Thursday, September 17, 2015

Public shut out of MoCo Transit Task Force "public" hearing

Task Force
report suggests
5 new taxes on
County residents
to pay for BRT

The Montgomery County Transit Task Force is at it again, attempting to shut an angry public out of a so-called "public hearing" September 30 at 6:00 PM. To be held once again in the 3rd floor hearing room at the County Council Building at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville, the hearing is ostensibly for the public to comment on a Public Draft of the "Report of the Task Force".

This document was supposed to be posted on the Transit Task Force website "on or about" September 16, 2015. Then the public was supposed to have a chance to sign up to comment on it. A set of arbitrary rules were imposed prior to the sign-up "window" opening.

To quote the Task Force hearing announcement (which I have not seen in either of the two newspapers widely-circulated in the County so far):

Members of the public wishing to speak at the forum must sign up between Wednesday, September 16 at 9 a.m. and Wednesday, September 30 at 10 a.m. To register to speak, call 240-777-7165, Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.; TTY users call Maryland Relay. People signing up must provide their name, address and contact information. Those registered to speak may not substitute or cede time to others.

A maximum of 50 people will be able to present their views during the public forum. Speakers will have three minutes to make their comments and are encouraged to submit written remarks – which may include additional information and materials. If 50 people sign up before September 30, no additional names will be accepted and there will not be a waiting list.

These ground rules were unacceptable and unorthodox in themselves, as is the 6 PM start time, when most citizens are stuck in traffic trying to commute home.

Seriously - 50 people can speak, in a county of 1,000,000, on a ton of new taxes that will be paid by residents countywide?

Then things went from bad to ridiculous on Wednesday.

When I called only a few hours after the phone lines opened, I was told all 50 speaking slots had already been filled. And that my name was being put on a contingency list.

A county public hearing filled and closed to the public after just a few hours on the first day of signups? Outrageous.

First, I'd like to see the list of these 50 people, and find out how many of them are from the MoCo political machine, developers and organizations overtly or covertly funded by development interests.

But secondly, this arbitrary decision should not be permitted to stand.

The taxpayers should demand to be heard at this "public" hearing.

If any member of the Transit Task Force is incapable or unwilling to sit and listen to public testimony for as long as it takes, he or she should resign immediately. They are clearly not up to the task the County Executive has charged them with, if that's the case.

Even if some on the task force are too lazy to sit in a chair for a few hours to listen to the public, they should at least be scheduling a second hearing, so that those of us citizens who have more energy than they do can testify.

Now, about that report.

The TTF writes that it considered alternative ideas to replace the proposed ITA, and like Bill Clinton's famous "I've worked harder on this than anything I've ever done in my life," reached the shocking, surprising conclusion that what it (and the developers behind the curtain) want - the ITA - remains the only solution.

Page 12 contains a laughable argument for Bus Rapid Transit (one of the major reasons the County needs the ITA, as BRT won't qualify for federal funds, and the $5 billion BRT system couldn't be funded without exceeding the Ficker amendment cap on property taxes), claiming it is needed to keep all of the jobs that supposedly will be coming to MoCo from going to other jurisdictions.

This argument is preposterous on two fronts. First, the County has failed to attract a single major corporate headquarters in over decade. So, under the current moribund business climate, there aren't any jobs coming. But BRT will allow urban redevelopment of suburban areas like Rock Spring, Wildwood, Georgetown Square, Aspen Hill, etc. Those mixed-use developments will only create jobs for baristas and jeans-folding boutique salespeople. Only a moron would spend $5 billion to attract low-wage retail/restaurant jobs.

Finally, the TTF has proposed changes to the ITA bill that will again go to the state legislature in Annapolis in the coming months.

It has recommended staggered, 4 year terms for a 7-member governing board for the ITA. Interestingly, it suggests the possibility of term limits, which the County's political machine has fought against for decades for other offices. Is this an acknowledgement that term limits work? Interesting.

The ITA would be required to submit its Capital Improvements Program (CIP) budget to the Council for review and approval, as well as the operating budget for the ITA itself, and the transit projects it oversees and operates.

Amending the ITA budgets would follow the same process as amending those of County agencies, the report states.

Eminent domain seizures would have to be reviewed and approved by the Council, as well.

The report also suggests "that any tax rate set by the authority shall be subject to disapproval by the Council."

It should be noted, however, that this current language does not impose the same political disincentive to the Council as the Ficker Amendment cap does for property taxes. Therefore, it would be far less likely that a majority of members would vote to disapprove of the ITA tax rate. The Ficker cap requires all 9 members of the Council to vote for a tax increase over the charter limit.

There is also a provision for an "excise tax" "not to exceed 30 cents per gross rentable square foot of leased commercial space, subject to disapproval by the Council."

Speaking of the Ficker charter limit cap on property taxes, the TTF says that provision is now outdated, since the state legislature passed the Maintenance of Effort law which requires education funding to be maintained at an equal or higher level each year. It therefore says it favors allowing taxes to exceed the charter limit, but with some restrictions on the amount. It also suggests other sources of revenue that could be substituted for property taxes.

Those proposed revenue sources include the aforementioned excise tax, a local-option sales tax, an employment withholding tax, and a congestion tax. Heard enough yet?

The report veers back into laughable territory in discussing the serious issue of the higher interest rates the ITA would have to pay for revenue bonds, compared to the lower rate the County could get. Dismissing these concerns, the report says, "if there is such a premium it is likely to be insignificant."

Say what?

Several funding scenarios laid out seem to overestimate federal and state contributions, and lowball construction and operating costs.

And all of the taxes suggested are regressive, flat taxes, that would hit lower-income residents the hardest.

They want you to pay; they just don't want to hear your response.


Anonymous said...

50 speakers x 3 minutes each = 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours.

For how long does Dyer think that these meetings should drag on?

And why couldn't he sign up to speak in a timely fashion?

Anonymous said...

"Closed to the public" means that no one can attend, not that there are restrictions on comments. Do you really know that little about how governments in our country function?

Anonymous said...

I am willing to bet less than 50 show up anyway.

Look how many are at the other public meetings. not many.

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary Robert. All the previous hearings were packed by the way. They also felt the need to manipulate the order of the speakers which says a lot.

Anonymous said...

The Litany of St. Dyer is underway again. Let's count the talking points:

-"[T]he County has failed to attract a single major corporate headquarters in over decade.

"...the current moribund business climate, there aren't any jobs coming.

"Those mixed-use developments will only create jobs for baristas and jeans-folding boutique salespeople."

"I want my son out of this... underpants cleaning condition."

Anonymous said...

Interesting the details you laid out about the changes are swaying my opinion. I already thought BRT would be good for the county but I had problems with the governance. Term limits? Great a county executive (Ike) won't be able to stack the board for years. That's a positive. More oversight by the elected council also is a thing I was hoping for. Overall it sounds like it is heading in the right direction. Thanks for the informative article.

Anonymous said...

Dyer, what do you consider a reasonable amount of time and expense to hear how much public commentary?

Anonymous said...

The public is hardly "shut out" as the click bait title implies. Merely there are limited slots and they filled up quickly.

Anonymous said...

The slots filled up for a reason -- so many people oppose it. They've had multiple hearings on this, and each time the public came out very strongly against it. So now, they are trying to stack the deck by limiting how many people can speak.

At the last hearing on this, they set the order of speakers so those who were in favor got to go first. I know this because my good friend spoke (she's head of a community organization that is opposed) and got her speaking time moved to later for that reason.

The logic also doesn't make sense. They claim the BRT will help attract business, so they're going to raise tax on business to fund it? Won't the two cancel each other out?

The BRT is a mess, and it doesn't qualify for federal funding (unlike Purple Line) because it's a poor project to start with. There is no need to spend billions on a glorified bus service, while at the same time reducing traffic lanes on busy corridors like 355 to do it.

Anonymous said...

Dyer is kvetching about the "early" start time of the meeting, again. Apparently he doesn't have to worry about getting home at a reasonable time so that he can get some sleep in order to go to work the next morning.

Robert Dyer said...

5:32/6:57: If you're a public official and you can't spend more than 2.5 hours listening to your constituents on a major tax issue like this, you are unfit for office and should step down.

You either go late into the night, or schedule a second hearing.

Claiming that someone wasn't timely in calling when they called a few hours into the first day of sign-ups is pretty absurd. It's pretty obvious you're from the MoCo political machine with crazy arguments like that.

Robert Dyer said...

5:47/6:57: North Korea salutes your definition of democracy and republic.

The public is trying to sign up on the first day of sign-ups and being told they cannot speak. That's being "shut out" by anyone's definition - except the MoCo political cartel.

Robert Dyer said...

7:59: I guess you must be unemployed or so wealthy you don't have to commute from your job to a 6:00 public hearing in the nation's worst traffic congestion.

Welcome to the world. Again, if these folks on the task force can't spend an evening on this, they've got quite a sense of self entitlement. This is not a monarchy nor a dictatorship (although it increasingly has the trappings of both). 7:30 is the standard meeting time in Montgomery County, recognizing the difficulty in reaching Rockville in rush hour.

Anonymous said...

So if the iphone sells out after a couple of hours, does that mean the public was shut out?

If 50 tickets go on sale and they sell within a few hours, was the public shut out?

I don't disagree with you that access for the public to speak is limited, but shut out is exaggerating a bit.

And 50 speakers is a ton of random individual citizens speaking at a public event. I would rather organized cohesive coordinated constructive comments. Maybe a general public forum beforehand by organizers to solicit feedback and prepare grouped presentations? Then you could get in a lot more than 50, consolidate into useful packets, and have them heard by the high officials then?

Anonymous said...

Why so defensive? If you take my question at face value, it's reasonable question deserving of a reasonable response.

what do you consider a reasonable amount of time and expense to hear how much public commentary?

Anonymous said...

So these folks running it don't work 9-5 also? They are already staying late as a favor to the public. They could easily hold this during regular operating hours.

Anonymous said...

amazing...the hearings for the downtown Bethesda Plan were dominated by land use attorneys who ate up most of the sign up time. Let's hear more from residents!

Most MoCo residents work in DC, NoVa, etc. since that's where the jobs are. Give them time to commute and attend the hearings!

Robert Dyer said...

12:56: The reasonable standard has always been until the last person who wants to speak has been heard.

Robert Dyer said...

12:54: I find that the group format is used to homogenize opinions, weed out particularly effective opposing talking points, and plant developer agents posing as "residents" into the groups to steer the conversation. I know this from personal experience at planning charrettes.

Robert Dyer said...

12:57: Poor babies. Guess what, unlike them and the developers, development attorneys and developer-backed "organizations", we the citizens aren't getting paid to be there. I've sat through every ITA hearing just like them, for no compensation. Where do I apply for my award?

Anonymous said...

"Don't you dare homogenize me! I'm a unique snowflake! Wild and free!"

Anonymous said...

Dyer wants the meetings to start at 7:30 p.m., and wants 250 people to "be heard".

With 3 minutes for each, that would mean the meeting would last until 3:00 a.m.

Anonymous said...

So if every resident wanted to speak, how much time each do they get? And how would the logistics work for that? And how long would that take?

Anonymous said...

Oh cool, what charrettes have you planned? Those are crazy! Pretty fun.

Anonymous said...

I guess if your boss asked you to stay late indefinitely you would have to do it without complaint.

Anonymous said...

I understand his principle of each citizen has a voice that should be heard, but it's logistically unreasonable. It would be nice to hear a practical solution instead of just "everyone should be able to speak."

Anonymous said...

Have you ever run a company? This would be a horrible way to solicit feedback. It would be a total mess. This is why we have managers and VPs and a president and a board. Organized thoughts work so much better.

I'm all for everyone's opinion but if each of our 1,200 employees had 5 minutes at each meeting... That would just be ineffective and irrational and just plain would not work.

Anonymous said...

"Damn citizens. I need to go to bed.."lol. What a bad attitude from our elected officials.
Let's elect folks who can occasionally hold a late night meeting.

Anonymous said...

Ok so what are the expected hours of an elected official?

Anonymous said...

Residents had equal opportunity to sign up for those 50 open slots.

Robert Dyer said...

7:35: Not true. One person I talked to said she had to try several times to get a person to answer. We won't know exactly what transpired or who's tried to stack the deck for this hearing until they release the list of names, or until they speak on September 30, whichever comes first.

7:34: Expected hours for a public official most definitely include sitting through public hearings at night. Don't run for office or accept an appointment if you're incapable or unwilling to do the job.

3:00: This isn't a job, it's a major taxation issue that impacts every resident of this county.

Anonymous said...

So is 2.5 hours of a public hearing at night? Because that's 50 people. How much longer is acceptable to you? 100 people for 5 hours at night? More? Every night? Just trying to understand your proposed time commitment for one public hearing.

Anonymous said...

Dyer's solution to Montgomery County's transportation problems is to build dozens of miles of freeways that nobody wants. Those can cost up to $1 billion per mile to build in urban and suburban areas. I'd love to hear how he plans to fund those.

Robert Dyer said...

6:15: $1 billion per mile?! The whole Rockville Freeway could be built for well under a billion, and would carry more commuters per day than the entire BRT system currently proposed or the Purple Line.

The M-83 Highway that the County has currently swept under the rug again is budgeted at no where near $1 billion per mile. It's in the hundreds of millions for the whole project.

Anonymous said...

does it say that in the official job description?