Virtual Town Hall Meeting Transcript (Thursday, July 17, 2008)
Mr. Leggett: Welcome to today's live discussion with County Executive Ike Leggett. I look forward to answering your questions. Let's get started.
Mary from Up County
What progress are we making on recycling?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you. I appreciate your interest in this issue. We’ve been seeing a substantial increase in the amount of materials being recycled by County residents. For instance, from fiscal year 2006 to 2007, the amount of materials recycled increased by 8,000 tons and our recycling rate now stands at more than 43 percent. The County is well on its way toward meeting the goal of recycling 50 percent.
Although our residents are responding well, we’re always looking for ways to have them recycle more. And, I’m proud to say that just in this year, alone, we’ve made great strides. First, we launched our program for recycling televisions, and shortly thereafter we announced the expansion of our electronics recycling program to include other items such as DVD players, VCRs, clock radios and cell phones.
Then, earlier this month, we announced a major expansion of our plastics recycling program that now allows residents of single family homes to recycle all empty bottles, containers and lids, jars, pails/buckets, food grade tubs, and even flower pots.
This makes our recycling program the broadest in the metropolitan region. For a detailed list of what plastics can now be recycled and more information on what else can be recycled in Montgomery County, go to www.montgomerycountymd.gov/recycling .
Louvenia from Silver Spring
Why do drivers on the S.S. Vango refuse to assist the elderly and disabled when we need the lift extended? The drivers do not want to put the lift down, nor lower the bus.
Thanks in advance.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I am very sorry that you had this experience. A lift was not functional on one of the buses on this route, and it has since been fixed. We are committed to serving the needs of all of our residents in a respectful manner. I do hope that you will take the Silver Spring Vango again in the future.
Al from Up County
What can we do to make sure that needed high school modernizations stay on track?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I can certainly understand your frustration and concern. Waiting for badly needed renovations, especially when it involves your child’s school is difficult. I first want to state that public schools have been my top budget priority. In the current budget, I provided most of the additional revenue available to all government functions (including police, fire, libraries, roads, etc), to the Montgomery County Public School system. I provided 100% of the Board of Education’s six-year capital request, though due to real fiscal constraints, the funding was not necessarily in the years originally requested by the Board of Education. This compares dramatically to all other government functions, where I recommended a net decrease in funding for the capital program. I have clearly made choices that provide the public schools with as much as possible by holding down the expenditures for other government agencies – particularly County Government.
Unfortunately, we, like other jurisdictions around the region and the nation, are faced with very difficult choices due to the difficult economic times. For Fiscal Year 2009 I had the daunting task of closing a $400 million operating budget gap and it is likely that Fiscal Year 2010 may not be much better. In fiscal year 2009, I closed the gap with a combination of revenue increases and budget reductions. Difficult choices were made and difficult choices will continue to be necessary, though I am hopeful we will be able to continue to meet the growing needs of the public schools.
Jay from Mid County
Mr. Leggett, crime in Montgomery County has increased to an all time high. There are several neighborhoods throughout the county that have become rundown and plagued with criminal and gang activity. As a first time home buyer that has deterred me from several areas in Montgomery County and I have considered moving to nearby Howard County or even Fairfax County to move to a safe neighborhood. This is a shame as I find Montgomery County in a convienient location with good services, but the lack of safe neighborhoods a serious problem.
What is Montgomery County doing to reduce crime in the area and help revitalize neighborhoods? Consider Fairfax County, VA which has half the number of robbery and assault rates than Montgomery.
Mr. Leggett: I appreciate your concern and want to assure you that we are working hard to rehabilitate rundown areas and to provide our residents with safe streets and secure neighborhoods. These are among my highest priorities, and the County's Police Officers, Housing and Community Affairs staff, Transportation workers, and Health and Human Services, Recreation and other staff are putting considerable effort into making sure that this is the kind of community where people want to live, work and raise their families.
Our Police Department carefully monitors the types and locations of crimes committed, and they are constantly developing new strategies to address them, which include targeting problem areas with additional resources. While there are many factors that influence our crime rate, we have been focusing heavily on street robberies. Initiatives such as our Police Community Action Team (PCAT), an increase in Robbery detectives, as well as improvements in our crime-analysis capabilities are making a difference.
We also have an initiative to increase our Police force by 250 officers and we are well on the way to achieving this higher level of staffing.
With a relatively low crime rate, Montgomery County remains a very safe place to live. We will continue to do all we can to ensure a safe place for our residents and visitors to live and work.
Steve from Eastern Montgomery
How will the proposed EMS Transfer Fee help the Fire Service? How will it affect residents?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. This will strengthen our Fire & Rescue at no cost to County residents. The proposed fee will raise at least $14 million a year, which will be dedicated to meeting the rising costs and increasing resource demands within the County's Fire and Rescue Service. The Fire and Rescue Service needs this dedicated revenue source in order to help keep emergency medical services strong, and to fund enhancements such as new fire apparatus, additional staff, new stations in the growing upcounty area and incentives for volunteer opportunities.
Residents will enjoy the benefits of a world class Fire and Rescue Service, but WILL NOT PAY for the enhanced service. Residents' insurance companies, which have already factored the cost of patient transport into their rate schedules, will be billed directly. The fee will be waived for uninsured residents.
Nearly all the jurisdictions around the region have already implemented an ambulance fee (emergency medical transport) -- with no evidence of adverse effects. Calls to Emergency Medical Services in these jurisdictions are up, there is no evidence of any reluctance of anyone to call, and volunteer fundraising has not been effected.
We need additional resources to help strengthen our Fire & Rescue Service. Given the difficult choices we face in order to maintain a quality Fire and Rescue Service, I believe it is more reasonable to collect monies already set aside by insurance companies rather than placing the burden on taxpayers to make up the difference or reduce the quality of services.
Mike from Rockville
Hello Mr. Leggett:
During the course of the Council's deliberation on your proposed FY09 operating budget, concerns were raised about the collective bargaining process and the limited involvement of the Council in the negotiation process. Surely you felt similar frustration during your long tenure as a Council member.
Will you implement changes in order to get the Council involved in this important process sooner?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I have received several emails today about union contracts, I will attempt to respond to several issues raised.
I value excellence in public service and one of the best ways to assure excellence is to recruit and retain high quality staff. In order to do this, we must offer employees of the government competetive salaries and benefits.
I support the collective bargaining process. Under the current law, the Council does not participate directly in the negotiation process, and I believe that is appropriate. I will look at the current collective bargaining law to determine if there are changes that need to be made to address some of the Council's concerns regarding communications. In the meantime, I will continue to keep the Council fully informed consistent with the existing law.
Thanks again for your question.
Mark from Rockville
I am making a presentation to my homeowners association about setting up a solar energy coop for my community. So many Montgomery County residents would like to add solar panels to their homes to save energy, reduce their electric bills, cut carbon emissions and be a small part in helping out our country solve our energy problems. I would like to invite you to this meeting in September. Our main concern is the high initial cost for purchasing and installing solar panels, and we'd like to talk with you on ways to reduce the upfront costs. Please reply by phone or email. My phone is 301-706-4884. Thank you.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I have been working hard to identify ways in which not only County Government, but our residents can become more energy efficient and reduce our carbon footprint. I appreciate very much your initiative and willingness to work with us to achieve this critically important goal. I will have my Director of Environmental Protection, Bob Hoyt, contact you to see what we can do to help, as well as to determine if I, or someone from DEP, can participate in your homeowners association meeting.
Amy from Silver Spring
Are you supportive of Robin Ficker's ballot question, certified for the November, 2008 ballot, which would increase from 7 to 9 the number of votes on the county council needed to exceed the charter property tax limit?
Mr. Leggett: Thanks for your question. No, I do not support Robin Ficker's latest ballot initiative. As the author of the original legislation that established the charter initiative limiting property tax increases, I don't feel that this change is necessary.
Business Owner from Silver Spring
The Business owners need an explanation as to why the water main break was handeled the way it was. My organization and I since first wind of Boil Water spent over 30 sleepless hours over night to protect our brand and more importantly our valued guests that we see everyday. With in hours we had our Boil Water notice action plan fully executed and in place. Even Health Dept. Was very impressed with our efforts and stated that it was the best effort they have seen all day. Our six locations serve over 1.2 million guests a year and all of them we share are lives with each and every day. This executive decision was not at all a smart move, Business is what keeps this county moving forward. I feel that there must be a better effort from County Health Dept. all the way up to the top on how to handle situations like this in the future. Business should not be punished for those few that do not take matters of this importance seriously.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I certainly understand your frustration. One of my primary goals as the situation unfolded was to ensure that the impact of this WSSC water main break on our businesses and residents was minimized. I made the decision to close food service establishments in the affected areas only after being advised DIRECTLY by the Director of the Maryland Department of Health that I should require restaurants to close. I was very concerned with this requirement and asked my staff to continue to find ways to allow restaurants to reopen as quickly as possible. Through the County's efforts, we were able to identify a new protocol acceptable to the state that allowed us to lift the closure order for our restaurants to reopen under a boiled water alert. We will continue to explore ways to avoid this type of disruption to our businesses and residents in the future. I appreciate your concern.
John from Up County
What are you hoping to achieve with your property use initiative to buy the capital GE technology site/former national geographic park?
Mr. Leggett: There are long-term savings and benefits to consolidating functions and locating County facilities in County-owned space. At a time when the County is faced with a number of aging facilities that will require long-term investments to continue, it is appropriate to weigh the cost of those investments against the ability of those facilities to meet current and future needs.
Many County facilities were located at their current sites decades ago. It makes sense to look at some of these locations and decide if the current site makes sense or if the County can direct the property to a better use from both a fiscal and land planning perspective. It also makes sense to consolidate similar functions for better efficiency. For example, a public safety campus could accommodate Police and Fire and Rescue Service needs in a single location.
The County has a heavy operating budget burden for current leased sites with various functions separated from their departments. Moving these functions from leased sites would reduce costs and consolidating the functions with their departments would improve efficiency.
Moving facilities to a new County Services Park will allow for transit oriented development – with more housing, including affordable housing – next to the Shady Grove Metro Station – a more sustainable use that will capitalize on existing infrastructure and allow for development that is less reliant upon automobiles. And we are able to do all this and have it be “cost-neutral.” This is an approach that is better for our infrastructure, better for our environment and better for the future. This will also bolster our economic development goals.
The county has been searching for a site that it could use to relocate some of the County’s aging facilities and because of the GE Tech Park site has many attributes that the County is seeking it is considered a good investment for the County’s long term future. The property is I-3 zoning which permits the County to uses including office, warehousing and manufacturing. An additional 700,000 square feet of I-3 development and uses are permitted on the site “by right” under the Annexation agreement. However, the County’s proposed use of these facilities is dramatically less than this. The tenant, GXS, in the larger building is willing to vacate the building and the size of this building allows the County to immediately consolidate in one location certain uses that are currently dispersed throughout the County.
The GE Tech Park is surrounded by natural and man made buffers that separate the areas of the site where new development is likely to occur from existing adjacent residential development.
Thank you. I hope this answers your question.
steve from Up County
Hi Ike. Why is it that there's no Ride On or Metro Bus service that runs along Md. 108 from Ashton through Olney, Laytonsville, Damascus and Germantown? Expanding Ride On upcounty would help reduce air pollution in the long run and be far less expensive and quicker to implement than building more roads.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. In the past there was a Metro bus route that ran between Ashton and Sandy Spring that was discontinued due to low ridership. I will ask my Transit Division to take a new look at ridership potential for the County Ride On bus system.
Richard from Mid County
1. What is the county and your administration planning and doing to fix all the deteriorating and uneven streets throughout the county? Does the county plan on reimbursing any residents for all the wear, tear and damage the roads and pot holes are puting on all our vehicles?
2. What is the county and your administration doing to reduce the expenditures incurred by the county to make up for the constricting and tightening of the economy? What specific steps is the county taking to cut back on its expenses including the possibility of reducing staff. In other parts of the country both government and private sector have cut back on staff, services, and programs so should Montgomery County and all its staff, services and programs.
Specific and measurable steps and solutions to address these issues is not only needed but essentail.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for asking about this. We are about to unveil a new program that will take a more systematic and comprehensive approach to maintaining the County's transportation infrastructure. An evaluation of all of the 3,800 lane miles of County roads will be completed by later this year, and we intend to use this regular evaluation to prioritize the maintenance, rehabilitation and resurfacing efforts.
Since I assumed office, we have significantly reduced government expenditures. From a high of 14.1 percent tax-supported government expenditures, I've reduced that to 6.7 percent in my first year in office. This year, I've reduced this amount to 1.6 percent. This is unprecedented in our County's history. We've also taken a number of other measures such as reducing County employees by hiring freezes and the outright elimination of approximately 225 positions. We will continue to find ways through efficiencies and further cost-saving measures in light of the current and foreseeable economic conditions.
Keith from Up County
We have gotten new assessments, but our home values have dropped since the assessments were figured. Now I read that School Superintendent Jerry Weast, who has a $2+ billion budget plans to ask for more money for fuel which will mean more taxes. Why can't he cut out some of the rampant waste in his huge budget instead of trying to drive up our property taxes. We got a big increase this year. We can't take another one next year.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I was disappointed that the County had to raise tax rates in FYO9. I spent 16 years on the County Council seeking to maintain county government expenditures to sustainable levels. After four years away from public office, I returned as County Executive and immediatly was confronted with a $200 million deficit. I was able to balance last year's budget without increasing taxes. This year, however, the dramatic and rapid downturn in the nation's economy and the increase in fuel costs has forced the County to increase tax rates to maintain critical services.
The budget I submitted to the County Council reduced the MCPS request for increased funding by $51 million. This reduction left intact all critcal MCPS programs.
The overall expenditure growth in the County when I took office was 9.7 percent. This year it will be 4.2 percent.
I am doing, and will continue to do, all I can to limit the growth in county expenditures to a reasonable and sustainable level.
Carolyn from Rockville
We heard rumors today that the County property located on Crabbs Branch Way which houses Park & Planning has been sold to a Developer.
We heard the Park has three years to vacate the property is this a true?
Thank you for your time.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. The County property you refer to is owned by the County. It may well be part of our property use initiative to relocate the County Service Park in the future.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your questions. For your information, I will be holding a Town Hall Meeting on September 17 in Gaithersburg. Please check our home page for details.
These kinds of exchanges with resident are invaluable to me.
Thanks again. -- Ike