Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Apparently the Administration is Confident

OK so as a blogger the last few months have been spotty for me but I am hoping that this snow actually gave me some time to pull ahead of the curve a little and I will again start blogging on the regular.

Let us start up again with last Tuesday night’s hearing on the stormwater fee.  I watched all of it live (from the comfort of my couch) and was frankly amazed at the abysmal number of people the County Executive managed to organize to support his proposal, even after offering up beer at a pre-hearing “rally” at Kelsey’s.

Anyway, truth be told, everything one needed to know and understand came in the very beginning when the administration’s representative, Diane Wilson (Chief of Staff to the County Executive), testified.  What was made clear with initial questions by Councilwoman Terrasa, follow up by Councilwoman Sigaty, and finally with a question from Councilman Ball was that this is actually only secondarily an environmental issue.  The primary issue with the Executive’s proposal is poor financial management.

I am going to do a lot of paraphrasing here but if you want to see the actual event you of course can see it online.  The action starts at 1 hour 15 minutes. 

After Ms. Wilson’s perfunctory testimony Councilwoman Terrasa asks: “If you are asking us to give up this dedicated source where will the money be coming from?”  She goes on to ask, “Will you be cutting from education?  Police?  Libraries?”

Ms. Wilson, first says that budgeting is all about priorities and then, for the first (of many times) goes to her apparently predetermined fail-safe line:

This administration is confident that there will be the financial tools to support this stormwater remediation plan.

Honestly, I would have much preferred she had the guts to go with “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”  It would have had a more poetic and pop-culture feel to it, however she did keep coming back and back to this one line.  So much so that by the end you can actually here exasperated chuckles in the audience.  Let us be clear, this is not an answer to the question, but let’s keep going with the interaction.

Councilwoman Terrasa does try and cycle back to the priorities line and says “You said budgets are about priorities, what will this be prioritized above in the budget?”  At this point in the conversation Ms. Wilson had already used her catch phrase three times (in case your thinking of watching and making it a drinking game). 

After a long-winded non-save/save from Councilman Fox, Councilwoman Sigaty picks up the mantle from Councilwoman Terrasa.  While she hammers some of the same points, I want to highlight one very important point she makes.  Sigaty highlights the fact that the plan presented by the administration assumes that in Fiscal Years 18 , 19, and 20, stormwater will be paid for, in part, by what is called paygo.  Paygo is made up of money leftover from the previous year’s budget (kind of like a budget surplus).  In blog posts here and here I talked a little bit about how and why the use of one-time funds for regular budget items is terrible budgeting.  Blogger Jamie Howard referred to it as “stunt budgeting” which is an apt phrase. 

This move is way worse.  What the Kittleman Administration is proposing essentially earmarks regular budget expenditures (or what would become regular budget expenditures under their proposal) with assumed robust surpluses two, three, and four years away.  This isn’t just inappropriate use of paygo funds; it’s inappropriate use of paygo funds they desperately hope will exist in the future. 

One last point made my Councilwoman Sigaty:  “You propose $30 million in FY20 [general obligation] G.O. bonds.[1]  Is that in addition to or as a part of our usual $90-$100 million in G.O. bonds?”  Ms. Wilson answers that it will be part of, meaning that $30 million would have to replace $30 million spent on something else.  It cannot mean anything else, no matter how confident the administration is about their financial tools.

Alright, finally Councilman Ball brings it all into focus with one overarching question: “[The administration’s] plan, when the fee is insufficient is to eliminate it and still meet this $222 million commitment without raising taxes, without cutting anything and staying within spending affordability?”

Ms. Wilson's answer, “Yes”.  Or put another way, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined”.

1 She lists them out by fiscal year:  FY17 $10 million, FY18 $19 million, FY19 $27 million, FY20 $30 million.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What are you going to cut, Mr. Executive?

I still have to finish my piece on the recommended changes to the budget but that post got interrupted AGAIN, this time by County Executive Kittleman’s long awaited proposal on the stormwater fee. 

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I found his press conference announcing his intent to introduce the legislation frustrating.  While of course I disagree with his proposal to “phase out” the stormwater fee that is not what frustrated me.  Instead I found the format, process, and “meat” of the proposal to be lacking and distasteful. 

I am not, at least not at this point, going to discuss or debate any of the internal frameworks of how the stormwater fee is levied.  Truthfully, I think there are some legitimate claims that the stormwater fee, as currently established is not effectively, efficiently, or fairly assessed.  Additionally I am not discussing how the revenue generated from the stormwater fee is spent.  While I think it is possible that claims could be made about how effective the projects paid for with the fee are, the Executive made no such claim in the press conference.  Instead, he made the audacious claim that program would remain as it is; the stormwater fee would just no longer be the means by which we pay for the program.

The essence of my problem with the Executive’s proposal can be summed up in one sentence “What are you going to cut, Mr. Executive?”  You see, the last Republican who was County Executive understood when and where dedicated funding streams made sense.  County Executive Chuck Ecker established a trash fee.    The revenue for the trash fee can only be used to pay for waste collection and processing.  I can’t speak to specific intent but I can say that fairly universally, dedicated funding sources are created in government revenue streams when goods or services are required of the government but the revenue for said goods or services often struggle to find solid backing competing against other priorities.  Additionally, it helps when, in the case of both the trash fee and the stormwater fee, the cost for that good or service can be directly linked to those who need the good or service or those who are causing the need.

What are you going to cut, Mr. Executive?

What Executive Kittleman has proposed is to eliminate the dedicated funding source for stormwater remediation.  Based on his press conference he supports protection of the Chesapeake Bay and has every intention of continuing full funding for the program, but will simply eliminate the source of its money.  If we take him at his word, then that means that he will need to cut from the budget the equivalent of what is raised through the stormwater fee. 

So I ask again What are you going to cut, Mr. Executive?

He admitted as much during his brief discussion of how budgets are about priorities and choices.  I agree with that statement though I find perplexing that the example he used was the police helicopter, a program he opposed funding while on the County Council, on the day after it was used to help a mentally ill man. 

As we know from the last budget, 59% of the budget is dedicated to education and 12% goes towards public safety.  While you may have an image of our County budget being gloated and filled with fat and/or pork, you would be mistaken.  So, I will ask one more time:

What are you going to cut, Mr. Executive?

Finally, the lack of process before the introduction is quite telling.  I heard nothing of any public process for the deliberation that lead to the proposal and furthermore, if he was serious about this proposal and it wasn’t just a political stunt as it appears to me to be, why would he not include any of the Democratic Council members in the deliberations?  Of course they disagree but this is a bill that has to pass the Council and if he actually wanted it to pass, he would have had to include them in the process to find a compromise everyone could stomach.  If, however, what he wanted was a political stunt then he would do . . . precisely what he did.

All of those aside though, let us not confuse the issue.  County Executive Kittleman’s proposal to phase out the stormwater fee will bleed funding from other projects.  This is a budget that already has a zero in such things as road resurfacing (covered in an earlier post) and while most would argue very much against that being budget fat, that was the fat he forced himself to cut in this last budget.  So one last time, What are you going to cut, Mr. Executive?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Not My Maryland

I don’t know, maybe other bloggers will understand what I’ve been going through or maybe it’s just me.  I don’t have writer’s block.  I now have five mostly written posts.  Every time I get most of the way through one something big happens or I have an idea I have to spit out and I derail one for a new one.  So, look forward to posts in the near future on the report from the Committee on Community Policing, the budget format changes discussed at the monthly meeting and maybe the recent comment craziness involving a sitting member of the Board of Education.

As I was going through the writing of these different posts the attacks in Paris and elsewhere happened and I immediately started writing something about it but to be honest, it felt hollow.  I’m a local blog through and through, and while I cherish opportunities to take (inter)national issues local, this wasn’t going.  Then Governor Hogan made his announcement about refugees. 

So here’s the thing, his first response was to take a step back and not join his Republican colleagues in declaring he would ban Syrian refugees from entering the state.  That sounded kind of promising.  While he stated that this was to think and make a “reasoned and careful” decision, what he ended up doing is, in my opinion, far more insidious and borders on despicable.  Here is his statement:

"Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety."

First of all I’m generally annoyed by this theory that seems to work in Maryland that “moderate Republican” really means the same reactionary policies and positions as their radical conservative colleagues but just stated in a calmer more measured tone.  That’s not what sent me around the bend though.  The Republican Governors at the least, have the courage of their convictions enough to stand behind their claims.  Of course they can’t legally fulfill their promise to keep refugees out of their states but they grab that fear mongering hate filled flag and stand tall waving it to and fro.

Governor Hogan, on the other hand, raises the same fear mongering hate filled flag, but then points to the feds and disavows any connection to the issue.  Now, here is my fear.  I am truly afraid that this is “good” politics.  He can tap into the electorate’s basest most vile ingrained fears, prejudices and hates and yet side stepped any personal accountability.  Let us be frank, tapping into fear and prejudice has almost never been a punished move in American politics.  Democrats, Republicans, and Independents have all rewarded politicians after they tap into those fears and watching it play out here in Maryland quite literally made me nauseous. 

Maybe, just maybe though, this will be one of those moments where the electorate can rise up to the ideals that fill Maryland and America with such potential greatness.  Maybe we can rise above our Governor and even hold him politically accountable for appealing to our lowest depths for short-term political gain.  For the love of humanity and the greatness that is America and the Old Line State, I hope so.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Death with Dignity

Somebody passed this message on to me and I thought about how to write about it but instead decided I should just let it speak for itself with a small preamble from me.  Councilman Jon Weinstein’s father died last week, just two days after Councilman Weinstein had posted the message below on his facebook page.  I am reposting it for a couple of reasons.  One is that it seems like a small but important token of sympathy for an elected official who I do not know except for in passing but have respect for.  Secondly though, this is actually, to me, politics, at it’s greatest.  Councilman Weinstein is taking his very personal experience and translating it into his professional life as a politician in search of how we as a society can make policies that support and strengthen our humanity.  My thoughts go out to the entire Weinstein family.

I thought long and hard about posting the following. I talked with my mother about whether she was comfortable with this post and whether she thought my dad would be ok with it too. She encouraged me to go forward and share the following...

My dad is dying. He would say he's been dying since he was born in 1931 ... that's his sense of humor. Now, his death is on the horizon. Dad survived a triple bypass and heart valve replacement 16 months ago, but was diagnosed with "small cell" cancer earlier this year. Along with his doctors, the decision was made to stop his treatments in August... and now we wait.

For the past month or so he had good days and bad; now we’re measuring “good” differently - moment by moment and we’re thankful for any signs of my “old” dad. For the past few weeks, as his condition has worsened I have seen this once proud and stubborn (in a good way) man lose his identity to the disease. His corny jokes and sharp wit have faded. Weeks ago he lost the ability to take care of himself and my mother ... something they both have relied on for most of their 60 years of marriage. Now he struggles to speak, stay awake, and comprehend his surroundings.

We have attended to the practical things ... living wills, powers of attorney, disposing of his car, and other mundane, yet important actions. However, as his body fails and his mind slips away he is denied the power to exercise control over his own life as it reaches the end.

For the past couple of years my parents have been educating themselves about, and advocating for, death with dignity. We have engaged in academic, ethical, and practical discussions on the topic. Now the topic is personal and my father should have the right to a death with dignity. With an appropriate diagnosis, the guidance of physicians, and consultation with his family and his faith, he should have one more tool available to address his terminal condition. The Maryland House of Delegates started down this path in 2015 with HB1021 - the Death with Dignity Act; following the lead of states like Washington, Oregon, and Vermont. As a legislator myself, I know that every issue has many valid arguments for and against. This issue and this bill is a matter of basic human rights. I urge the Maryland House and Senate to take up this bill, put their full support behind it, and pass it in 2016 for people like my dad. I ask you consider contacting members of the Maryland House and Senate to add your voice too.

My dad's name is Jack and while he doesn’t resemble the man I love, he will be my dad forever. He has been the best dad and grandfather one could ever hope for and he deserves the right to die with the same level of dignity that he has lived his 84+ years.

[My father passed away, just two days after this post on October 24. I was at his side when the pain and distress of his condition ceased.]

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ah Watson! The Needle!

The title is a quote from Sherlock Holmes (who was a cocaine addict not a heroin addict) in the Hound of the Baskervilles.

As is generally my process I waited a little bit before I wrote about this editorial in last week’s Flier.  As the ideas bounced around in my head though I got angrier, not calmer.  The editorial is discussing the $50,000 grant given to Howard County Department of Corrections by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention to combat heroin addiction.  If you want more you can read about it in this article.

Before I start, I want to say off the bat that my beef is with the editorial and not the grant.  I will cover that later but I want to say that loud and clear.  So let me start with the silly/stupid stuff that irritates me about the editorial.

“Where do you get heroin? Go to a big city ghetto, find a dark alley, do the special knock on a steel door and ask for Omar. Slide your money under the door and packets of heroin slide back.”

“Howard, one of the most prosperous counties in the nation, might seem to be immune to a scourge that is associated with blight and urban poverty, as seen in the TV mini-series ‘The Wire.’”

Any self respecting Baltimore area resident knows that Omar wasn’t a dealer but a stick up man (the ole rip and run) and that The Wire was not a mini series.  Of course, that’s not the heart of my problem with the editorial but damn it’s kind of annoying.  One last block quote before I get into the heart of my problem with this editorial.

“The cynical might draw conclusions about smack being an old plague in the minority ghettos, but alarm bells are now going off after it has begun to vex white suburbia. With that, at least, comes new approaches based on prevention, education and treatment instead of incarceration.”

It really is hard to put into words how horrible and racist this is, feeding on old and wildly outdated stereotype about heroin use.  More to the point though, the fact that the editorial actually said “alarm bells are now going off after it has begun to vex white suburbia. With that, at least, comes new approaches based on prevention, education and treatment instead of incarceration.”  In other words now that rich white people use heroin maybe we shouldn’t throw addicts in jail.  I don’t disagree with the statement just that the authors felt comfortable writing it without acknowledging how monumentally fucked [1] up it is that it’s true.

Finally, although it doesn’t jibe with the rest of my points, the author’s understanding of basic math is suspect.  “But a growing trend here is clear. Last year, the county recorded 18 non-fatal overdoses. So far this year, the number is 14.”  18 in a year is 1.5 a month and 14 on October 14 is roughly 1.47 a month.  That’s not exactly a clear trend.

Let me be clear, I think this grant is good news.  I think the work done before the grant and now with the grant is fantastic and likely a model.  Personally, I am also happy that drug education in Howard County can look to the real issues and use real science backed solutions as opposed to the HC Drug Free “Say no to drugs” abstinence-only style waste of resources that have been front and center in the very recent past.

[1] I certainly debated the use of this word, however in the end decided that there is simply no other word in the English language that successfully illustrated the point.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hurst So Good

In many ways, at the Council session last week, what we saw at the very end of the session was a relatively calm look into what democratic checks and balances look like.  Nobody got hurt in the process and the end result is one that I’m actually pretty happy about.  The issue at hand was the selling of the “Hurst property” near the corner of Rt. 1 and Whiskey Bottom Rd.

I talked about this and the other property sales in this post.  I am not going to re-hash all that I talked about in that post but for this post’s purpose the relevant piece of information is that, under the Ulman Administration, this particular property was purchased with the intent of having a project developed that would assist in revitalizing Rt. 1.  The current administration appears to have determined that the potential a project on this site has for revitalizing Rt. 1 is not out weighed by the County’s need to supplement our budget in every way possible (specifically in these somewhat difficult times). 

As I said in that last post, I honestly believe that the justification for buying it and the justification for selling it are valid and simply indicative of two different governing styles.  So, County Executive Kittleman, following his style, proposes in his now approved budget that this property be sold to generate revenue.  Procedurally, disposing of any real property requires Council approval and so a resolution allowing for the sale of the Hurst property is what was up for vote Monday night.

That’s where the democratic checks and balances piece comes onto the scene.  The Council, led in this instance by Councilwoman Terrasa, wanted to follow through on the potential for that site to spur Rt. 1 revitalization and so passed an amendment that puts together a specific process for reviewing and determining who purchases the property.  Without getting into too many details, the core concept is that, with the assistance of a community input, each proposal will be considered primarily for the project it proposes and its potential for positive impact on Rt. 1 rather than simply offer price.

Councilman Fox did discuss his concern that this might take away too much of the County’s potential revenue from the sale and then introduced and got passed an amendment to limit the time the process can take.  He also introduced but failed to get passed a somewhat convoluted amendment that pushed offer price to a more prevalent position in the consideration.  The amendment to change the process to include the community and to prioritize revitalization potential in the sale as well as the whole resolution passed 5-0.

There are numerous examples of how a single piece of property became a cornerstone for the revitalization of a surrounding neighborhood.  Certainly Harbor Place in Baltimore, the Verizon Center in DC and AFI Theater in Silver Spring jump to mind.  While those are big examples and I doubt anyone wants a sports arena here, they do show that it is possible.  I also want to be clear that I see this as a beautiful example of creative and successful government intervention.  The County purchased a distressed piece of property and is now selling it in a way that maximizes its revitalization potential.  THIS is what democracy looks like.

I have no concept as to where the administration stands on including this process in the sale of the property but I do want to be clear in that, I am not establishing the administration as the antagonist in this story.  This story, at least as it stands now, shows that true and effective check and balance government can create winners all the way around.  Everyone, including the politicians and the community and the county as a whole, will be getting the lion’s share of what we/they could ask for and so . . . it was a good day.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Islamaphobia, Coming to a HoCo Near You

I said in September I would get back to 2-3 times a week but here’s my problem:  Nominations and budgets and hyper-local things have been flowing onto the page, but I want, desperately sometimes, to talk about the bigger and harder issues.  Every time I do, though, it feels somewhat incomplete, choppy, and stunted.  I’ve contemplated shelving these issues, but they are too important to wait for better writing. 

So shortly after I posted about Ahmed Mohammed, the kid who was arrested for making a clock, I read about this. A “far-right patriot group” is hosting a protest outside Howard County’s very own Dar Al-Taqwa because, as they put it, “WE ARE INVOKING OUR 1ST AMENDMENT RIGHT ABOUT OUR FEELING OF ISLAM IN AMERICA”.

The first thing I thought about when I saw this was all of the (mostly national) Republicans who demanded moderate Muslim leaders vociferously denounce radical Muslims and Muslim terrorists.  This argument is bunk for too many reasons to count, but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with a healthy dose of quid pro quo.   I want to demand that more mainstream conservatives actively and publicly denounce this radical arm of their ideology lest they be accused of being complicit.  In Howard County Dar Al-Taqwa is in the districts of Greg Fox, Trent Kittleman, Warren Miller, and Gail Bates.

The argument is bunk when applied to “moderate Muslim leaders” and so it’s not fair to apply it to those elected officials mentioned above, unless they themselves have called on moderate Muslim leaders to denounce radical Muslims.  Additionally, I’m not fond of over politicizing this, this should be an opportunity to stand up against hate across party lines.  I also have little doubt that the abhorrent reception Dar-us-Salaam received from our community when they proposed moving into Woodmont Academy spread across the political spectrum.[1] 

It is also worth contemplating, although important to admit that it is just speculative contemplation, whether or not this is another example of the community at large reaping what we sow.  Of all the mosques in America or even in the DC area, why did this group pick Dar Al-Taqwa?  Is it possible that they believed, based on the opposition to Dar-Us-Salaam, that they might receive support from the community?

On how we should respond as a community, I am truthfully torn.  On the one hand I feel like this group should just be completely ignored.  Their viewpoints and their little rally are so far out of mainstream society that doing something in response gives them a level of validation they do not deserve.  Additionally, it’s likely what they are hoping for because then they will get attention, which is clearly a primary goal for the group.

On the other hand, does ignoring them send a message to their targets that we do not care or even do not disagree with their hate?  Should we instead organize a counter rally in support of Dar Al-Taqwa with political leaders, civic leaders, and religious leaders gathering as one to surround Dar Al-Taqwa with love instead of hate?

The answer must lie with the leaders of Dar Al-Taqwa.  My hope is that all of the above mentioned leaders would reach out to them in the next week and show them love and support and ask them how they want us to proceed.  Simply put, this is their call and any well-intentioned move done without their leadership nearly defeats the point.

[1] Two things worth noting about this article.  The first is that the lawyers for the group fighting Dar-Us-Salaam were Joan Becker and Paul Skalny and the quoted member of the group is David Yungmann.  All of them are noted Howard County Republican activists.  The second thing is that everyone in this article (and others) stay pretty much on message that the issue is traffic and such and to be sure this was a legitimate concern.  However, if you attended any of the meetings or hearings the Islamaphobia was, at best, thinly veiled.