Friday, June 30, 2017

Car stolen on Carteret Rd., theft from vehicle on Glenbrook Rd. + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on June 28, according to crime data:

Stolen car. 7800 block Carteret Road.

Theft from vehicle. 7800 block Glenbrook Road.

Possession of marijuana/hashish. Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase.

Burglary. 2700 block Abilene Drive.

Identity theft. 5500 block Hoover Street.

Theft from vehicle. 3200 block Pickwick Lane.

Theft. 7800 block Custer Road.

Shoplifting. 11400 block Rockville Pike.

Theft. 11400 block Woodglen Drive.

MoCo Council wants to enter student loan business, as Katz sounds alarm on County debt

Plan would create 
with $20-30 million
start-up cost

After creating a barrage of new offices and six-figure staff positions in the last year alone, opening their own microloan bank, and committing Montgomery County to staggering financial liabilities on bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, the Montgomery County Council is now planning to enter the student loan industry. That's not a misprint, and today isn't April 1. But just four days before announcing its intentions, one Councilmember, Sid Katz, raised red flags on the County's massive debt load.

The Council's proposal would create a new Montgomery County Student Loan Refinancing Authority to refinance student loans, much like the Independent Transit Authority that was panned and ultimately defeated by taxpayer opposition. Such an Authority would potentially have all the features hated in the ITA concept - the ability to raise taxes, carry unlimited amounts of debt that could end up being dumped back onto the taxpayers, and a lack of direct accountability to voters. The specifics will be unknown until a final state bill to create the Authority (sound familiar from the ITA fight?) is written, but one detail known is that the Authority will have the power to issue bonds. It should be noted that no other county in the United States currently is involved in student loan financing.

Does it make any sense from a fiscal responsibility standpoint for Montgomery County government to enter the student loan business at this time? The assessment of Katz, the only Councilmember with real-world business experience, suggests the answer is, "No."

"I, candidly, am very, very concerned about the debt Montgomery County has," Katz said during a June 22 meeting of the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy (GO) Committee. "If we don't get a handle on this, if we don't get a blueprint on debt in Montgomery County, it's going to overtake us. Right now, if [our debt] was a department, it would be the third largest department in Montgomery County."

Katz also expressed concern with the uncertain revenue forecast for the coming years. Trump administration cuts to government could drastically reduce income tax revenue for the County, Katz noted. Montgomery County is locked in a structural deficit as far out as the forecasts go - meaning that, as it is now, we already will be in the red every single fiscal year.

In the context of these red flags, a report by the County Office of Legislative Oversight raises many concerns.

How much would it cost taxpayers to launch the Authority? "The Montgomery County Department of Finance has estimated that a Montgomery County Student Loan Refinancing Authority would need $20 to $30 million to start a $100 million refinancing program," the report states.

The report confirms that these start-up funds "would impact the County’s debt levels (the amount the County can borrow)."

It appears loans would be extended to illegal immigrants, according to Page 4 under "Eligibility." On Page 6 of that section, it floats the idea of requiring a co-signer "if a borrower is not a U.S. citizen." In other words, resident taxpayers would be paying to provide low-cost student loans to non-taxpaying, non-resident students. Wow.

Later, the report notes that there are already numerous private student loan refinancing firms, and that their interest rates are actually less than the state-run loan entities the Council wants to ape. Why would we enter a market where there is no vacuum, with a more expensive product? Nuts.

A response from the office of County Executive Ike Leggett wisely pans the idea of entering the student loan business. "Student loan debt is the largest and fastest-growing share of consumer debt, and has the highest delinquency rate of all consumer credit debt," wrote Timothy Firestine, the County's Chief Administrative Officer, on behalf of Leggett. "As a result, there are few states and no localities willing to incur the financial risk and significant cost of operating a Student Loan Refinancing Authority."

Creating such an authority would "seriously impact many of our critically-important programs, ranging from K-12 education to safety and transportation," Firestine added. Starting it up would likely require the County to issue more debt, he said, and budget cuts in other areas would be needed to fund start-up costs, he wrote.

Dangerous Wisconsin Ave. sidewalk/lane closure reopens in Bethesda (Photos)

A victory for pedestrians along the 7200 block of Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda: Barricades that had closed off the sidewalk and one southbound lane of the busy state highway two weeks ago were removed yesterday. Montgomery County officials only learned of the closure from my report on June 16, despite being partners in the 7272 Wisconsin megaproject with developer Carr Properties, and the state of Maryland. 

While the County Council proved impotent in reversing the closure, the reopening comes days after my report showing pedestrians walking in the roadway, into oncoming traffic, to get around the blockade. The lack of oversight by the Council in such a critical project is eerily reminiscent of their mismanagement of the Silver Spring Transit Center construction process, raising concerns among many.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Home vandalized on Western Ave., drug overdose in Pike District + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on June 27, according to crime data:

Trespassing. 4700 block Cordell Avenue.

Home vandalized. 7100 block Western Avenue.

Theft from vehicle. 6200 block Robinwood Road.

Shoplifting. 7100 block Democracy Boulevard.

Drug overdose. 11400 block Rockville Pike (Pike District).

Auto part stolen. 7900 block Inverness Ridge Road.

New cemetery legislation doesn't help Westbard burial site, church says

New legislation requiring an inventory and creation of an online map of cemeteries in Montgomery County won't help the one that has generated the most controversy in Bethesda, representatives of Macedonia Baptist Church say. The church is currently in mediation with the County, the County Housing Opportunities Commission, and developer Regency Centers to determine the fate of a historic African-American burial ground on the site of Westwood Tower in Bethesda. Montgomery County, the HOC and Regency are currently proposing to build a parking garage on top of the cemetery.

“While we applaud the proposed amendment to County development law as a small step in the right direction, as it is currently drafted it appears that [Bill 24-17] would not apply to the Bethesda African Cemetery because that project already has a pending subdivision application, and this law won’t take effect for months,” said Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo, Pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church. “On a broader scale, it only addresses unsubdivided land, and given how much land in Montgomery County is already developed, this law has very limited future application,” he said.

The Church also took issue with the role the Planning Department is given by the bill. A church spokesperson said the Macedonia coalition suggests that "oversight of the implementation of cemetery policy be shifted to the Montgomery County Historical Commission, and taken out of the corrupt Planning Department with its cozy relationship with developers."

Based on the public comments of two of the bill's sponsors, it appears the Council is trying to pass "a bill" to be able to "look busy" on the topic, and to later claim they "took action on cemeteries." In reality, the bill doesn't erase the shameful actions and inaction on the Westbard cemetery by the Council and Planning Board, nor the institutional racism that was revealed when cemetery advocates began poking and prodding various parts of the County government on this issue.

There already is a cemetery inventory in the County. Had the inventory and map proposed by this bill been law when the Westbard sector plan process began in 2014, nothing would have happened differently regarding the cemetery. It was not on the inventory, and only would have been added at this point, when the church would have requesting it be considered for addition.

Nothing in the bill would stop development on a cemetery, or prevent relocation of remains to other sites. Importantly, despite much talk by the Council, the bill contains no provisions to address the special issues related to African-American burial grounds in particular, such as neglect and poor official recordkeeping. There's no reason to oppose the bill, but it should be understood that it doesn't help the Westbard situation, and the bill could most certainly be improved.

Urban Country to fill vacant City Sports space at Bethesda Row

The large retail space formerly occupied by City Sports at Bethesda Row has sat vacant for over 19 months on Arlington Road, with no takers. Now the tenant next door, popular high-end furniture and decor retailer Urban Country, is simply going to expand into the space. The new space is slightly larger than the dimensions of their current showroom, so they will be able to hold double the amount of displayed merchandise.

Another MoCo DLC employee busted for stealing $20K+ of liquor from DLC trucks

Kelvin Snowden, Jr., a
Montgomery County DLC employee
police say stole liquor from DLC trucks
Montgomery County's government liquor monopoly is embroiled in yet another scandal. One of their employees was arrested by Montgomery County police yesterday, and charged with stealing $21,769 worth of liquor from the Department of Liquor Control's own trucks.

Police say Jean Auguste, 27, of Lanham, and Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) employee Kelvin Eugene Snowden Junior, 31, of Gaithersburg, took the alcohol from box trucks parked at the Department of Liquor Control warehouse, which is located on Edison Park Drive in Gaithersburg. The alleged thefts occurred between Valentine's Day and May 28 of this year.

Montgomery County police responded to the last of what detectives say were 8 total thefts from the DLC warehouse site on May 28, and caught Auguste parked nearby in a Chevrolet Suburban, with cases of DLC liquor in the vehicle. The ensuing investigation led them to Snowden, who they say was the main thief who actually broke into the DLC to steal from the trucks. Snowden also allegedly sold stolen DLC liquor to Auguste on at least one occasion.

This is not the first time a DLC employee has been arrested for stealing liquor from the DLC. In 2014 and 2015, employees were caught stealing alcohol and were fired. Many have called for an end to the outdated Montgomery County government liquor monopoly, which has proved inept, internally corrupt, and expensive and tedious for bars and restaurants to purchase alcohol through.
Councilmember Hans Riemer
was at the center of a previous DLC scandal
County Councilman Hans Riemer was also ensnared in a 2014 DLC scandal that came to be known as "Beerghazi." Riemer appeared to be aware of criminal activity within the DLC - but instead of reporting it immediately to authorities, he kept quiet until after he was safely reelected in November 2014.

Less than 48 hours after the polls had closed, Riemer then appeared in a formal, sit-down interview with NBC 4 in which he attempted to then use the information he had withheld to promote himself as a crusader against DLC corruption. It was clear that the NBC 4 investigation had occurred long before Election Day, and that Riemer had been in on the reporter's investigation all along. But with Riemer having direct oversight of the DLC, revealing the criminal activity in the department before Election Day could have damaged his chances of reelection.

Riemer had previously claimed it was time for the government to get out of the liquor business. But in 2015, he flip-flopped and suddenly endorsed maintaining - and strengthening - the government liquor monopoly. And here we are today, with the same Jurassic World government monopoly liquor system, and another DLC employee behind bars. "Helpless" Hans Riemer strikes again!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Cars vandalized on Clarendon Rd., Inman Park Circle; supermarket assault! + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on June 25-26, according to crime data:

June 26

Mental transport. Old Georgetown Road.

June 25

Car vandalized. 7100 block Clarendon Road.

Assault at grocery store. 7600 block Old Georgetown Road.

Car vandalized. 5800 block Inman Park Circle.

Urban Boxing opening in downtown Bethesda

Another fighting sport will occupy a building that has housed several kickboxing and UFC-related gyms in downtown Bethesda. Urban Boxing has leased space at 4834 Cordell Avenue. The new gym will offer boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ, yoga, a Run Club, and strength and conditioning programs.

As pedestrians risk death in Bethesda, MoCo Council contemplates circus ban

George Leventhal is co-sponsor
of a ban on circuses in
Montgomery County
I've got to hand it to the Montgomery County Council for hitting a new low - and that takes some doing. Just yesterday, I mentioned some of the absurd, trivial and inane legislative efforts the Council has pursued in the last year while ignoring critical, basic functions of government. Pedestrians trying to walk up Wisconsin Avenue are aware of this, as they walk in the roadway because County officials cannot or will not take action on a dangerous sidewalk closure in front of the Apex Building. But when I heard what the Council worked on instead yesterday, I literally couldn't believe it: A circus ban.

A Facebook friend forwarded what appeared to be a press release announcing Councilmembers Craig Rice and George Leventhal are sponsoring a bill to ban any circus with animals from performing in Montgomery County. Initially, I thought it was either a hoax, or that The Onion had started covering Montgomery County. Imagine my horror, and amusement, when I discovered video of the Council discussing this bill.

No wonder there wasn't a single bidder to construct a new arena in downtown Silver Spring recently - the Council is busy banning half of the acts that could rent it! And no wonder pedestrians were still squeezing between barricades and speeding metal fenders along Wisconsin Avenue yesterday, as the Council's minds were on the three ring circus that doesn't operate out of 100 Maryland Avenue.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Tips to Toes closing July 15, will move to new Bethesda location

Another business being displaced by the future Marriott headquarters in downtown Bethesda has found a new location. Tips to Toes will close July 15 at its 7711 Woodmont Avenue salon location. They will move to 4715 Cordell Avenue, and reopen at that location sometime in August. Stay tuned for an opening date.

MoCo government's death wish Apex sidewalk closure has pedestrians running for their lives (Video + Photos)

Two men walk in the roadway
head-on toward oncoming traffic
on Wisconsin Avenue last evening
Eleven days after Carr Properties inexplicably closed the sidewalk and a southbound lane of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Apex Building, Montgomery County officials have failed to take action. As they leisurely twiddle their thumbs, pedestrians are doing what we've learned they'll do over the last few years of sidewalk closures - entering the roadway. Last night, hundreds of pedestrians leaving work to head to the Bethesda Metro station walked head on into oncoming traffic in the 7200 block of Wisconsin Avenue, to get around the closure.
Commuters walking towards
Bethesda Metro station in
roadway at 7272 Wisconsin after
leaving work
Virtually no one was taking the laborious detour of crossing busy Wisconsin, walking up the east sidewalk, and then crossing back over to the Metro station side further north. There were several heart stopping moments, such as a man realizing the light had changed ahead, and that he was about to walk into speeding southbound traffic. Panicked, the man ran for his life, as you can see here.
Man walking in roadway
(center of GIF image)
toward southbound traffic
runs for his life, as he realizes
light further up is changing
Walking into the roadway is technically illegal, but as we saw on Fairmont Avenue three years ago(!!) and elsewhere, it is standard behavior when a developer fails to provide a pedestrian walkway alongside a project. So County officials knew this would happen, and that - especially considering we're talking about a major state highway and commuter route here - there's a good chance someone will be killed in the process. Yet they've failed to act at any point to avoid this situation.

The life-and-death pedestrian drama we're watching now represents a threefold failure of government, in a county where government increasingly cannot deliver the basic functions we pay taxes for. During its current term, the County Council has tackled teenage tanning beds, Styrofoam, backyard insecticides and "healthy vending machines." Meanwhile, outside their now-fortified headquarters at 100 Maryland Avenue, trash isn't being picked up, the 911 service failed, and pedestrian safety is an afterthought for developer-beholden politicians.

Failure 1: The Montgomery County Planning Board and County Council failed to require the sidewalks and roadway remain open in their Minor Master Plan Amendment on the Apex Building. In fact, they stipulated very little, as Capital Crescent Trail advocates were horrified to learn recently. This was a guiding document that the County had full control over. They were in a position to make any demands or requirements they felt necessary, as the potential developer could only redevelop this site with their approval. Only their reliance on developer campaign contributions can explain why they would not have thought through all of the potential problems, and addressed them in the agreement.

Failure 2: Montgomery County officials are claiming they have no idea what Carr Properties is up to, or why the Maryland State Highway Administration allowed Carr to shut down the sidewalk and southbound lane. Huh?! That is an astonishing admission. This is a public-private partnership project related to the Purple Line, and partner Montgomery County doesn't know what its other two partners are doing, or even what the schedule is? Embarrassing.

Failure 3: Once learning that a situation they should have known would happen has happened, County officials have failed to act, or have again been proven to be impotent, and unable to move their partners to do anything. I thought that we would see some action Monday, but as business hours ended last evening, nothing had been done. In fact, one citizen contacted 311 - as we're told to do to "get it done" - early Monday morning. By day's end? Nothing had been "done."

There is absolutely no reason for a lane to be closed on Wisconsin Avenue for six months, or the next three years. The Apex Building exterior structure isn't even being demolished at this time! That is an egregious misuse of public property and right-of-way, on one of the most congested roads in the D.C. region. And there is no reason for not having a covered walkway, as Washington Property Company provided down the road during their construction of the Solaire Bethesda apartments.

Two cities, Seattle and Raleigh, have been dealing with this using modified shipping containers with interior lighting. New York City doesn't allow the kind of sidewalk closures Montgomery County has, yet has more construction than Bethesda will ever have. The Council passed not one, but two, laws that would supposedly reduce or forbid such dangerous sidewalk closures. But it has failed to enforce either one of them.

Apologists for the Council will claim this is the state's fault, but the reality is, there are currently other sidewalk closures around downtown Bethesda on County roads, and the Council hasn't acted on a single one of them. And it's simply beyond belief that the County Council has never discussed these most basic logistical issues with their two partners. Are you kidding me? No trash, no 911, and now we hear that they don't discuss logistics on a billion dollar project, with taxpayer money on the line? Don't ever tell me again that we are getting "highly-qualified" councilmembers, for their outrageous $137,000-a-year salaries.

Is this hands-off policy again driven by their reliance on developers for campaign funds? Is the Council so inept and impotent that Pete Rahn and Carr Properties are just laughing at them behind their backs at this point? And perhaps if the County's Bethesda regional services center took the time they spend putting links into taxpayer-funded emails to boost traffic and revenue for a local small and slightly-failing magazine, and spent it instead on the sidewalk issue, we wouldn't have people running for their lives on Wisconsin Avenue.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on June 24, according to crime data:

Theft from vehicle. 5300 block Wriley Road (Westgate).

Shoplifting. 12000 block Rockville Pike.

Bethesda demolition update: 4733 Bethesda Avenue (Photos)

The demolition of 4733 Bethesda Avenue continues. About one quarter of the office building remains. It will be replaced by The JBG Companies' 4747 Bethesda Avenue office project.

Ann Taylor closes for renovations at Westfield Montgomery Mall (Photos)

Ann Taylor has closed for renovations at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. The boutique will reopen on August 12 with a special fashion event, including refreshments. Save the date.

Ann Taylor's parent company, Ascena Retail Group, has announced plans to close up to 650 stores of the various chains it owns. It appears Bethesda is not on that list, given the investment in remodeling being made here.

Speaking of closures, a large portion of the parking garage near Forever 21 and Sears is now closed as ongoing painting/repairs/renovations continue.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Theft from vehicle on Marengo Rd., overdose on Whiterim Dr. + more - Bethesda crime update

Another vehicle owner in Springfield reports valuables taken from their vehicle Friday, plus another Pike & Rose milestone -  the first crime ever reported on new street, Rose Avenue.

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on June 23, according to crime data:

Theft from vehicle. 5700 block Marengo Road (Springfield).

Theft from vehicle. 8500 block Hazelwood Drive.

Theft. 3100 block Black Chestnut Lane.

Suicide attempt/overdose. 10800 block Whiterim Drive.

Theft. 11400 block Skipwith Lane.

Theft over $200. Rose Avenue (Pike & Rose).

Juvenile runaway. 11300 block Schuylkill Road (Randolph Hills).

Bethesda construction update: 2nd District police station (Photos)

Construction continues at a slow pace at the future Montgomery County 2nd District police station on Rugby Avenue. It also structurally looks different from the high-rises - and even some of the stick-built mid-rises - you see going up around the county. I'll have to defer to one of our resident architecture experts to explain why that is.

Carluccio's closes at Pike & Rose (Photos)

I was shocked to find that Carluccio's has closed at Pike & Rose. The UK-based Italian chain was one of the best - and most affordable - sit-down restaurants at the development. Their other D.C.-area location closed as well, so it's unclear if their difficulties were actually related to this particular restaurant, or corporate in nature.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Springfield, Sumner hit by thieves, bike stolen on Bethesda Ave. + more - Bethesda crime update

Bethesda experienced its first minor theft spree this summer, as one or more thieves went wilding in the Springfield and Sumner neighborhoods and downtown Bethesda Thursday. At least 7 vehicles were hit, and a bicycle was stolen on Bethesda Avenue.

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on June 22, according to crime data:

Stolen bike worth over $200. 4700 block Bethesda Avenue.

Theft from vehicle. 7100 block Arlington Road.

Theft from vehicle. 5600 block Springfield Drive (Springfield).

Theft from vehicle. 5500 block Cromwell Drive (Springfield).

Theft from vehicle. 5600 block Knollwood Road (Springfield).

Theft from vehicle. 5600 block Ontario Circle (Sumner).

Theft from vehicle. 5100 block Marlyn Drive (Sumner).

Theft from vehicle. 1 Vassar Circle (Glen Echo).

Threatening phone call. 8700 block Preston Place.

Embezzlement/"confidence game." 6300 block Lone Oak Drive.

Child neglect. XX block Bells Mill Road.

Identity theft. 11100 block Cripplegate Road.

Stolen bike worth over $200. 13600 block Hayworth Drive.

Greedy Montgomery County Council to gouge you again for parking in Bethesda

The Monopoly Guy, like free parking, is nowhere to be found in downtown Bethesda. Starting on "or around" July 5, the Montgomery County Council will celebrate American independence turncoat style with further taxation of your vehicle in Bethesda.

The new ransom, er, rates will be:

On-street parking: $2.25/hour
Surface lot parking: $1.50/hour
Garages 40, 49, and 57: $1.25/hour
Garages 11, 31, 35, 36, 42, and 47: $1.00/hour

Just what every downtown Bethesda business owner wants to hear, right?

Well, the Council has to pay for their $137,000(!!) a year salaries somehow. The City Council in Bell, California did the same thing, raising "enormous property taxes" and fees while giving themselves massive salary increases, and ended up in jail. Our Council? Mysteriously, still on the loose - and their salaries are higher than the Bell Council got!

Implementation of the "rate adjustment" will be staggered. Rates on-street will increase on July 5, rates in Garages 11, 31 and 49 will increase on July 10, and rates in the balance of the off-street facilities will be phased in after July 10 over the following weeks and months.

Voters will likely implement their own "adjustment" to the Council in November 2018.