Virtual Town Hall Meeting Transcript (Wednesday, June 22, 2011)
Mr. Leggett: Good afternoon. Welcome to today's live discussion. I am looking forward to your questions, so let us get started.
Fred from Up County
Mr. Leggett - do you foresee budgetary challenges in fiscal year 2013 similar to those experenced during the past several fiscal years? Also what is the projected gap based on current projections? Thank you.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
From the start, I focused on reducing unsustainable spending trends by County government. The economic downturn made that even more essential. During my five years, I’ve closed $2.5 billion in budget gaps. For the current year alone, that gap was nearly $1 billion. For the year that begins July 1, it was $300 million. For the next fiscal year, we estimate the shortfall will be down to $148 million. Clearly we are moving in the right direction but many challenges remain. We must continue our efforts to ensure fiscal accountability while protecting critical services.
Kevin Rowe from Rockville
For the second time under your watch, we are having county-wide traffic signal problems. Clearly, we do not have qualified people in DPW and we invest more in County Executive bathrooms than in infrastructure that affects the taxpayers When will there be accountability in your administration on this issue?
Mr. Leggett: Montgomery County’s traffic management system works invisibly every day to help our commuters get where they need to go. Our real-time management system enables us to centrally change traffic signal timing and traffic signal coordination at all 835 signaled intersections to reduce congestion and respond to emergencies. That ability has made us a leader in the region.
The central traffic signalization computer dates to 1980. When I took office in 2006, it was 26 years old and counting and no provision had been made for replacement. In part, I guess that was because the system had never had a problem and, perhaps, other County needs seemed more pressing than a piece of technology that seemed to work just fine.
I, however, changed that. I initiated a six-year plan for a $35 million replacement for upgrading and modernization-- $12 million of it in State of Maryland dollars. We were in the second year of that six-year process – doing the design and planning – when the system failed on November 4, 2009. After that I accelerated the process – which must be staged over time -- even more.
Half of the 835 signaled intersections have been modernized – and none of them were affected by the post-storm blip last night that left 200 signals with non-rush hour cycling. Full restoration is in progress.
I am proud of our Department of Transportation staff, many of whom labored through the night to fix the problem – and I am proud of the many millions of dollars we continue to invest in County infrastructure – for present and future needs.
Pam from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
I am concerned about the plans to give $4 million to Costco as an incentive to come to Wheaton Plaza. I feel the money could be better used to improve social programs in the County, such as funding of food banks. Please tell us whether the subsidy is likely to occur and please justify the County's decision to pursue this financial activity in a time of budget cuts.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
The COSTCO project is a money-maker – not a money-taker – for the County, and will improve the social conditions for many of the people you seek to help by bolstering our tax base.
- Infuse approximately $60 million in capital investment into downtown Wheaton;
- Stimulate the creation of 475 permanent jobs and 300 temporary constructions jobs;
- Provide a retail anchor with a regional draw to occupy the Westfield mall space vacated by Hecht’s;
- Bring greater foot traffic to the mall and help spur new economic activity that will support other small businesses in the Wheaton business district; and
- Generate more than $1 million annually for the County’s tax coffers, boosting the County’s tax base.
I understand there are members of the community who support COSTCO but not necessarily the related Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) that will permit the development of the required filling station associated with this project, which will go through the special exception process. That process will allow for significant community input and that is all to the good.
I have long been committed to the revitalization of downtown Wheaton, and believe that the COSTCO project is one of many endeavors that will enhance the ability of this central business district to thrive economically.
Laura from Rockville
This is not a question. I would just like to communicate to County Exec. Isiah Leggett that I am a long-time county resident and admirer of his leadership. I think he is doing an outstanding job, particularly in this time of economic austerity and budgetary limitations. Mr. Leggett knows how to lead, and deliver hard news when necessary, without being divisive. I commend him and thank him for his lengthy and ongoing public service. It means a lot to me and my family. Thank you.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question and your kind words. It is my honor to serve you and the residents of Montgomery County as County Executive. I will always work diligently to continue to earn your trust and respect.
Zafar from Silver Spring
My question is about the state medical assistance program.
How long does it take to get a medical card to get the state provided medical assistance?
I’ve been submitted all required and necessary documentation on September 2010, when I lost my job and become un-employed. Back on June 2010 my wife became heart patient and she had gone through heart surgery I had job at that time and everything was cover.
But now she and I’ve been facing very hard time she needs to get medical card on ASAP but still waiting to get one since last September 2010, she called so times to the concerning office but every time she get the response back we are missing this, missing that. She is very frustrated with this situation and might get another stroke.
How long does it take to get medical card.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. First, I am sorry that you lost your job and for your wife's illness. Medical assistance is a state program, however, the County Dept. of Health and Human Services may be able to assist you with your application. I suggest that you contact Ms. JoAnn Barnes at 240-777-3850 for assistance.
I wish you and your wife well. Please keep me posted on your progress. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
J Frederick from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
Simple ? Just why did you negociate and sign an agreement regarding the Brickyard Road without input from those of us that matter!!!! Despite your feeling the need for more rec areas, don't you think this was sly and very underhanded....I most certainly do, and I bet most of us here feel that way too!!!!!!
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. Yes, your concerns do matter. This is why we have a Potomac Master Plan that has been approved that indicates the need for more ball fields.
Montgomery County has not leased land to or contracted with anyone to construct soccer fields at Brickyard Road. The County is currently seeking input from the community on implementation prior to issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) -- and received more than 150 specific suggestions from breakout sessions held in the community two weeks ago. The responses to that RFP will determine whether there is a suitable partner to work with the County in a public-private partnership on the project, which would develop, construct, and maintain the fields at no cost to County taxpayers. No decision has been or will be made in advance of that process.
There have now been two community-wide meetings on the issue and, just this week, I met for two hours with a group of Brickyard communitiy leaders regarding this project. In addition, I have met with and actually walked the site with the farmer who has the lease to hear his concerns regarding the land -- which is publicly owned property.
The Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission in its 2005 PROS plan referenced the critical need for more multipurpose rectangular fields, especially in the Down County. Specifically, it calls for an additional 88 multi-purpose rectangular fields in the County by 2020. Potomac and Bethesda, in particular, have huge numbers of youth soccer players.
The Potomac Master Plan, approved by the County Council in 2002 following exhaustive hearings and work sessions, explicitly recognizes that “surplused and other future school sites” offer potential for fulfilling some of the recreation needs of the Potomac Subregion. The Master Plan specifically points to the Brickyard site as suitable for ball fields if it is not used as a school.
The County has agreed to allow the private, for-profit commercial farmer currently working the 20-acre tract (in addition to his 160 acres in Frederick County) to continue his operation through the growing season.
The County has already devoted over 93,000 acres -- nearly 40 percent of the County’s land area -- to an agricultural reserve. Within that acreage there are already areas being farmed organically -- and additional opportunities exist for more organic farming uses and the County is working with the private farmer toward that end.
In addition, of course, there will be an opportunity for more community input when the project goes before the County Planning Board.
Cook from Up County
On your 311 website the Stats page indicates that your highest call volume is Rideon bus schedules. Why is the County paying people to field telephone calls about bus schedules when this information is already on-line? Paying call takers to relay information that is already available on-line isn't the best use of taxpayer money.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
Our 311 Call Center receives many calls about Ride On bus schedules and service, which is the highest single category of calls. Even though much information is on-line (and later this summer smart phone users will be able to access such information – and actual bus arrival times-- from their phones), many people call for this info. Some don’t have computers or feel more comfortable calling. Others are actually at their bus stop waiting for their bus and are seeking information on arrival times.
You are right. It does save money when people can access this information online, and we have tried to advance that in a number of ways. Our 311 system was the first in the nation to roll out a web portal at the same time as the call center began operating. It is our hope that as we continue to provide additional information and other means to learn more about Ride On, this segment of calls will be significantly reduced. However, the vast number of calls to MC311 are about many other issues that are important to County residents.
So long as people call, our 311 Call Center will do its best to help. By the way, 311 just celebrated its one-year anniversary and received its 500,000th inquiry.
DAVID from Mid County
What is the current status of the new animal shelter to be constructed at the intersection of Muncaster Mill Road and Air Park Road? Will it open on schedule in 2013?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
We are looking to complete the new animal shelter on schedule, in spring of 2013.
Kimberly from Mid County
Why does the county allow a commercial business to operate illegally on residential property? Why does the county allow commercial buildings to be contructed without building permits on residential property? Why does the county allow illegal dumping on residential property in a special protection area that has polluted my well water?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I assure you that the County does not allow the violations of the ordinances that you describe. When violations are reported or discovered by inspectors, appropriate action is taken. It is impossible for County inspectors to inspect the entire county all the time. The County government relies upon responsible citizens to assist in enforcement work by reporting code violations. I suggest that you call 311 when you detect a violation. By doing so, the appropriate enforcement agency will respond.
Courtney from Up County
Hello - why did you pull the County out of the Pepco investigation? Your decision seems penny wise but pound foolish.
Mr. Leggett: Thanks for your question.
Holding Pepco accountable and making sure Montgomery County residents and businesses get the reliable electricity they deserve is a major priority of mine. I won’t rest until we change the status quo.
We didn’t pull the County out of the state Public Service Commission process at all. The difference here was tactics, not substance -- and had zero bearing on keeping the heat on Pepco.
On advice of the County Attorney, our intent was to make sure the Public Service Commission was able to enter our excellent Work Group report on Pepco's (and PSC's flaws) into evidence into the case regarding Pepco AND save County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars at the same time that would have been squandered over months in jousting with Pepco lawyers -- jousting that would have delayed possible PSC actions. Same result, less time, less risk of legal technicalities.
My view remains that original approach was just as effective -- got it introduced as evidence, saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, avoided endless legal wrangling. Most recently, we have been able to resolve our evidentiary challenges with the PSC, and we are now a full party to the proceedings, as originally anticipated.
Again, the status quo is unacceptable.
Johnny from Mid County
Once plastic bag tax revenues decline due to fewer shoppers and merchants using them in the future, how then will enforcement of this law be funded? Isn't this a case of creating greater costs and reduced benefits to county taxpayers over the long haul?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. When I proposed the bag tax, I did so as an environmental protection step not as a revenue program. I believe that moving away from plastic bags will enhance our streams and the bay as well as protect wildlife.
The tax is intended to encourage even more County residents to use reusable bags. Currently, we spend more than $3 million for cleanup in the County, a substantial portion of which are plastic or paper bags. Based on our projections adn the experience in the District of Columbia which has a similar law, I believe the County will have sufficient funds to properly enforce this law.
Christopher from Up County
Why do you not appreciate the work public service does for this county and why does your regime spend beyond its means?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
I do, of course, value the work of our public employees and the public service they do. I very much appreciate the sacrifices they have made to help make the County one of the best places to live in America. However, when 80 percent of the County budget consists of salaries, wages, and benefits, it is wholly unrealistic to think you can reduce spending without affecting many of our County employees. For the coming year, the $300 million budget gap we just closed, only $30 million of that was closed through changes I proposed in County employee health benefits and retirement.
The year before I took office as County Executive in 2006, County tax-supported spending increased by 14 percent. It increased over 40 percent in the three years before I took office. The total increase for my five years as County Executive is actually zero -- that’s right, zero. I have made hard choices to reduce spending and change the way County government does business. My administration (or as you described, "regime")has done more in reducing County spending and providing sustainable budgets than any other administrations in recent County history. Challenges remain, depending on what happens with the national economy and at the state level, and we will continue to address those challenges.
Lee from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
Some of our older 911 ambulances have very loud motor noises when they are idling while the attendants are inside residences with patients, often exceeding 1/2 hour. As I understand it, our newer 911 ambulances are not so noisy.
Since I live in a senior citizen complex, we are awakened often by the noisy units. Can and will you arrange to minimize use of the noisy units at night?. When will the noisy units be modified or replaced? Thanks.
Mr. Leggett: Thanks for your question and sorry that some ambulances awaken you and your neighbors. We are replacing these older units with new ones as we can afford them. You may recall that last year I proposed an Emergency Medical Services Transport fee, to be paid by Medicare and private insurance. The fee was overturned in a public referendum last fall. With the annual $14 million from that fee, we would have been able to accelerate the replacement of older equipment.
Fred from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
There has been an upsurge of breakins and thefts into houses, garages and autos in the Brookdale Subdivision of Chevy Chase during the past year.. Is there anything the County can do to alleviate this growing and potentially dangerous problem. Thanks for your response.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your comment and question. While crime statistics for 2010 were just released showing a 7.5% overall decrease in the rate of crime and a 13% decrease in serious crime in Montgomery County, I am well aware that when crime strikes a community or individual it can be a great hardship. I will convey your concern about Brookdale to the Second District police commander.
Please keep me posted on this matter.
Mr. Leggett: Unfortunately, we are out of time. Thank you for joining me today, and thank you for all of your questions. Until our next live discussion, you can keep up with County news by subscribing to our e-newsletter, The Paperless Airplane at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/paperlessairplane.