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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 22 & 24 City Council Meeting Agendas

Dear Neighbors:

The City Council will be meeting twice this week. There will be a special session tonight (Monday, July 22) regarding tree issues, and then our regular meeting on Wednesday. You can see the agendas for both meetings through the following links.

July 22: https://takomaparkmd.gov/meeting_agendas/special-meeting-on-tree-ordinance-tree-canopy-monday-22-2019/. This meeting will be held at 7:00 PM in the Community Center Azalea Room. It will be a joint meeting with the Tree Commission and the Committee on the Environment to help us formulate plans for revising the Tree Ordinance and developing tree canopy goals, work that’s expected to take a number of months through the fall and into the winter. This session will not include a public comment period, though residents are welcome to submit comments in writing. There will be numerous public engagement opportunities in the coming months as we consider these issues.

July 24: https://takomaparkmd.gov/meeting_agendas/city-council-meeting-agenda-wednesday-july-24-2019/. On Wednesday, we’ll have an important discussion on the Library renovation project (with a possible vote to approve the detailed design architectural contract at our July 31 meeting), along with a review of pending major projects in the City. Our votes include two budget amendment votes, followed by votes on the City staff pay structure, our Maryland Municipal League legislative priorities, and the County Hazard Mitigation Plan. We will also discuss the Council Compensation Committee and appointments to resident committees.

City Council Schedule:  The last Council meeting of the summer will be Wednesday, July 31. We’ll be in recess for August, with the first meeting back taking place on September 11.

National Night Out -- August 6, 6:00 - 9:00 PM.  https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/police/community-policing/national-night-out/. This annual event where Takoma Park families have a chance to mingle informally with members of the City Police Department will be held on Maple Avenue in front of Piney Branch Elementary School. The evening will feature food, entertainment and plenty of kids’ activities.

Screening of “The Occupation of the American Mind” -- Tuesday, July 22 at 7:00 PM. I appreciate having heard from many residents who expressed their views on the screening of this film. I’d say first off that I don’t think, as an elected official, I should be deciding which specific films or other cultural presentations are shown or sponsored by the City. On the other hand, I recognize that the process through which this film was chosen was not ideal, and I agree with those who have urged us to review that process going forward.

After thinking about this set of issues at some length, it’s my view that showing the film with a panel discussion led by a moderator is a better option than simply cancelling it or alternatively presenting it without offering interested residents an opportunity to hear and/or participate in an exchange of views. However, I certainly recognize that for some residents showing the film even with the panel discussion isn’t a satisfactory way to go.

For those who would like to see the statement I made about the film during this past week’s Council meeting you click on this link: https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/meetings-and-documents/city-council-video/. My comments start at the 37 minute point in the July 17 video. I would add that to me a key will be for the panel to have participants with a reasonable range of views on the relevant issues. And it’s my sense we have a decent lineup. You can see who’s going to be on the panel here:  https://takomaparkmd.gov/news/occupation-of-the-american-mind-screening-has-been-rescheduled/.

Budget Amendment:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-1.pdf. These will be the first votes on two separate budget amendments, with the second and final votes scheduled for next week’s Council meeting. When monies approved by the Council for one fiscal year end up not being spent in that year (because of staff changes, delays in construction projects, slower than anticipated contracting, etc.) it’s necessary to formally approve the shifting of the funds into the next fiscal year. It’s common for there to be numerous shifts of that type in the period shortly after the end of a fiscal year (FY 2019 ended on June 30). Most of the items in the amendments were approved in last year’s budget. The one exception is the addition of $19,000, which is an estimate of tax debts we’re unlikely to collect. This was recommended by our financial auditor, pursuant to new bad debt guidelines applying to municipalities. I’ll be voting yes on the budget amendments.

Staff Pay Structure:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-3.pdf. This proposed pay structure covers City employees who aren’t in either of the collective bargaining groups that a majority of our workers belong to. Most of the affected staff would see pay increases of 2.5 - 3.5 percent. The funds to cover these increases are in the budget adopted by the Council for this year. I’ll be voting for the plan.

MML Legislative Action Requests:   https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-4.pdf. Each year, municipalities that are members of MML can forward up to three proposed legislative priorities for potential adoption as official priorities for the next State legislative session in Annapolis. Based on a Council discussion earlier this month, we’ve decided to recommend the following three proposals: expanding municipal authority to defer property taxes for certain groups of homeowners, like elderly or low income residents; authorizing counties or municipalities to join together to purchase or generate electricity for their residents from renewable sources; and helping rental property owners eliminate environmental hazards, including lead. I’ll be voting in favor of the list.

I had hoped we might be able to include some other issues on our list, including resisting efforts to further preempt our local authority concerning installation of cell phone towers, and finding ways to rein in disruptive behavior by utilities like Pepco and WSSC. However, it seems certain the cell tower issue will remain a top priority for MML regardless of what we put on our list. And with versions of the utility proposal having been considered previously, MML limits how many times a given issue can be taken on as a priority. Instead, I’ll be talking directly with our District 20 State elected officials about the utility question.

Hazard Mitigation Plan:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-5-rev.pdf. I’ll be voting for the resolution.

Library Overview:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-6.pdf. As detailed in last week’s blog, we’re in the middle of a series of key meetings about the Library project this month. Accordingly, this summary includes a substantial amount of the material that was included in my write-up about the July 17 Council meeting. At that meeting, we heard from Bill Musico, a Montgomery County floodplain expert. This week the Council will have an overall discussion on the project, including changes to the project’s design recommended by the architect connected to floodplain issues, and their potential cost impact. And then on July 31 (which again is 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. However, there are a number of questions, relating to the flood plain specifically, plus other aspects of the project, on which we need more information before we get to that vote.

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 main reasons I favored a larger renovation was to ensure 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 (eliminating the need for staff to move furniture around in the children’s room when 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 our architect presented information indicating that, taking into account newer floodplain information, design changes would be 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 in excess of $7.8 million (and probably higher); 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 sign-off on option 3, but that decision isn’t final. We won’t be able to move forward with that option until there’s a vote on the architectural design contract (which is for just under $800,000). Those design funds are already in the budget, due to the bond we took out, but a separate vote is still required. As mentioned, that vote could occur at our July 31 meeting, and there’s a draft resolution for the vote included with this week’s agenda packet.

Among the uncertainties we need to resolve prior to the vote, the floodplain issues stand out. Last week’s presentation was a useful initial step, but it didn’t resolve all the outstanding issues. As I understand the situation, the County requires the ground floor of any structure in a floodplain to be at least a foot above the flood plain height. The highest spot of the floodplain on the Library site is 209 feet, which is essentially the same as the level of the Library’s ground floor. Even though there’s a low flood wall that -- at 210 feet -- is a foot higher, the County requires the ground floor level to be a foot higher. This requirement appears in part to address situations in which flood water wells up from below. The Municipal Center itself has a ground floor about a foot higher than the Library’s, at around 211 feet. Taking all these points into account, plus the fact that the floodplain height drops off a bit in the direction of the Municipal Center, the need to increase the height of the Library floor would make sense. However, since our exchange with Mr. Musico was fairly brief, we’re following up with him and the firm that conducted the floodplain analysis, on these and related points to make sure we have the clearest possible understanding of the floodplain requirements before there’s a vote on the architectural contract.

There are other factors that may affect the cost, on which I’m seeking clarification. For example, other construction projects in our area are seeing higher than projected costs because of increasing steel costs (connected to the President’s tariff battles), elevated labor costs due to the low unemployment rates in our region, and inflation impacts. Those kinds of outside factors may affect the cost of the Library project, and I’ve requested more information on them, along with details on the costs of the construction manager, permitting, contingency funds, furnishings, etc.

If after reviewing the cost estimates and the floodplain issues, it turns out the estimated price tag significantly exceeds what we've allocated so far, then we'll have decisions to make about how to proceed, with the ability to modify the project if necessary to help keep it within the projections. In that context, I remain a strong supporter of the Library project. 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 looking for after-school study spots, recent immigrants, seniors, avid readers interested in author appearances, people without internet connections or with limited computer skills, etc. 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.  

Council Compensation Committee:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-7.pdf. Every four years the Council appoints a committee of residents to review the compensation of the Mayor and City Councilmembers. We’ll be discussing issues relating to the formation of the next round of this committee. With our local elected positions considered part-time and paid accordingly, I believe it can be challenging for low or moderate income residents to give serious consideration to seeking local office in Takoma Park. So I’d like us to discuss if it would make sense this time to add to the committee’s charge an exploration of whether higher compensation would have the potential to increase the likelihood that less well-off residents would be able to run for office here in the City.

City Manager Project Overview:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-8.pdf. This will be an excellent opportunity to review the status of major City projects and initiatives.

Committee Appointments:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2019/council-20190724-9.pdf. We’ll briefly discuss pending appointments to resident committees, with votes likely to take place during the July 31 Council meeting.

Please be in touch with questions or comments about any of the matters covered in this message.

Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One

240-319-6281; www.councilmemberkovar.com

Agenda for July 31, 2019 City Council Meeting

July 17, 2019 City Council Agenda