Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Montgomery County Board of Education candidate forum scheduled for March 16

A Montgomery County Board of Education candidate forum has been scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020 at 6:30 PM at the Potomac Community Center, located at 11315 Falls Road in Potomac. Candidates vying for the three open seats on the board have been invited to participate.

Thirteen candidates are competing for the At-Large seat; the two top vote-getters in that April 28 primary race will advance to the General Election in November. The two candidates running in each of the District races are unopposed, and will face-off in the General Election. Key issues are the school system's funding and budget, the achievement gap, academic decline over the last decade, student safety and a highly-controversial redistricting study now underway that some on the current board have openly said should include the forced busing of students to schools outside of their communities.

The forum's sponsors include the Montgomery County Federation of Republican Women and its four clubs, as well as the GOP Asian-American Association and the Republican Legislative District 15 Political Action Committee.

Bethesda Row Apple Store sets Grand Reopening date after upgrades

The massive new Video Wall at the Bethesda Row Apple Store was still under wraps when I passed by Monday night, but the curtains will part before the week is over. Apple has announced the store will host a Grand Reopening to show off several weeks' worth of upgrades this Friday, February 28, 2020.

Guests will also be able to learn more about and experience the classes the upgrades were designed to enhance, Today at Apple sessions. Apple promises you will create fun videos, write your first line of code, and take an indoor Art Walk using the company's latest devices.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

New EV charging stations planned at Montgomery Mall

Electric vehicle charger at a
Montgomery County Safeway store
Westfield Montgomery Mall is already a popular stop for Tesla owners, who can charge their electric vehicles at the mall's Tesla Supercharger station while dining, shopping, or watching a movie. Now Westfield is adding two more charging stations for electric vehicles this year. Malls, grocery stores, retail properties and town centers have become popular locations to charge vehicles, as ownership of EVs widens.

Fidelity sets moving date in downtown Bethesda

Fidelity Investments has been planning to move from its current Bethesda Crossing (a.k.a. Air Rights Building) offices to the Chevy Chase Trust Building at 7501 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 150-W since last October. Now I have confirmed when it is relocating. Their first day in the new location will be March 9, 2020.
The sign is up at the new location
in the Chevy Chase Trust building
To prepare for the move, Fidelity's current office will close at 1:00 PM this Thursday, February 27. It will also be closed all day this Friday, February 28.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Montgomery County Council seeking authority for new property tax, income tax hikes

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D - At-Large) will hold a press conference this morning to endorse two bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would broadly increase the Council's ability to hike taxes on property and income. If passed in Annapolis, the new taxing powers would allow the Council to hike property taxes even further on owners of homes 5000 SF or larger, or any subclass of property not specifically excluded in the bill, and to raise the County income tax and set multiple rates based on income. The proposed tax hikes come as County taxpayers are already paying the highest tax rates in history, and as large numbers of wealthy residents continue to flee to lower-tax jurisdictions in the region, resulting in declining revenue for the County as they take their money with them.

Last year, Councilmember Evan Glass (D - At-Large) proposed a "teardown tax," also known as a "McMansion tax." It would have taxed new construction homes that replaced existing homes, and then place an excise tax on the square footage added. The proposal was blasted by homebuilders, many of whom would have been forced out of business by the new taxes. Local media did their darndest to promote Glass and his tax, but rarely told the public that he did not even have the votes on the Council to pass it.

Jawando will endorse a bill today that brings the tax back in a new form - and then some. Applying to homes 5000 SF and larger, it again primarily targets teardown projects, by going after square footage. Jawando claims that 97% of County homeowners own homes less than 5000 SF in size, and promises that they would receive a "property tax cut." However, House Bill 1276 includes no such tax cut. There is also the possibility that the automatic assessment hikes each year would handily eclipse a nominal, tiny "tax cut." In that case, the "97 percent" of homeowners would continue to pay the same high property taxes they are now - and the ongoing annual increases.

The House bill is also much more general then what Jawando's press release would suggest. It could lead to all kinds of new property tax hikes on other kinds of property.

HB 1276 actually would allow the Council to create new, higher property taxes on any subclass of property. The bill appears that it could be used to sneak in the high taxes developers have sought for golf and country clubs that would run them out of business, forcing them to sell their club properties, to open up their vast lands for real estate development. In fact, under the current language, any subclass of property not exempted by the bill could face higher taxes of any amount sought by the Council.
Attorney and activist Robin Ficker
is mobbed by fans outside the
Council Office Building in Rockville
The property tax move is the Council's latest attempt to find an end run around attorney Robin Ficker's successful property tax cap ballot initiative, which requires the Council to vote unanimously to raise property taxes beyond the charter limit. When the Council did last did that, voters responded by voting to pass Ficker's ballot question allowing 12-year term limits on the Council and County Executive.

Ironically, Jawando's press conference is scheduled to take place at 11:45 AM this morning. Fifteen minutes later, at noon, Ficker is expected to deliver 55 lbs. of signed petitions for a new ballot question preventing the Council from passing another 9% property tax hike as they did recently.

But wait, we're not done talking about new taxes!

Jawando will also endorse House Bill 1494, which he claims will allow the County to increase the tax rate on incomes over $1 million a year from 3.2% to 3.5%. The Councilman says such a tax hike on millionaires would raise $88.4 million in new revenue annually.

One must ask, if true, why did the 9% increase of the already-progressive property tax only result in ongoing budget shortfalls each fiscal year since? Revenue is declining, not increasing, under the record-high tax rates now being paid. You can only get so much blood from a stone, especially when that stone has very smart tax advisors on retainer. Some on the Council continue to ignore what their own staff - past and present - has warned them about the impact of overtaxing, and their warnings are borne out in our declining revenue today.

One must also, again, read the actual text of the bill. In fact, under the language in the bill, everyone - that includes you! - could end up paying a higher income tax rate. "But Will Jawando says we won't," someone - likely an obsequious member of the local media or political cartel - might protest. As with the desperate Council attempt to create a Transit Authority last decade, it is key to ignore what the politicians say, and read what the actual bill says.

Under HB 1494, the Council could - for example - hike the income tax of all residents to 3.4%, and of "millionaires" to 3.5%. The bill has no language protecting "non-millionaires" from a higher income tax rate. It only says wealthier residents can't pay a lower tax rate than the people in the brackets under them, and allows the Council to create those brackets.

So even if you think the property tax hike on homes bigger than 5000 SF - and the income tax hike on incomes over $1 million - are good policy, you need to lobby your legislators to actually put those specific provisions into the bill. They aren't there as of this morning.

With no amendments to the text of each bill, both proposals will allow much corrupt mischief by the Council on property taxes, certainly hit local homebuilders and remodeling firms hard financially, and absolutely set up a potential income tax hike for every Montgomery County resident.

Will the proposed tax hikes destroy the Montgomery County economy? Probably not, because the County economy has already been destroyed. The new taxes will simply put a heavier layer of concrete atop the grave of the moribund economic corpse. And will make it all the harder for a future, competent set of new leaders to restore it once we have a free and fair Montgomery County election.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Bethesda construction update: Avocet Tower (Video+Photos)

The completed underground parking garage levels of the Avocet Tower are beginning to rise closer to street level here at the corner of Montgomery Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda. This was the site of the former 2nd District Montgomery County police station. The StonebridgeCarras project includes office space and a hotel.

Marriott-related lane closures to begin Tuesday on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda

New lane and sidewalk closures will begin at 7750 Wisconsin Avenue Tuesday, February 25, 2020, in front of the Marriott International construction site in downtown Bethesda. Beginning that day, weather permitting, the west-side sidewalk and southbound right curb lane will be closed daytime and evening. Pedestrians will be forced to use the east-side sidewalk. The southbound center lane will also be closed, from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. This is expected to continue until Tuesday, March 10, 2020, the project's development partners say.

The closures are related to pile driving that will begin this week at the site. Marriott's construction partners say the drilling of sheet piles will increase noise and vibration in the area during work hours. Pepco is expected to install underground power lines for the site in the coming weeks.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Capital One branch sets closing date at Westwood Shopping Center

Bank is last obstacle to
Westbard groundbreaking

The other shoe has dropped at the wing of the Westwood Shopping Center expected to be demolished in the next twelve months. Rite Aid closed in December, and now its next-door neighbor Capital One has announced its own closing date. The bank branch will permanently close at the end of its final business day on May 20, 2020, according to a Capital One statement.

Both businesses needed to vacate before that portion beyond the Giant grocery store could be demolished. If landlord Regency Centers' staging plan remains the same, the demolition will allow construction of the new Giant building to begin, allowing the grocery store to keep operating in its current building until the new one is ready for occupancy.

Groundbreaking is already almost a year behind schedule on the 22-acre redevelopment of Regency Centers' property along Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road in southwest Bethesda. There have been rumors Regency may seek to amend their site plan further to replace a planned apartment building on the Westwood Center II site with senior housing. If true, that would be another improvement in the plan, reducing the development's impact on school overcrowding.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Bethesda construction update: The Wilson/The Elm (Video+Photos)

Carr Properties' 7272 Wisconsin Avenue development continues to attract more attention on the downtown Bethesda skyline, as the twin towers The Wilson and The Elm take more-fully-realized shape above Bethesda Row. Office building The Wilson appears to remain a bit ahead of The Elm in nearing completion.

Virginia studying another Metro extension - why isn't Montgomery County?

The Silver Line isn't even finished yet, and booming Northern Virginia is already looking at another ambitious subway extension to Prince William County. Meanwhile, Montgomery County elected officials are looking at a ten-day February vacation, and even sleepier, moribund economic times ahead. What they should be studying are Metro extensions to the Upcounty and East County, studies that should have begun over a decade ago.

Clarksburg is about 12 miles from the Shady Grove Metro station. Burtonsville is around 10 miles from the Silver Spring Metro station. Virginia's $2 million Blue Line study is examining a 15-mile extension to Prince William via Fort Belvoir, Lorton, Potomac Mills and Quantico, modestly bigger than either potential Montgomery County extension.

Rail transit is far more advantageous for economic development than bus rapid transit. Unlike BRT, companies and developers can be assured the new transit isn't going to be suddenly cut off or rerouted. Ridership of rail would be far higher than that of buses or BRT (the County's future "Flash" B"Rapid"T will take a sluggish 87 minutes to travel from Clarksburg to Bethesda - longer than a car in traffic!).

In contrast, Montgomery County couldn't even get the Corridor Cities Transitway bus line built. Instead of high-speed rail technology fomenting a modern economic hub of the future, Montgomery's "Science City" ended up as Sleepy City. Just more stack-and-pack residential development, and thousands more cars vying for space on over-capacity I-270 and MD 355 every rush hour. Promised anchor biotech tenant Johns Hopkins Medicine just exited stage left as a result.

Meanwhile, what jobs we had in the 270 corridor continued to migrate to Northern Virginia and Frederick County. Montgomery County was at rock bottom in the D.C. region for job growth over the last decade. What we need are boardrooms, not more bedrooms.

There are also large properties planned for redevelopment north of Shady Grove, such as Lakeforest Mall, COMSAT and the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. These developments will not be "smart growth" without a Metro extension, or other rail service, and will not have the job component we need to also reduce the number and length of car trips in the corridor. The same goes for White Oak and Burtonsville.

A coordinated plan to address our moribund economy and failing, incomplete transportation system is needed. No such plan has come out of our current County Council.

Here's what we should be prioritizing today:

  • Study extending the Red Line to Clarksburg, including options for at-grade, elevated and cut-and-cover underground segments
  • Metro should connect to Lakeforest and COMSAT
  • Study of Metro extension from Silver Spring Metro to Burtonsville
  • Addition of third track to MARC Brunswick Line
  • Making Ride On bus service free
  • More business-friendly tax policy and regulations
  • More competitive state tax policies
  • Fully privatizing the County liquor monopoly, and allowing beer and wine sales at all grocery, drug and convenience stores
  • Coordinate timing of new business policies with zoning/sector plan updates that incentivize and favor commercial/corporate development (a.k.a. high-wage jobs) over residential housing
  • Planning and construction of long-delayed Midcounty Highway Extended (M-83 Highway Master Plan Alignment), with potential use for median/cut-and-cover simultaneous construction of rail line from Shady Grove Metro on relevant segments
  • Construction of equally-long-delayed new Potomac River crossing to Dulles Airport with trackbed for future Red Line extension to Silver Line in median, as a toll facility built by a private company
  • A concerted, focused effort on attracting aerospace, defense and tech corporate headquarters, and related research and manufacturing facilities (i.e. satellite and rocket assembly)
The Montgomery County Council isn't doing any of this. In fact, they're in the middle of a 10-day vacation. In February. 
Working hard, or hardly working?
In contrast, the Council-equivalents of our biggest competitors - Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties - are all meeting this week. It would be interesting if all local media - print, online, TV, radio - would join me in exposing the lazy work schedule of our self-proclaimed "full-time" slacker County Council.

Anyone who thinks we can dig ourselves out of this economic hole with a small-ball agenda by running empty BRT buses up and down, giving government contracts to small businesses, believing residential housing that generates more costs than revenue is the definition of "economic development," and patting ourselves on the back by adding the same STEM components to our schools that all of our competitors' school systems are also adding - or that it can be done under the leadership of our current County Council - is fooling themselves. 

Virginia has plenty of housing. But they also have plenty of jobs. Plenty of revenue, as a result. And they are making the big ticket investments to keep cleaning our clock for decades to come. Meanwhile, we're scaring every company away, have a structural budget deficit as far out as the projections go, are paying record high taxes, have massive debt, and steadily declining revenue even with a 9% tax hike several years ago. 

We can't go on like this.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

MVA expanding appointments to include vehicle titling

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R)
The Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration announced this morning that the appointment process it has used to address a backlog of Real ID verifications will now be expanded to include vehicle titling services. MVA Administrator Chrissy Nizer said that the appointments have been so successful and favorably-received by customers that the department decided to try expanding their use.

Customers who schedule a vehicle title-related appointment are guaranteed to be seen within 15 minutes of the appointment time, the MVA promised. In Montgomery County, the new titling appointments will be available at the Metropolitan Grove Gaithersburg and White Oak MVA branches. Appointments can now be made online.

Police crack down on "distracted driving" in Bethesda

Driver alert: Montgomery County police will be cracking down on drivers using their phones on major commuter routes in Bethesda, today and in the coming days. Officers will be actively patrolling for distracted driver offenses along roads such as River Road, Old Georgetown Road, and Wisconsin Avenue.

Fines for using a cell phone or other devices while behind the wheel range from $70 and one point against the driver's license for sending or receiving a text, to three years in prison and fines up to $5000, should the phone-using driver cause serious injury or death.