Virtual Town Hall Meeting Transcript (Wednesday, September 23, 2009)
Mr. Leggett: Hello, and welcome to today's live discussion. I am County Executive Ike Leggett and I welcome your questions. Let us get started.
Allen from Mid County
What is the County's policy on fuel consumption for public safety vehicles, specifically fire engines? Several times I have witnessed fire trucks idling in front of supermarkets, in some cases for upwards of 10-15 minutes, while firefighters are grocery shopping inside. This is a waste of gas. They shoud be required to turn off the engines rather than burn fuel.
Mr. Leggett: This is a good question. Thank you for asking. Public safety vehicles must remain running when they are away from the station in order to keep the onboard computers powered so that they can continue to receive information. The only time a vehicle engine is shut down when out of the station is when the crew is inside a high-rise building and the driver cannot stay with the vehicle. At all other times, the vehicle is left running to keep the computer-aided dispatch and other equipment powered. The vehicles are designed so that there is not a gross consumption of fuel when idling. In fact, the fuel use at idle is negligible.
Joe from Silver Spring
How will your Smart Growth Initiative work?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
I appreciate the County Council’s approval yesterday of full funding for the purchase of the Webb Tract, a key property south of the County Airpark. I’m glad that, through negotiation, we were able to save taxpayers $225,000 off the purchase price.
My Smart Growth Initiative seeks to preserve and expand good quality jobs, bolster the County’s emphasis in biotechnology, create thousands of units of transit-oriented housing, and create a more effective and cost-efficient County government.
The Smart Growth Initiative does this by selling or swapping County-owned land that can more efficiently be used for the expansion of biotechnology efforts or for housing near the Shady Grove Metro. It does so by investing capital spending already planned in new County facilities that can serve us for decades to come, rather than putting monies into obsolete or inadequate facilities. It will enable the County to save money by moving out of more expensive leased space.
Overall, the project will be cost-neutral in terms of just County expenditures. It will, however, significantly strengthen the County’s tax base by creating new, high-quality jobs and fostering growth and expansion of the County’s biotechnology sector.
Relocation of the 100-acre County Service Park, located right next to the Shady Grove Metro, will allow development of thousands of new housing units, many affordable and workforce housing. Relocation of the current 52-acre Public Service Training Academy -- now ringed by Johns Hopkins, the Universities of Maryland at Shady Grove, and the County’s Life Sciences Center – will provide the space for communities where the scientists and biotech workers of tomorrow can live and work, served by the Corridor Cities Transitway, running along I-270 from Shady Grove.
Police and Fire & Rescue will be located together on a new Public Safety campus in the former National Geographic Building off Route 28 in Darnestown, upgrading outmoded Police facilities, saving money on expensive leased space, and improving public safety effectiveness. A new state-of-the-art Public Safety Training Academy will operate on the Webb Tract site just south of the County Airpark, providing top-notch training to those who protect our lives and property, day in and day out.
Montgomery County is working with communities throughout the County to be a good neighbor, minimizing impacts of relocated functions while maximizing advantages in protecting green space, mitigating traffic, and addressing quality-of-life concerns.
The Smart Growth Initiative is building tomorrow’s Montgomery today – good jobs, life-changing technology, transit-oriented housing, and cost-effective County government.
Donald Trahan from Mid County
Please justify furloughs for county employees to cover a $550 million dollar gap in your budget, after you spent $24, 750 on a two day retreat for yourself and your senior staff. Is clarifying and focusing your objectives for the County more important that allowing a county employee to feed his family?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question but I think you have inaccurate information.
All corporations, associations and governments worth their salt invest in leadership development. Indeed, in tough fiscal times, leadership development is needed more because many of our leaders in charge of departments have to do more with less.
Almost every jurisdiction invests millions toward employee development. I was quite prudent in leadership development for my staff and department directors. I limited expenditures with a leadership development contract that cost less than $25,000 (in a $4.4 billion budget), involving 50 County managers who oversee 10,000 employees.
The leadership development contract involved months of work that culminated in a two-day retreat – and included follow-up work. The retreat hours were a small fraction of the total. The retreat in question was held at a County-owned park facility, not some resort.
And, over the last three years, I have closed budget shortfalls of $1.2 billion. This year’s budget has the lowest rate of growth in 18 years – an actual decrease over the previous year. And it includes a reduction in my own office budget of nearly 9 percent. I have already voluntarily refused to accept a salary increase required by County law and have pledged to further reduce my own pay consistent with whatever I recommend for other County employees.
I have sought to avoid furloughs of County employees, given the hiring freeze, an end to cost-of-living increases and the abolishment of more than 600 positions over the past two years. Depending on possible future state cuts and the pace of the economic recovery, however, they remain on the table as options.
Kathy from Mid County
How is the relocation of some of the County Service Parks to Casey 6, a property that is too small to handle the facilities planned for it, a good use of tax payer dollars? Revenue neutral? NOT! Please explain this one.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
The relocation of two County uses to Casey 6 and 7 is smart growth. It will 1) reduce the number of industrial uses in the area; 2) create transit oriented development and amenities next to Metro; 3) create pedestrian and bicycle connections for surrounding communities; and 4) direct truck traffic away from Washington Grove. This will benefit local communities, including the Town of Washington Grove, and the County as a whole. The planned uses of the Casey 6 and 7 parcels are referenced in the Shady Grove Sector Plan as approved by the County Council.
I think it is important to recognize that the County’s uses are not additional industrial uses near the Town of Washington Grove. They already exist next to the Shady Grove Metro Station which is within one mile of the Town. By moving them ½ mile to the other side of Shady Grove Road, as recommended by the Shady Grove Sector Plan, the County is able to implement the Sector Plan which also calls for the creation of an urban village next to Metro. These uses will be separated from the Town by an existing 10 acre industrial use and Railroad Street. My staff has met with the Mayor of Washington Grove, the Shady Grove Sector Plan Advisory Group, which includes Washington Grove representation and others. More than 1 ½ years ago, the Town asked that we include in our plans an alternative access for the industrial use that abuts Washington Grove so that trucks would be directed away from the Town. We agreed to do that.
The housing and amenities that will go with the new development will significantly improve the quality of the entire area, including the Town. Implementation of the Sector Plan will reduce the overall industrial nature of the locale in which Washington Grove is located, create improved retail and recreation opportunities, and provide open space that does not currently exist. This project which is part of my Smart Growth Initiative will create a pedestrian friendly environment for the residents of Washington Grove and other neighborhoods to walk or bicycle to the Shady Grove Metro Station -- important opportunities that do not presently exist. The remaining industrial uses next to the metro station will be relocated out of the vicinity. Thus the area will realize a significant reduction of industrial uses.
As with every project that the County undertakes, it is very important that we seek and obtain public input into the design of the proposed project. I hope that the community will engage in the design reviews provided so that the best possible design can be achieved.
Steve from Silver Spring
Walter Reed Hospital’s move to Bethesda is going to mean loads of new traffic. How are we getting ready to make sure that Rockville Pike and surrounding neighborhoods don’t pay too heavy a price?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I am also concerned with the potential for a significant increase in traffic related to the Walter Reed move to Bethesda. I have been working for nearly two years with the State and Federal levels of government to prepare an area that is already congested for the influx of patients and employees. Two years ago, I convened a working group consisting of all the stakeholders from the community, the State, the federal government and the County to identify options for dealing with the traffic. Clearly, this is an issue that requires significant investment from the Federal Government, and Congressman Van Hollen and Senators Mikulski have provided significant federal funding to begin to construct some of the transit and road improvements that are necessary. The State has also provided funds to improve some of the intersections surrounding this facility. But more needs to be done. The County has applied for a federal grant to build an underpass under Route 355. This will allow for safer pedestrian access from the Metro Station to the Bethesda Naval Hospital campus. In addition, we continue to meet with officials from the Federal government and State to press our case that this is a critical federal installation where, if the patients and employees are stuck in gridlock, the mission suffers. I will be keeping the surrounding communities apprised of our progress through community newsletters.
Again, thank you for your question.
Joe from Rockville
Will the county government offer free flu vaccinations for employees this year? Will this the include the H1N1 vaccination?
Mr. Leggett: Yes, we are currently offering free seasonal flu shots for County employees and will also offer H1N1 vaccine by late October -- first to first responders and health workers and, by December, when more vaccines are available, to all.
We are working closely with MCPS on school vaccinations for seasonal flu and H1N1. With H1N1 we will focus on highest risk groups -- children and folks with underlying conditions that might make them vulnerable.
Everybody can help lower their chances of catching the flu by washing their hands and of spreading the flu by staying home when sick.
Get lots more information on this from our website.
Stephanie from Silver Spring
Will the County Council have an opportunity to revisit the issue of the proposed pedestrian bridge to the new Silver Spring Library? It would be a shame for an exciting, state-of-the-art library to be built in currently underserved Silver Spring without appropriate access for all library users. A library that begins on the 3rd floor of the building next to what will become a 5-way intersection (including 180 ft light rail trains passing through every few minutes during rush hour) and containing a Disabilities Resource Collection and expanded children's facilities needs to reach out to patrons of many backgrounds and abilities. A direct link via pedestrian bridge to an existing county parking garage would draw many people to a vibrant new Silver Spring resource and to surrounding businesses.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I agree with you and was very disappointed that the Council did not approve the Silver Spring Library project with the pedestrian bridge as I had proposed. I continue to believe the bridge is critical to providing the community with full and safe access to this important community resource. I have instructed my staff to proceed with the design of the library in a manner that does not preclude the ability to add a bridge at a later time. This will allow us to bid this project with a bridge as an option. In the meantime, I would urge you to contact the Council and let them know your views on this issue.
Christina from Silver Spring
What is your reaction to a recent article about possible abuse of the county's tuition reimbursemement system. Do you have the appropriate controls in place to prevent this from happeneing again?
Mr. Leggett: For three decades our Tuition Assistance Program has helped County employees get valuable training and education to better prepare them to serve the County and improve themselves professionally. Questions have been raised recently about a few courses out of the hundreds that have been approved that meet all of the requirements.
I want to make sure that every dollar spent is spent appropriately. Effective immediately, department directors will have to sign off personally on their employees' requests or, in the case of public safety agencies, review each request and make a recommendation to the Human Resources director.
We will be looking at other options as well to make sure the whole program is working as it should.
Sam from Up County
What are you doing to keep Sligo Golf Course open?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I believe that losing the Sligo Golf Course as a community recreational asset would be unfortunate. I have asked the Council to approve $150,000 to keep Sligo open and give us time to identify options for ensuring the long-term viability of the Sligo Creek Golf Course. I recommended that we create a task force of governmental officials, community and business leaders to quickly identify and evaluate long-term options to retain Sligo as a golf facility. The Council held a public hearing on my proposal yesterday and will be acting on the funding request soon. Please let the Council know your views. Thank you again.
Pablo from Rockville
Can you talk briefly about Montrose Parkway East. When is ground going to be broken?
Mr. Leggett: Construction is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2013. Once the state-built intersection at Rockville Pike and Montrose Road is finished, we will start on this important link in our east-west transportation network in our County. There will be challenges, for example, with accomodating the railroad, but we will move ahead.
DEBORAH from Up County
I interested in opening a business here in Montgomery County and would like some help on starting my business if you can start me in the right direction.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you very much for your question. I am hopeful that as the economy recovers, more people such as yourself will be starting businesses. The County Department of Economic Development has information that can help you in your new undertaking. Please call the Department of Economic Development at (240) 777-2000. Thank you.
Chris from Rockville
Other counties have decided to furlough employees to save money. Are you going to do that?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, while the economy is showing some signs of recovery, particularly at the State level revenues are still lagging behind the projected need to sustain programs and services. In the last month, we were told by the State that they were reducing their payments to the County for various programs by over $20 million. The State just announced that their revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year is now double what they had been projecting and now stands at two billion dollars. It is likely that the State will turn to the County for additional reductions. Therefore, I have not precluded the option of furloughs for County employees, though I continue to maintain that they are the least desirable option, for a number of reasons. We have taken a number of other significant actions that have impacted our employees. We eliminated COLAs, reduced our contribution to the retiree health program, froze jobs, and eliminated well over 600 positions. In less than three years, I have closed $1.2 billion in budget gaps. Despite all of this, we still have a significant challenge for FY2011. Furloughs could very well be part of the solution, however, it does not save as much money as some of the actions we have already taken. If I furlough all County employees, including public safety workers, this would only save $2 million per day. Our gap for FY2011 currently stands at $370 million. At $2 million per day, and we address the challenge with furloughs alone, it would mean that we would have to close the government for more than six months out of the year. I will continue to evaluate this as a potential option, along with some of the other actions we've taken.
Josh from Not from Montgomery County
You have taken heat for your plans to move forward with the helicopter program for the police department. You have a reputation for being fiscally prudent and your support of this program seems to be out of line with your fiscal policies. Please comment. Thank you.
Mr. Leggett: We have a unique opportunity here to strengthen public safety, just as nearly all our surrounding jurisdictions have done. The County will receive two donated helicopters with operations funded wholly by a federal grant and a seized drug assets funds. We already have hangar space. We have trained pilots already on the Police force.
For no investment in taxpayer monies, we get a two-year pilot program to see if a helicopter unit will act as the "force-multiplier" that Chief Manger believes it will be. It will help us with anti-drug operations, traffic, lost persons searches, pursuit of criminals, and more -- and save us lots of valuable police time. At the end of two years, we can evaluate whether to go forward.
While I was on the Council, I opposed such a unit -- because it involved a multi-million investment up front to buy the copters. What I have asked the Council to do is to have a test program for two years, with no direct taxpayer dollars. After this period, we will then determine whether helicopters will be an effective use of our resources. It is surprising to me that such a program is generating such a reaction from some.
Yusuf from Mid County
My assessments tax went up and housing market
are down, why this happing during this recession?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. It gives me an opportunity to speak to a very confusing by-product of our State assessment system. We are on a three-year assessment cycle, meaning that any particular home is reassessed only once every three years. At the same time, the County caps the amount of assessed increase to 10% in any one year. The assessment of many residential properties sky-rocketed in the last decade, but because of the 10% caps, the taxable assessment had not reached its full potential. Couple this policy with the fact that if you are in the group of homes that was last assessed three years ago, the decline in the housing market may not yet be reflected in your assessment and you could still be seeing an increase in your property tax assessment.
Mr. Leggett: That's all the time we have for today. Any questions I didn't get to I'll be sure to respond to off-line. Thank you for joining me for this online discussion.