough discussion seemed warranted in this case.

Considering those points and resident comments, the City announced the screening would be re-scheduled for a later date when a moderated panel discussion could be set up. Active efforts are underway to assemble a panel with a reasonable range of opinions on the film and the topics it covers for the announced July 23 re-screening date.

As noted, I don’t think Councilmembers should decide on the merits of cultural events sponsored by the City. In the case of the We Are Takoma series, which this screening would be part of, the decisions have been delegated to our Arts and Humanities Commission, composed of community members. To the extent we can make improvements in how presentations for this and other series are vetted, that’s something we should address going forward. But given where we are now, I think it’s preferable to have a well moderated panel discussion as opposed to either simply showing the film on its own or cancelling it.

On Friday the Mayor issued a statement about where things stood at that time with the film, which you can read via this link: https://takomaparkmd.gov/news/statement-from-the-mayor-on-the-rescheduled-film-screening-occupation-of-the-american-mind/.

Library Renovation Project. As mentioned, we’ll have a series of key meetings about the Library project over the next three weeks. This week we’ll hear from Mr. Musico, the County floodplain expert, and have the opportunity to question him about flood plain issues connected to the Library. Next week, the Council will have a general discussion on the project, including changes to the project’s design recommended by the architect as a result of recent floodplain findings, and their potential cost impact. And then on July 31 (our last meeting before the Council’s August recess) we’re tentatively scheduled to vote on the contract with our architectural firm for the detailed design and engineering phase of the project.

The City Manager provided some detailed comments about the project and its potential time table in last week’s Council meeting. You can read them at the end of her weekly comments via this link: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-manager/city-manager-comments/2019/cm-comments-20190710.pdf. To summarize where we are, the Council previously approved a general design for the renovation and expansion, and borrowed $7 million through the State bonding process to pay for it. The City is legally responsible for paying back the loan over the next 30 years with interest, at a cost of around $389,000 a year. That’s about $220,000 more per year than the earlier, somewhat smaller renovation plan that was under consideration when I joined the Council in late 2015.

One of the reasons I favored a larger renovation was to ensure that there would be room for at least as many if not more books than we currently have. Owing to ADA requirements, it’s necessary to significantly expand the square footage of the facility in order to keep even the same number of books. The new plan would also set aside space for teens and special programs (removing the need for staff to move furniture around in the children’s room where there are outside author events, etc.), upgrade the bathrooms and staff space, and provide some flexibility in terms of future spacing as library uses continue to evolve.

Earlier this year, City staff and the project’s architectural firm presented information indicating that, taking into account newer floodplain information, design changes are needed to ensure the building meets County requirements. The architect presented three options to address this situation: 1) substantially restructure the hill behind the Library parking lot at a cost well in excess of $7 million; 2) raise the floor of the existing building and the expansion at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars under $7 million (which would mean a building with lower ceiling heights and less flexibility for HVAC improvements); or 3) raze the building and rebuild it using the design that’s already in the works at a cost of $7.5 million (though this would be similar to the design we’ve been working on, it would allow a few improvements in the way the Municipal Building and the Library mesh with each other).

The Council gave a tentative nod to option 3, but that decision isn’t final. We still have to vote on the contract with our architectural firm for the design work (estimated at $800,000). Again, that vote may occur at our July 31 meeting. Those design funds are already in the budget, due to the bond we took out. I would add that we’ve secured $300,000 in State funding for the project, meaning that if there are no further significant increases, we’re still close to the earlier projected cost. I would also point out that, unlike what happened with the Municipal Center project, we’re delving into the floodplain issues before we go to final design. In addition — also in contrast to the Municipal Center — the funds set aside for the project include monies for hiring a construction manager to oversee the project.

Nonetheless, there are some uncertain areas we need to resolve, starting with the issues surrounding the floodplain. So this week’s presentation on that topic will be especially important. And there are other factors that may affect the cost, and on which it will be important for us to have a clearer understanding. For example, with the Montgomery College Math-Science Building, at the most recent public charrette the MC team explained that the project would be smaller than originally planned for in part because of higher steel costs (connected to the tariff battles currently underway), higher labor costs owing to the low unemployment rates in this region, and other cost increases simply because several years have gone by since the project was first being planned and inflation has come into play. Those kinds of outside factors may affect the Library project, and we’ll have to be prepared to deal with them.

Recognizing that we need to work on those issues, I continue to be a strong supporter of the Library project. With the current cost estimates still generally in line with what we borrowed through the State bonding authority, and taking into account the additional funds we've received from the State, I think the project makes sense for the City. The Library is one of our most important municipal resources. At virtually any time of day or night, City residents take advantage of its programs and facilities, including young students at the nearby public schools, teens from all over, recent immigrants, seniors, avid readers interested in author appearances, anyone with no or limited internet connections or computer skills, and the list goes on. It’s my view that renovating what’s becoming an obsolete structure in order to ensure it can continue playing a crucial role in our community for decades to come is the right move, provided we remain committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars as we move forward.  

So, in the next few Council meetings it will be crucial for us to carefully review the cost estimates and the floodplain issues, and to be thoughtful about the Library’s role in our community. If it turns out that the price tag significantly exceeds what we've allocated so far, then we'll have decisions to make about how to proceed, and we’ll be able to modify the project if necessary to help keep it within the costs projections.

Staff pay structure:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190717-1.pdf. The proposed pay structure covers City staff who aren’t part of the two collective bargaining agreements that cover a majority of our workers. Under this pay structure, most of the affected employees would receive pay boosts in the 2.5 - 3.5 percent range. The necessary funds were included in this year’s budget. I’ll be voting in yes.

CONSENT AGENDA. I’ll be voting in favor of the appointments.

Board of Elections Appointments:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190717-2a.pdf

Arts and Humanities Commission Appointments:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190717-2b.pdf

Committee on the Environment Appointmentshttps://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190717-2c.pdf


Hazard Mitigation Plan:  The City will have the opportunity to review and ultimately approve the Hazard Mitigation Plan developed by Montgomery County to reduce the effects of natural disasters, including especially severe weather. The adoption of the plan will, among other things, make jurisdictions within the County eligible for federal hazard mitigation funds.



Police Matters:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190717-4.pdf. Background materials on this agenda item were not available at the time this message was prepared.

Budget Amendment:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190717-6.pdf. It’s relatively common for some approved funds to end up not being expended in the fiscal year for which they were budgeted, often because of staff shortages or various external factors. When that occurs, assuming it’s still appropriate to move forward on the project or purpose for which the funds were approved, it’s necessary for the Council to approve a budget amendment formally shifting the previously approved funds into the next fiscal year. There is often a fairly large number of such funding shifts within the first month or two after the end of a fiscal year. That’s the situation now, with Fiscal Year 2019 having come to an end on June 30. We’ll be reviewing a list of around 30 funding shifts, with a vote on the amendment taking place in a future Council meeting.

Please let me know if you have questions or comments about any of the matters covered in this message.

Peter Kovar

Takoma Park City Council

Ward One




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Agenda for July 10, 2019 City Council Meeting