In Praise of Mr. Raskin

Our Congressman, Jamie Raskin, has been in the news lately, if you haven’t noticed. I am certain that most everyone in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District has noticed. Possibly most Marylanders have too, as an increasing number of Americans across the country awaken to his influential defense of our democracy.

I write about Jamie for two reasons. I want readers better to know who he is. And as an older guy I feel a paternalistic pride for a man I know personally (as many do In Takoma Park), who has emerged onto the national political stage. 

Benefit Corporations and Legal Marijuana

For those who don’t know, Jamie Raskin served for eleven years in the Maryland Senate representing the southern section of Montgomery County close to Washington DC. He rose to leadership, and became recognized for his progressive efforts to legalize marijuana, repeal the death penalty, support same sex marriage and making Maryland in 2010 the first state to establish benefit corporations. After getting his magna cum laude J.D. degree from Harvard Law he was for some 25 years a professor of constitutional law at American University.

Marcus Raskin and the Boston Five

Possibly most important for understanding who Jamie is, his father was the late Marcus G. Raskin, a lawyer himself. He co-founded The Institute for Policy Studies in 1963, a progressive DC think tank, became a staunch opponent of the Vietnam war, led teach-ins against the war and was a member of the Boston Five — Rev. Wm Sloan Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michael Ferber and Mitchell Goodwin – who were all indicted for conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft (they were acquitted). The senior Raskin was involved with Daniel Ellsberg in bringing the Pentagon Papers to publication, according to Wikipedia. He was active in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and in the years following was a prolific writer, teacher, and philosopher on social causes, nuclear disarmament, national security and labor union organizing.  

Jamie’s upbringing, however, wasn’t what got him elected to state office or in 2016 to Congress. It was not as though he needed to tout his educational credentials. (Inside the proverbial Washington Beltway scads of folks carry impressive credentials.) It had a lot to do with sheer affection for the guy. In any case, there didn’t seem to be much doubt that his election was a natural next step in his political leadership. 

Jamie Raskin and the author in 2013

What got Jamie sent on his way to Congress is probably pretty obvious to those who know him. Locally to everyone he is just Jamie. Which means he’s accessible and disarming. The man you meet is who he is. There are no pretenses. There is no “different side” of him: a trait that bedevils so many nationally ambitious politicians who wear different faces depending on who has the money. When Jamie greets you, smiles or puts an arm over your shoulders, it means what you want it to mean.

Thomas Paine

Among the things that make Jamie special as person, I’ve noticed, is when he enters the room the space becomes energized. Enthusiasm and buoyancy take over. When he takes the microphone, the place become hushed with anticipation. Jamie has a way with words that most can only envy. His wit and humor shine through. He speaks with earnestness and sureness about his ideas on the law, and the nuances of the Constitution, placing it in today’s context and sprinkling in apt quotes from the Founders like Thomas Paine, one of his favorites. His thoughts seem to come from a deep place: maybe from the dinner table of his youth, or perhaps from his years in front of the classroom. 

Perhaps there is nothing new to be said about democracy that hasn’t previously been said by Paine, Locke, de Tocqueville, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, and others. But Jamie talks in the context of today’s threats – Trumpism, the Big Lie and voter suppression — in ways that both young people and pre-baby boomers can relate to. Jamie brings a fresh way of understanding core principles. Too often, national politicians speak in platitudes or use catch phrases to trigger applause. They use code words with supporters to avoid recrimination and to obfuscate, or they just talk from their ego.

Jamie intuitively understands the potency of semantics and syntax to cut to the bone and make people think about issues and ideas in a fresh way. (I have found myself saying: I wish I could have said that.) It’s really just command of the English language like few in Congress have ever possessed. 

Nancy Pelosi

When Jamie Raskin won election in 2016, there was no question in my mind Jamie would quickly, like cream, rise to the top. And he has. Extraordinary political circumstances confronting Congress have brought Jamie to the fore. Perhaps more rapidly than even he imagined. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to her credit, quickly recognizing Jamie’s attributes and fortitude, tapped him as the House’s Lead Impeachment Manager for Trump’s second impeachment. 

This appointment came mere days after Jamie and his wife Sarah Bloom Raskin tragically lost their son Tommy Raskin to suicide as a consequence, reportedly, of serious depression at the age of 25. Regardless of the cause, I will say this: only parents who have lost a child can comprehend this particular grief and the enduring agony. Jamie has been quoted saying that Nancy Pelosi’s handing him the job of lead impeachment manager, was a godsend, even though this was only five days after Tommy’s burial. 

As is well known now, Jamie Raskin not only rose to the occasion, but was eloquent in arguing the case. That it fell on deaf Republican ears in the Senate speaks solely to the unfortunate state of the Republican party and not to the merits of the case. 

Select Committee to Investigate January 6

When in July 2021 Speaker Pelosi formed the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, she included Jamie in the nine-member panel. The committee continues its investigations, frequently making headlines. Jamie regularly appears on news shows. Given its uphill struggle to ferret out truths, the Select Committee seems to be the equivalent of Ukraine taking on and besting Putin’s wannabe Russian empire. The Select Committee keeps drilling down into the roots of Trumpists’ lies despite Republican’s juvenile efforts to ignore, discredit, and ridicule its diligence.

If our fragile democracy and republican form of government manage to survive, it will in part be due to the work of this Select Committee, the likes of Jamie Raskin, Liz Cheney, Adam Kitzinger and others who have the rare courage and the ability to speak truth to power. 

At critical tipping points in America’s history, certain individuals have seemingly materialized, perhaps by the grace of God, to help lead our country to a higher moral ground. This is one of those moments, and I think Jamie Raskin is one of those extraordinary individuals. I feel fortunate to know him. In all honesty I sleep better at night because of Jamie Raskin and the part he’s playing. I believe Jamie has and is making a difference. None of us knows, of course, whether the forces of autocracy, duplicity and shrinking liberties will win out. 

A Person of the Year

When Jamie first ran for Congress, he stated his ambition wasn’t to be in the political center, but to be in the moral center. This past December 2021 David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, named Jamie Raskin as “A Person of the Year.”  https://www.newyorker.com/search/q/A%20person%20of%20the%20year He describes him as “an individual who embodies both the tragedy and resilience of our time.” Remnick interviewed Raskin about his efforts to write his new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy as a way to honor his son and to try to alleviate the depths of his grief.

Expectations

I have noticed that when snow is in the forecast, it creates a unique level of anxiety among folks. It’s almost laughable. People want to know when it’ll start, how long it will last, how much will we get. Will the schools close; should they close; how bad will the roads be? Postponements and cancellations? Will we run out of milk or toilet paper? On and on.

Kids get excited. Parents have mixed feelings, as we try to deal with the quandary of what’s coming. Whether we welcome it or dread it, there’s anxiety and maybe excitement. I have also noticed our greyhound Willow isn’t fazed by the snow. She doesn’t “know” snow. Open the door, out she goes to do her business and then comes back in. No worries.

New Hampshire Avenue 2016

When I was little boy in Baltimore a long time ago, there were no weather forecasts. TV was in its infancy. The newspaper had a crude weather map. Almost always, snow came as a surprise. I vividly remember the times my dad would wake me in the morning and say, “Guess what? Look out the window. It’s snowing.” I would jump out of bed instantly lathered in joy. If the snow was coming down hard, there’d be no school. But just in case, my parents would turn on the radio and listen for school closing information. 

Dad might have to put the snow chains on the tires to get to work. (Plowing didn’t happen.) The steps and sidewalk would have to be shoveled. For older kids that meant there was money to be made. Mom would dig out my black rubber snow galoshes with the metal clips along with double socks, a second shirt, mittens and earmuffs, out into the whiteness to find my friends. The day was mine until the sun went down.

Today, TV forecasters have become our gurus, like faith healers. For them it’s a peak moment. They are pumped and so are their viewers. Our preoccupation with weather is proven in the plenitude of weather apps that offer data and predictions far into future and all over the planet. 

All this science and yet they sometimes get it grievously wrong, as we’ve seen with erroneous snow forecasts that cause schools to close needlessly. 

So I wonder, what did our grandparents do long before all this technology?  Clearly, they managed and simply lived with whatever happened. Sailors and farmers looked at the sky, sniffed the air, felt the wind and acted accordingly. If a summer rain arrived unexpectedly, my mother rushed out and pulled the laundry off the clothes lines. 

At a more fundamental level, the Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of our determination to control natural forces that have the upper hand. Uncertainty has hung over us for two years. For scientists it’s been a moving target. As research advances, guidance has changed or even reversed. Our collective response has been confusion, frustration, fear and impatience. 

This boils down to the human race’s incessant efforts to know the future. One reason for this, of course, there’s great wealth to be gained if you are good at predicting the future. Think stock traders, gamblers, tarot card readers and economists. (It’s not for nothing economics has been called the dismal science.) But the big reason is our need to have control over our lives — or, at least, feel like we do — to protect everything that is dear to us, to be able to plan our lives and avoid calamity.

There are some ironies here. As science, technology and medical advances have extended our life spans, shrunken the world, and created amazing efficiencies in our homes and workplaces, so have our anxieties swollen about losing these things. While we want cleverer and more efficient technologies, at the same time we get more frustrated and angrier when the slightest thing goes awry. And it often does. The snow doesn’t fall when it should, or it does when it shouldn’t. The battery on your car’s remote key dies, Amazon’s delivery is a no-show, your map app steers you wrong, passwords are lost or don’t work, unwanted emails, scams and spams intrude, and the ever-present risk of identity theft.

Have you left home without your cell phone? It’s means you’ve cut yourself off from your family, work associates, loved ones and pretty much the whole world.

Have you tried to get tickets for a sports event? It’s nerve wracking. Remember tickets you could hold in your hand and keep as souvenirs? They are gone. They only exist digitally on your phone. As for movie tickets, now we must select seats like we’re taking a flight to L.A. Have you tried to call your doctor lately, and have a live conversation with her or him? Remember when you could do that, and just go to their office? 

My point is none of these problems and frustrations existed in my parents’ time or even when I was a young man. Life was tactile then. Now it’s all digital. You touched a thing and then you bought it. On meeting a person you touched hands, looked in their eyes and felt their aura. Things worked out. People coped. 

It’s tempting to refer to the past as “simpler times” as though people were more innocent and naïve “back in the day.” But that would be wrong. Living has never been simple. People have always been complex, and society filled with tensions and disagreement. 

The difference is that the digital world is confusing and complicated. Things that used to be easy to learn to do are no longer easy. A case in point. Last summer I decided to ditch our ISP and to change our email addresses we’d had since forever to save money. My advice? Don’t try this. Six months later, I am still trying to stamp out my old email. Like crabgrass it keeps reappearing. Our new TV access protocol still baffles my wife. There are hundreds of channels, but we only watch a couple dozen. Why does It need to be so hard? Who benefits from this? 

This needless complexity is creating a gulf between the young and the old, between the well off and the poor, between those who access the digital world of computers, broadband, software, and apps and those who cannot because they are trying to feed themselves, pay the landlord and get medical care. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think ATMs are wonderful. Put in a card, out comes money. It never errs. Credit cards are great too. It’s neat I can Facetime my son in France, and I can pay bills electronically. My car has 110,000 miles and it still runs like a top. (My dad traded in cars every two years.) 

But what has it gotten us? In 2022 we have no more assurance about the future than did our forefathers. The Pandemic has reminded us that nature still rules. That we can take all the precautions, but know we are plain lucky to have escaped infection. 

Global warming threatens us and suddenly, our planet Earth feels small and vulnerable. Climate change is an existential threat like nothing in my lifetime since maybe Khrushchev’s threatening atomic warheads in Cuba signified the end of the world.  

We have epidemiologists, climatologists, stock and commodity brokers, financial planners, actuaries, insurers, pollsters, news analysts, historians, fortune tellers, diviners and astrologists — all telling us what may lie ahead and assigning probabilities and dates. We sure keep a lot of people of busy in our collective efforts to guarantee our tomorrows and build our expectations. 

They all serve our purposes, I suppose. But in the final analysis, bad things happen, good things happen. We hug those we love, weep for those we cannot help. But ultimately, our dog Willow has it right. She doesn’t know it’s going to snow. If there’s snow, she pays little notice, and just goes out to do her business.

We need to do that too. It’s time to lighten up, accept what we cannot control.

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but wanting to control it.

Kahlil Gibran

Don’t worry, be happy.

Bobby McFerrin

Part II –2nd Amendment Repeal

As it turns out, rescinding our Constitution’s 2nd amendment, as I proposed in my last post, is not a new idea and not mine alone. So I am happy and relieved to say that I am in good company. None other than John Paul Stevens, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court expressed his advocacy for eliminating the 2nd amendment in a New York Times piece published March 27, 2018.

Allow me to thank my son, Rick Schultz, for researching this source.

Justice Stevens’s cogent words bring an historical perspective, explaining how we got to where we are today: far, far distant from the Founders’ reasonable expectations. I quote verbatim from the New York Times:

John Paul Stevens: Repeal the Second Amendment

March 27, 2018

Rarely in my lifetime have I seen the type of civic engagement schoolchildren and their supporters demonstrated in Washington and other major cities throughout the country this past Saturday. These demonstrations demand our respect. They reveal the broad public support for legislation to minimize the risk of mass killings of schoolchildren and others in our society.

That support is a clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons, increasing the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old, and establishing more comprehensive background checks on all purchasers of firearms. But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment. [boldface mine]

Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century.

For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated militia.”

During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned Chief Justice Burger’s and others’ long-settled understanding of the Second Amendment’s limited reach by ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that there was an individual right to bear arms. I was among the four dissenters.

That decision — which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable — has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power. Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.

That simple but dramatic action would move Saturday’s marchers closer to their objective than any other possible reform. It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world. It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.

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Let’s be clear. Repealing the 2nd amendment will not eliminate guns. It will, however, allow state and local governments to constructively regulate them as best suits their respective communities. Thus the issue of what the Founders meant will be moot forever. People will still be able to keep a gun in their home for self defense.

In recent days well known historians Douglas Brinkley and Michael Beschloss are saying the current political discord is the scariest threat to our democracy since the pre-Civil War 1850s. Whether we talk about gun rights, Covid-19 anti-vaxxers, or Trump defeat-deniers, two themes emerge. There’s this “me-first” mentality that says my personal rights supersede the personal good of my neighbor. “You can’t make me where a mask. And not only that, but screw you and the horse you came in on.”

Second, as we mark the 20th anniversary of 9-11, the terrorist threat to America ironically no longer emanates from Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or even ordinary immigrants, but from fellow American citizens. Tragically, the national unity spawned by the 9-11 attacks has decayed to become the January 6, 2021 insurrection sacking the Capitol by our own citizens.

There are good things happening. The Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter — once believed improbable — are fundamentally changing America for the better. Now it’s time to kill the obsolete, putrefying 2nd amendment. Let’s put a fork in it.

Adieu to the 2nd Amendment

Despite its many amendments, the U. S. Constitution has suffered from two major flaws that have threatened to tear our nation apart. One was its failure to deal with slavery and its consequences. The Civil War was the result, and yet to this day, the issue of inequality among the races remains far from being resolved. 

The other serious flaw is the Second Amendment, which says, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The Constitution of the United States became effective in 1789, about 232 years ago. It has served our nation pretty well and become a model for other nations to try to emulate. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights were ratified two years later. These provided specific guarantees of personal freedoms and rights. 

While the 2nd Amendment once made practical sense, it is now obsolete and serves no purpose in modern America. In fact, the 2nd Amendment defeats the very purposes of the Constitution. It undermines “domestic tranquility,” does not provide for “the common defence”, and it threatens rather than promotes “the general welfare.” It does nothing to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Outrageously, the 2nd amendment actually tends to eliminate posterity.

The concept of militias, whether well-regulated or not, is also obsolete.

These words were crafted in a time when today’s modern arms were unimaginable to James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the principal authors. Even one hundred years later when territories of the Unites States were still being assimilated and tamed, ordinary rifles and guns were an essential tool for survival. 

Why do Americans need a “right” to own a gun, when we don’t need a “right” to own a car, a house or a washing machine?

Why do we Americans need a “right” to own a gun, when we don’t need a “right” to own a car, a house or a washing machine?

If the Constitution were being written in this century, no one would think to include the contents of the Second Amendment. Instead, a gun would be treated like any other domestic appliance or recreational gear. Those who would feel safer having a gun in their home would buy one. Others wouldn’t. Owning a gun would be like owning a fishing rod or a car, which you need a license to use. You might need to take a test to show you know how to handle it.

But because of the 2nd Amendment, none of this is possible. 

Guns have been regulated under Federal laws since the 1930s. Since then, the laws have been amended, strengthened and weakened too many times to keep track. Plus, each state has its own regulations. Confusion, complexity and loopholes lead to poor enforcement and consumer awareness. 

In America, defenders of the 2nd Amendment revere not just their right to own a gun, but the right to fire it. Otherwise, what’s the fun of just owning a gun? Target practice aside, the point is to be able to use it to kill something, whether it’s a grouse, moose or a person. Wounding barely provides any satisfaction at all.

For many Americans the 2nd amendment is the most important sentence in the Constitution

One big problem with the 2nd Amendment is that for many Americans, it is the most important sentence in the entire Constitution. For those folks, so long as you have the unmitigated right to own guns, as many and as powerful as you want, the rest of the Constitution is just window dressing. So much for the free speech, freedom of the press, and due process guarantees of the Constitution. Not for nothing did Samuel Colt’s six-shooter in the 1840s get called the “great equalizer.” Settling scores becomes easy. For the malcontent, loser and otherwise stupid guy, a gun can make a big man out of you in an instant.

If we don’t feel safe in our own community, then having a gun at home may make us feel better. But, in practice it’s not very workable. I have always wondered why in a mass shooting, no one ever fires back. I guess that’s because the family pistol is back home in the sock drawer, and you didn’t think you’d need it at the mall.

The proscription afforded by the 2nd Amendment of meaningful, effective regulation of firearms has resulted in massive proliferation of weapons. Anyone who wants a gun bad enough can get one illegally, and they do. In the big cities, daily multiple shootings and killings of young Black men should make us cry, but it doesn’t. Mass shootings of innocents, which used to shock our sentiments nationally, are only noteworthy until displaced by the next mass shooting. 

We struggle to know why. The media lead attempts to uncover the killer’s motivation, an utterly fruitless exercise. We hear the “if-onlys.” If only he had had counseling in school; had better parenting; his friends had reported his anger; hadn’t been released from jail; had been deported, ad nauseum. 

The utter randomness of road rage incidents and stray bullets killing children amounts to plain terrorism. Recently, gunfire occurred outside a mid-day Washington Nationals baseball game. Panicked fans ran to the exits. Players dove into the dugouts and the game was ended. I live in a safe urban neighborhood, but at night is it fireworks we hear, or are they gun shots that are not uncommon? In either case, there’s nothing to be done.

Repeal of the Second Amendment will imitate the 18th amendment, which abolished prohibition, and will read as follows:

“The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.”

Why would this work?

After repeal guns will still remain available

First, because guns will still remain available to anyone eligible to buy them. The difference will be that the federal and state governments will be able to regulate and tax their purchase, import and use like any other product with self-evident danger to consumers, like pesticides, electrical appliances, extension ladders, vehicles, medications and cigarettes. We accept and expect such regulations; no big deal. Second, because most Americans will want it.

This means we will see the end of mass murders with automatic weapons no longer being some sort of inalienable right to nullify life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of others. I know this will disappoint all those who have hoped to commit suicide by taking a lot of innocent by-standers with them. But there are plenty of high bridges around that can attract on-lookers. Also, a dramatic drop in gunplay on our streets will ensue, restoring domestic tranquility.

As for hunters, deer season will remain the same. 

Condominium Woes

The God-awful collapse of a 40-year old condominium tower in the town of Surfside, Florida and the instantaneous deaths of nearly 100 people who were sound asleep in their beds is the stuff of nightmares. It should raise certain concerns we all need to pay attention to.

I am not talking about the chance of a tall building falling down, which is about nil in Takoma Park. Instead, I find one of the most tragic aspects of the Champlain Towers South collapse is the failure of the condominium association to do anything about the known and alleged problems affecting the elemental structure of the building. 

None of Takoma Park’s large, multi-family buildings are less than 50 years old. Some are a good bit older.

Doubtlessly there were a number of factors contributing to the collapse, leading to a retrospective sequence of ‘if-onlys” going as far back in time perhaps to how the construction company poured the concrete underpinnings and laid rebar.

Survivors have have been quoted in the press that condo association members argued and were unable to agree on a plan to make repairs. Some condo board members resigned in protest and frustration, it is said.

This is the part that strikes me as the saddest. It’s not hard to imagine how the discussions might have gone at a condo board meeting:

“Can we trust the engineer’s report? . . It’s been this way for years; this is nothing we don’t already know . . .Things aren’t this bad . . . The costs will be too high . . . Some of us can’t afford higher assessments and we’ll have to move out . . . You’re being too much of a Cassandra . . . Major repairs will scare away buyers . . . Our units will lose value . . . Let’s just do some of the repairs now and the rest later . . . The pool needs repairs first . . . No it doesn’t . . .  The longer we wait, costs will go up.”

Add in possible personality clashes and that some members were either out of their depth or just disinterested. In the board’s defense, it is inevitable to expect resistance to big outlays, especially when they feel unprecedented in scope. Just look at humanity’s resistance to dealing with global warming (in case you have doubts). 

Condo association boards are made up of volunteers. The only qualification to serve is the mere fact you own a unit, and the time and interest to serve. As with most communities, only a few are going to come forward and your neighbors are simply grateful you are willing to show up for meetings.

I raise this issue here because in Takoma Park all the larger multi-family buildings – whether rentals or condos – are old by any definition. None are less than 50 years old, and some may be pushing 70 or 80 years. 

Let me explain where I come from on this issue. As a commercial real estate lender for many years, I handled loan requests from condo associations to finance major improvements to their facilities. In some cases, condo association boards wanted to borrower the money needed to make repairs and replacements rather that hit up unit owners with huge one-time assessments. 

For a bank to lend money to a condo association, it has to know that the loan will be paid back. Since there’s no collateral to secure a loan (every unit has a different owner), the bank must have confidence on a reliable cash flow. It does so by looking at reserves, the capacity to increase assessments if needed, the board’s competency, and facilities in relatively good condition. 

But often, a bank’s investigation reveals serious disqualifying problems. Champlain Towers South may not have qualified for a loan due its evident poor condition. 

It’s safe to say no one buys a condo unit because they want to run a condo association.

This catastrophe is a grim reminder to all condo owners (and those thinking of buying one) of the perils of condo ownership in the face of neglect, mismanagement and procrastination. 

It’s safe to say no one buys a condo unit because they want to run a condo association. Under most states’ laws there’s no requirement for transparency regarding a condo’s finances such as its reserves and financial condition. This information is private, secret and not available to the outside world, including any legal matters and the property’s condition. 

Purchasing a condo unit in not unlike buying a used car. You can walk the property, kick the tires, talk to the property manager (who is a hired gun), speak to any unit owners you may know and then you take the plunge. Actually, this may be unfair to used car dealers. I’ve purchased nothing but used cars for the past 40 years. With a dealership, you at least get guarantees and recourse to a car’s history.

Well managed condominiums undertake a “reserve study” every five years. (Very old buildings should have it done every 3 years.) It requires contracting with an engineering firm to examine every component of the building(s) including the foundation, roof, exterior walls, all openings, and the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, incinerator, elevator, security and life safety systems. Even things like parking surfaces, pools, railings, balconies.

In Maryland before 2020 there was no law requiring condos to do reserve studies. The Maryland Condominium Act pertaining only to Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties (not to the rest of the state) was amended to require performing a reserve study every 5 years for “common property major structural components.” It requires that the funding recommended by the reserve study for repair/replacement be included in an association’s annual budget for that year and the study be made available to all owners. The law gives condo associations the added authority to override any restrictions in the organization’s charter documents that otherwise might limit assessment increases.

The engineer assigns a life expectancy for each component and the estimated replacement or repair cost. The condo board has the authority to budget for these replacements and set aside a portion of assessment income in a reserve fund. It can increase assessments. That way, when the roof has to be replaced, the money is there. There is money to replace common area carpets, paint stairwells and hallways and upgrade security cameras and laundry rooms. 

A more extensive description of the Maryland state law can be found here.

This is an important improvement in Maryland law. However, inherent weaknesses remain, because the law cannot force a condo association to actually increase the assessments or to actually make the repairs. Apparently, the amended law does not require that a condominium’s financial and physical condition be made public. 

Still, the law may go a long way to increasing awareness and higher expectations among existing unit owners. It will help would-be condo unit buyers to be more cognizant of risks.

Of course, apartment buildings are just as subject to the ravages of time and neglect. Our City needs to pay attention to these as well.

The SHA and the TPSS Co-op

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

U.S. Army Major, Vietnam, 1968

Not everyone I know shops at the TPSS Food Co-op. As with any retail business, there are those who prefer other places to buy groceries. Be that as it may, it’s safe to say that no one disputes that the Co-op is a Takoma Park institution, a signature business with many devoted patrons that helps define the character of Takoma Park.

So why is it that the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) appears to have a regulatory stranglehold around the Co-op’s neck that threatens to put it out of business? This, notwithstanding that the Co-op has thousands of members and defenders including the prominent Peter Franchot, Maryland’s Comptroller, who lives almost across the street from the store.

The future of the Co-op and indeed of the whole highly trafficked intersection known as Takoma Junction, will reach a critical turning point this month (June) when the Takoma Park City Council votes to either support or vote down a redevelopment project on the city-owned parking lot immediately adjacent to the Co-op. The sentiment of the 7-member city council is not really in doubt. Through a couple of mayors, three city managers and four city elections, a stable majority of the city council has always supported redevelopment of the city-owned parcel. Neighborhood Development Company (NDC), a local minority-owned development firm, plans to build a 2-story, 40,762 square foot commercial building with underground parking to contain neighborhood shops and eateries.

(In the interest of full disclosure, for eight years I was one of those councilmembers supporting the redevelopment.)

The Layby

What casts a cloud over the outcome of the city council vote and the future of the Co-op itself is the SHA’s refusal to permit construction of a 12 x 140-foot long layby in front of the Co-op on Carroll Avenue. It will accommodate daily deliveries from 53-foot-long tractor trailers. These deliveries are the “life blood of the Co-op,” Diane Curran, president of the Co-op’s Board of Representatives, told me. The Co-op has no control over the size of the trucks, she said. Also, the Co-op’s building has limited inventory storage space, which means the timeliness of deliveries is critical.

Absent a layby of sufficient dimensions, the Co-op cannot survive. It is as simple as that. Currently, deliveries arrive through the city-owned parking lot. From 1998 to 2016, the city leased the lot to the Co-op to allow off-street truck deliveries. The lease became a sub-lease in 2016 when the city signed a 99-year lease and a Development Agreement with NDC, so deliveries have continued. In 2018 the Co-op and NDC signed a Cooperation Agreement in which the Co-op agreed “not to oppose” NDC’s proposed commercial development and NDC agreed to build the layby and adjacent off-loading space in accordance with the Co-op’s specifications. It details a layby made of concrete and flush with the adjoining 7-foot wide sidewalk area so electric pallet jacks can safely and quickly move heavy loads into the store’s receiving area.

In 2018 the city council adopted Resolution 2018-41 contingently endorsing NDC’s project plans. This was a prerequisite for NDC’s submitting its site plan application to the Montgomery County Planning Department. Together with the Cooperation Agreement and the 2016 City / NDC Development Agreement and ground lease, these documents all support the Co-op’s continuation and economic viability and the construction of a layby. It signifies that the layby will be built first to assure uninterrupted deliveries.

The Origins

This project “began” in 2012 when a Council-appointed citizen group, the Takoma Junction Task Force, issued its 105-page report recommending how the city-owned lot should be put to use. In hindsight, the scope and breath of the group’s work over nearly two years was more than commendable. The city council (on which I served) took the report to heart and tried to realize the Task Force’s recommendations.

As a result, NDC’s proposed site plan fundamentally honors the main ideas expressed in that report. The essence of the report boils down to one sentence on page 66:

“A majority of the participants would support a multi-use development on the city-owned lot, including a potential Co-op expansion, provided that such a development did not impact traffic on Columbia/Sycamore Avenues, maintained an adequate level of parking in the Junction as a whole, and improved the attractiveness and livability of the Junction.”

(There was also “broad” support for a place for “non-permanent business activities,” cultural gatherings, games, music and dancing. Whether the proposed project can accommodate some of these functions remains to be seen.)

The SHA

Now at the 11th hour, the SHA has expressed in writing an adverse opinion on the feasibility of the proposed lay-by, citing engineering design hazards. On May 24, SHA wrote, As stated in our May 17 letter it has not been adequately demonstrated the network can safely support the layby lane at this location, therefore we cannot approve it as currently proposed.

Woah! That’s heavy stuff! The SHA’s stance is not necessarily determinative, but it has created doubt and confusion among public officials I’ve spoken to. The Montgomery County Planning Board holds final approval authority.

Strangely, the SHA’s objections lack so little substance as to verge on the immaterial. No civil engineering degree is needed to suss these out. SHA’s letter of April 6, 2021 (and subsequent ones on May 17 and May 24 that repeat the same concerns) to NDC’s traffic consultant, The Traffic Group, objects to inadequate “sight lines” on Carroll Avenue for an eastbound driver approaching the future layby and the parking garage exit (where today there’s already an exit from the parking lot). To illustrate, when a highway bends, a driver must be able to see far enough ahead in time to brake for unexpected things in the path. At speeds of, say, 55 mph, a sight line needs to be longer than, say, at 40 mph. At 15 mph, the sight line can be very short. In stop and go traffic, sight line is irrelevant.

The latter is the case in the Junction where traffic moves slowly. Proof? The Sycamore and Philadelphia Avenue intersections lie 500 feet apart. In this span there are 3 stop lights, a fire station, 3 bus stops, 7 private-property curb cuts and 3 painted crosswalks. Except maybe late at night when everything is closed, traffic never speeds through the Junction because it can’t. SHA’s own Visioning Study acknowledges the chronic traffic delays.

SHA’s second objection seems to be fear that a semi in the layby “may overhang” the bicycle lane “posing an increased risk to cyclists.” AASHTO, the bible that SHA references for road design standards, posits a 12-foot width for a layby for 8 ½-foot wide tractor trailers, the same width as an Interstate Highway Lane.

SHA’s third objection is that the equipment employed to move goods from the truck to the Co-op will interfere with people on the sidewalk (which is routine in every downtown in America).

Why?

Each of the above objections is immaterial – to put it kindly – for three reasons. First, the layby lane will be built on private land and add to the width the road; not interfere with it. Second, SHA’s arbitrary insistence on these sight line standards is tantamount to preventing any commercial use ever being built on the city-owned lot. Third, contrast this with the two-thirds of a mile of Ethan Allen Ave (Rte 410) between Sycamore and New Hampshire Ave, all of which fails to meet SHA’s lane and sidewalk standards and has no bicycle lane at all, not even a “sharrow”. Strangely, the SHA is quite content with that, but not for the Junction block. Thanks, however, solely to NDC’s site plan, there will be a safe bike lane and 6-foot wide sidewalks.

We’re forced to ask:   Why is the SHA being stubborn, pedantic, arbitrary and obtuse by withholding its approval of the layby that the TPSS Co-op desperately needs to survive?

Why is the SHA applying modern AASHTO standards to an urban infill development site abutting quirky roads that were laid out over 100 years ago?

Why does the SHA show no interest in reconfiguring the Carroll – Ethan Allen – Sycamore confluence? That would cure lots of headaches.

Why has the SHA taken 2 years to “study” and raise objections through the County’s Development Review process that normally requires a 30-day response? (NDC began exploring the layby concept with the SHA at least 3 years ago.)

Why did the SHA take over a year to produce a vacuous “Visioning Study” on the Junction’s future, which, unbelievably, ignored traffic improvements –– the whole point of the study? Perhaps the biggest let-down since Y2K or the Maginot Line.

The Stakes

This isn’t funny. The Co-op’s future hangs by this thread. No, it’s not NDC’s fault because NDC is building the layby for the Co-op, which NDC would otherwise not need nearly as big. Regardless of the outcome of NDC’s proposed site plan, the parking lot will not be available for the Co-op’s deliveries in the future because NDC and/or the City will build something there.

The Co-op needs a permanent layby now and for the future.

As to the “why,” rumors abound that certain high elected officials have pushed the SHA to help block NDC’s project from going forward. That could well be the case given the tenacity of opponents to the project. If true, such people are sadly misguided or awfully confused.

An iconic quote emerged at the height of the Vietnam War when the reporter Peter Arnett quoted a U.S. Army major who said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Later the quote became a tag line for the war itself about the U.S. forces having to bomb Vietnam in order to save it.

Opponents may win the battle, but lose the Co-op, which could move somewhere else. I have said it before: the opponents know how to oppose (that’s easy), but no two of them appear to agree on what they want instead (that’s hard).

As for the Co-op, despite the pandemic, the organization is strong financially and organizationally. At one time the Co-op vigorously opposed NDC’s proposed development in favor of its ambition to expand its store onto the city-owned lot. But in 2018, the Co-op dropped its expansion plans and opted to work out a quid pro quo with NDC. The Co-op has abided by the Cooperation Agreement ever since.

No one has said this to me, but unless the layby gets approved, it seems pretty clear to me the Co-op may have no other choice but to consider greener fields.

The Train to Rehoboth Beach

Ask yourself: When was the last time you rode a train (not counting the Metro)? Unless you commute on the MARC or VRE systems, it’s not likely you have or will anytime soon. We all know why.

Outside of North America, I’ll wager that in every other industrialized country in the world, passenger trains are a prominent, if not the preferred, means of regional travel. 

Imagine – if you will – taking a train to Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach and back again. (No Bay Bridge backups.) Imagine a fast trip to the capital in Annapolis. (No problems parking.) And then from Annapolis to Baltimore. How about frequent, reliable connections to Baltimore, Frederick, Fredericksburg, Leesburg, Charles Town and Charlottesville?

Large, high density metropolises like New York, Chicago, Boston and all across Europe and Asia have extensive rail services that radiate 40 to 60 miles into the countryside, interconnecting with towns and supplemented by bus lines. In Europe, a spaghetti of rail lines makes it possible to practically “go anywhere” any day in the region. Here’s a taste of the spaghetti: Cologne’s Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine handles 1,200 trains per day. I saw it for myself.

Unlike roads, rail service responds easily to population growth and seasonal shifts by adding or subtracting cars and service frequencies. 

Changes in our dependence on the automobile, a warming climate, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ubiquity of video conferencing have converged to shift how we conduct our lives. The at-home/at-work boundary is totally blurred. Leisure time too.  Consider.  Where we are physically at any given moment matters less and less than at any time in human history. In a sense, these days we can be in two places at once. We can be at home and at work at the same time. We can be on vacation on an island or a ski lift and remain on the job. We can be traveling abroad and be “with” anyone we need to. 

Our reliance on cars consequently is diminishing. Families may be choosing to own one less car. In terms of the global climate, this is a good thing of course. Recently in Fort Myers, Florida an area of retirement communities, sprawling suburbs and shopping malls, I saw an abundance of battery-charged “golf carts” on streets and even golf-cart dealers selling these things. 

Despite these evident trends, in Maryland and the “DMV” area, one gets the feeling it’s still the 1990s. Governor Hogan pursues his ambitions to dramatically widen I-270 and the American Legion bridge, as well as I-495 (the Maryland portion of the Beltway) by adding two High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in each direction to relieve congestion. I-270 already has seven lanes in many sections. Picture each exit requiring double entrance and exit ramps with flyovers. Every crossover bridge will have to be lengthened. 

The estimated cost started out in 2019 at $9 billion and has now moved up to $11 billion. For comparison purposes, the literal design, land acquisition and construction of the 16-mile Purple Line was to have cost about $2.4 billion. 

The argument in favor of adding lanes is the region’s projected growth and already congested commuter routes. The Washington Post sadly has editorialized in favor of Hogan’s plan. Maryland has a governor in love with roads. He says so and his actions bespeak it.

Let’s recall in 2015 Governor Hogan killed the $2.9 billion Red Line in Baltimore which would have served the Black neighborhoods, which to this day remained embittered. Hogan said the State could not afford it. That project, which was further along than the Purple Line, was to have been completed in 2020. Hogan left 900 million in Federal dollars on the table. Black Lives Matter would not let him get away with this today.

Maryland officials say the road widenings will not cost taxpayers anything because it will pay for itself from tolls.  It was recently announced that it will cost $2 billion alone to relocate the underground storm water systems. Like the Purple Line, Mr. Hogan intends to build and operate the completed project through a “P-3” mechanism (public private partnership). This clever approach has private companies finance, build, operate and own the rail line because it’s supposed to be cheaper and faster to do it that way. The Purple Line broke ground in August 2017 with the promise it would be done in 2022. The contractor quit last year and work has all but stopped. At 40% completion, Maryland’s DOT candidly confesses no earthly idea when the project will be completed. So much for a P-3.

As with any massive public project the engineers and elected officials obviously have to convince taxpayers the project is needed, rational and affordable. And, that there is no better alternative. The inherent fallacy is that it’s humanly impossible to project the true costs, the duration of work and whether the outcome will achieve its promise. The reality? Once construction gets underway, it’s too late. It’s “Katy bar the door” by that time, as they say. I can hear it now. “But, but you said [fill in the blank].” 

Experience with road widenings around the world tells us that inevitably empty lanes attract more cars. The project has met opposition from many quarters, which I’m not repeating here. Instead, I pose questions that should challenge most peoples’ credulity. 

➤     What are the chances the project will greatly exceed cost estimates?  

➤     Is it wise to have a profit-driven organization determine toll rates?

➤     What happens if toll revenue is not large enough to carry the billions in debt?

➤     Do you really believe we will get all this with “no net cost” to the taxpayers?

➤     What happens if the P-3 partnership breaks down à la the Purple Line?

➤     Suppose the expanded lanes get re-congested in five years, then what?

➤     To get across the Potomac, do we really want an all-of our-eggs-in-a-one-basket 12-lane American Legion bridge?

More to the point, instead of spending, say $20 billion to do widenings — a solution whose outcome is seriously problematic — and is utterly antithetical to President Biden’s climate goals, we should be planning rapid rail lines either alongside of or elevated above I-270 to Frederick, and Route 50 to Annapolis.  In other words, it is time to stop this scheme dead in its tracks and shift to a whole new paradigm. Covid-19 has changed the world and Climate Change is upon us. There is still time. 

Whether the American Legion Bridge gets widened or not, imagine for a moment an elevated high-speed train from Rockville zipping above the western Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve and crossing the Potomac River into Leesburg, Front Royal and Harrisonburg with transfers along the way to Arlington, Winchester and Charlottesville. 

We have enough roads. More roads are never going to get us to our destination any faster than they do today.

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Thank You, Donald

We don’t know yet whether the loser of the 2020 presidential election will quietly slip out of a side door of the White House on January 20 or whether a bunch of Secret Service agents will wrestle the hefty Trump as he clings to the bedpost kicking and pleading, “No, no. I won, I won. Let go of me, damn’t.”

Either way, Donald Trump’s reign will end ingloriously as he and his failed administration get tossed onto the scrap heap of history.

But wait!

Notwithstanding his ignominy, we Americans owe Trump a debt of gratitude for enabling us to re-learn vital lessons that seem to have been lost to us over the past 40 years. President Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address, said famously, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.”

What Reagan started, Trump finished. On his path to autocracy, he’s cowed his own political party so it no longer knows what it stands for; demanded loyalty to himself alone; illegally augmented his personal wealth; belittled military leaders and invented the “deep state.”

He has single-handedly engendered the greatest internal threat to our Republic since the Civil War. Half our nation is not speaking to the other half, as is Congress.

In times of peace and prosperity, perhaps it is natural we take for granted our Republic’s foundational principles. Four years ago our invincible (we thought) Ship of State hit an iceberg. Our ship listed and lost its steerage way, but did not sink. Looking back over the past 46 months at the flotsam Trump left behind, it’s apparent that Trump has failed abjectly, leaving virtually no legacy of accomplishment. Nothing to remember his time in office. Not even a border wall.   

73 million Americans voted for Trump for what they thought were good reasons. The other half of America needs to understand why. The best explanation I’ve read for Trump’s support is: “They do not embrace him in spite of the schoolyard insults, Twitter tantrums and conspiracy nonsense, but because of these things,” according to Kevin D. Williamson (11/15/20 Washington Post). As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

So, what are the lessons learned?  

o  Our Constitution has been tested and withstood terrible adversity. Thanks to our system of checks and balances that disperses power among three branches, it has proved impregnable to Trump’s autocratic destructiveness.

o  At a dreadful cost in blood, Blacks have found their voice at the ballot box and in the streets. Trump’s championing of White supremacy has exposed the scope of unvarnished racism in our country. As a Black neighbor said to me, “Trump got the racists to take their hoods off.”

o  Trump’s flagrant misogyny has motivated women to fight to achieve elective office like never before. 

o  Barring immigration and immigrants weakens our society. Among all of us, they love liberty more. Their hard work and determination strengthens our country. Always has.

o  Americans need and want an ethical, experienced, intelligent, responsive leader in the White House. Trump is void of any virtues. 

o  Shockingly, however, only half of the electorate can tell the difference, apparently.

o  We do actually need a national government. The 50 states can do some things well, but not fight infectious diseases, deal with natural disasters, set immigration policy, support scientific research, guarantee health care or deliver the mail.

o  We’ve learned that the federal deficit is not a meaningful fiscal parameter except when the President is a Democrat.

o  Science and politics do not mix. 

o  America can’t be run like a business; to do so is antithetical to democracy for which there is no “bottom line.”

o  There is no “deep state.” The Civil Service that operates our national government is made of dedicated professional bureaucrats who form the bedrock underpinning our Republic.

o  Trump has set a new standard of presidential incompetence. He has elevated the historical standing of his 44 predecessors.

o  We have witnessed in this century the dissolution of the Republican Party as the standard bearer of conservatism into group of subservients obedient to and terrified of Trump. Except for a few, these Republicans have sacrificed their ability to speak for themselves in furtherance of their loyalty to Trump.

o  The political chaos, cynicism and mistrust over recent administrations makes it evident that many Americans, regardless of their political leanings, have little idea of how our Republic works, where sovereignty lies, the structure of our national government and the content of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

o  Of paramount importance is schools doing a better job teaching our kids the Bill of Rights, in particular the First Amendment, and that can’t start too young. Trump will fade fast, like a match on a wet campfire. But he has given us a teaching moment, so let’s use it to teach young people to have faith in government and take pride in public service. 

Flat Property Taxes

Controversy abounds these days between the two candidates for Mayor of Takoma Park, the incumbent, Kate Stewart and challenger Roger Schlegel. Regardless of who one supports, the contest forces each of us to think deeper about our values and ideologies. One of the top issues concerns property taxes. Mr. Schlegel asserts that taxes have risen considerably under the Mayor’s five years of leadership and Ms. Stewart says that’s not true: yes, taxes have gone up due to inflation and rather inconsistent assessments across the city, but tax rates have gone down and the City has run a tight ship.

I am paraphrasing and generalizing what the two candidates have said in their numerous respective oral comments and written responses. Who is right on this issue? 

Anyone who owns property here is naturally concerned about the seeming relentless rise in property taxes, not just for themselves, but also out of concern over the affordability of housing in general.

Part I

Montgomery County does the tax billing for all the municipalities in the County as well as for itself.  The statement that we recieve shows assessment figures, tax rates and charges due. It can be a bit confusing for many people. First, to make sense of it, I am going to refer to the real property tax bill that the Schultz household receives.

There’s a list of dollar figures under the “tax/charge” heading that contains the following:

State property tax$476.00
County property tax$4,212.60
Takoma Park property tax$2,293.73
Solid waste charge$31.19
Takoma Park special$92.00
TOTAL$7,105,52
Actual 2020-21 Real Property Tax Bill

To simplify the math, I will omit the last two lines. The first three lines add up to $6,982. The combination of State and County figures equals $4,688, which is exactly 67% of the total. Takoma Park’s portion adds up to 33%. 

Bluntly put, this means that only one-third of the Schultz’s tax bill results from Takoma Park taxation. When we write our check, two-thirds is owed to the County and State and only about $2,300 goes to my city.

Part II

Keep the above in mind as we look at property tax rates. The City Council annually sets a tax rate for the coming fiscal year. The rate is expressed as X cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value. 

Not to go too far astray here, but it may help you to know that the State of Maryland determines the assessment of every property in Maryland. (The “assessed value” has only a casual relationship to the actual “market value” of one’s property.) The State assesses properties on a 3-year (triennial) cycle. If your property’s assessment goes up and the tax rate remains the same, then your bill will go up too. But the City Council can and does lower the rate as much as possible to keep our tax bills from rising too much. Unfortunately the County does not always do this. Its $5.8 billion operating budget has to pay for the schools.

The table below shows how tax rates have changed over the past 10 years from 2010 to 2019. These numbers come from annual city audits:

Property Tax Rate Comparison by Taxing
Jurisdiction in Dollars per $100 of
Assessed Value
change
FY 2010FY 2019
1City of Takoma Park0.58000.5291– .0509
2State of Maryland0.11200.11200
3Montgomery County0.68300.7166+ .0336
4M-NCPPC0.06900.0740+ .0050
5Transit District “Ride On”0.03700.0672+ .0302
6Recreation Areas0.01900.0264+ .0071
TOTAL1.50001.5250
Source: CAFR, fiscal year 2019, page 100

Notice that over the past 10 years Takoma Park’s tax rate has gone down from 58.0 cents to 52.9 cents = a reduction of over 5 cents. Maryland has not changed its rate. Lines 3, 4, 5 and 6 are all Montgomery County, which added together show the County has raised its tax rate by .0759 cents = an increase of 7.6 cents.

While Takoma Park has been steadily reducing its tax rate, the County has been raising its rate. Even worse, the County’s impact is twice as heavy because their share of the bill is twice as big as the City’s. As a consequence, even if the City Council lowers our rate and the County raises its rate, our tax bill goes up. Yes, some years the City has raised our tax rate because of exigencies.

Our Mayor and City Council are fighting a losing battle. Our tax bills go up each year largely because of the County. So, while the perception may be that the City is increasing our tax burden a lot, that is not the case. So, the answer to the question is that, for the most part, the City has either not been raising our property taxes or doing so quite modestly. It’s a mistake to say otherwise.

Part III

The City’s revenues come from many sources, the property tax being the largest percentage. Did you know that the property tax is the only revenue source over which the city has full control? Intergovernmental revenues are large, but almost all of it is restricted to designated purposes. By law the City cannot introduce a new tax. The County can.

Roughly 74 percent of the City FY’21 budget, excluding capital projects and debt service, is attributable to personnel costs; that is, salaries and benefits. This means in order to do large enough cuts to materially reduce our property tax bills, the Council would likely have to lay off a lot of people. Let me illustrate.

If the City Council chose to reduce our budget by 2%, say, that would mean a household’s $6,000 annual property tax bill would go down by about $40. That’s hardly of consequence. However, for the City, it is signifcant: about $280,000. If we multiply that by 74% = $207,000 which is a reduction of two lower salary level employees and the services they support. The bigger the reductions the more lay-offs.

Part IV

The current FY’21 budget does not raise our tax bill. The City Council set a tax rate equal to last year’s rate. The Council has built into the budget certain expenditure “holds” totaling $1.3 million due to uncertainties related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The “holds” come from leaving staff vacancies unfilled and other short term cuts. This money is held in the unrestricted General Reserve until the Council can decide via budget amendments where and when the money can best be used. The 2021 budget includes a new Covid-19 Fund of $440,000 to respond to the need “for direct assistance to business owners, housing assistance for vulnerable families, COVID-19 personal protective equipment purchases, and workforce development assistance” [2021 adopted budget, page 3].

So . . . . . I hope this contribution can help calm nerves about our city taxes and the conscientiousness of our City Manager and Councilmembers. We have enough to worry about with the “Crazy Uncle” in the Whitehouse without having to invent new ones in Takoma Park.

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Our New Library

With the city election coming up November 3, now is a good time to explain the reasons for Takoma Park’s rebuilding and expanding our library. There seems to be some misconceptions about the project and some bad information circulating.

To help folks sort this out, let’s look at it from two angles: first the “why” and second, the money to build it. 

Our library has been described in public testimony as the “Soul of the City;” it’s cultural heart. Its plentiful programs and holdings capture a broad patronage among all ages and from every social and economic segment of our city. In contrast, the County library in Silver Spring isn’t about that at all.

Built 65 years ago, our library is a 9,400 sq. ft. utilitarian building with no enduring qualities. It has outlasted its useful life. It is obsolete by many standards and must be rebuilt. Prior to the new Community Center, it was a stand-alone building. The attempt to connect the two structures led to a confusing, inefficient waste of space. This part of the Community Center will be remodeled as part of the library re-build.

It is constructed of uninsulated masonry walls and windows. The ventilation systems are old and failing and are inadequate for the Covid-19 pandemic. A low ceiling eliminates room for new ventilation ducts above the dropped ceilings. There are no sprinklers. Structural weakness prevents adding an upper floor. The concrete floor sits below the flood plain and is decaying. 

There’s not enough space for the collections and new technology; for young people to be comfortable reading and studying; or to serve children’s programming needs.

Cramped employee work stations, out of public view, look like something from a horror movie. A small storage room serves as the employee conference/lunch space. Restrooms are obsolete and ADA non-compliant. Aisles in the book stacks are too narrow per ADA and lack wheelchair turn-around space. The 84” high shelves are too high for many people. Tall shelves severely limit staff visibility and limit light and air circulation. Both natural and internal light are inadequate. To comply with ADA, a lot of library space would be lost.

You can finds tons of information, data, photos and design renderings on the City’s “Library Renovation/Reconstruction” web site here.

The Money

In 2017, the City Council approved, 7 to 0, issuance of a $9,000,000 infrastructure bond, of which $7 million is earmarked for the library. The remainder is for the Flower Avenue Green Street and related purposes. These funds are in hand, effectively in escrow, and are by law restricted for the designated use: the design, engineering, construction and outfitting of the library and other listed purposes. 

It’s important to understand that the bond money does not belong, per se, to the City’s taxpayers. It is borrowed money and did not come out of taxpayers’ pockets. Like any loan, you have to spend it the way the lender requires. 

Some people feel the City cannot afford a new library. But in fact we can. Repayment of the bond is spread out over 30 years, rather like a home mortgage. The City Council determined that the City could indeed afford the semi-annual payments within the City’s yearly budgets. The City still has surplus borrowing capacity within its self-imposed prudent borrowing limits. 

I know some residents question the need for a new library and suggest abandonment of the project because of the costs. Here’s why this doesn’t make sense:

(1) Our community needs the library. Killing the library runs counter to our town’s core values in a time when racial equity frames our social ethos. Our library lies steps away from three public schools. Many nearby residents have limited means of mobility and no broadband access. Our library greatly helps compensate for that. 

(2) Greg Lukemire of the Lukemire Partnership in 2016 presented 12 different design options for the library covering every possible solution. These have been narrowed down based on Council and community input and surveys. All this would be wasted including hundred of thousands of dollars in fees. It would discredit the work of every City Councilmember since 2014 who have voted unanimously without exception for this project.

3) It would mean having no library at all in the near future, according to City Manager Suzie Ludlow. That would be a considerable loss that no one would be happy with. The present library is simply too hazardous for employees, patrons and children, made even worse by the pandemic. The bond funds would then need to be used to pay off the bond holders. There’s zilch to be gained by killing the library.

This fall the City Council will be reviewing and making alterations to Lukemire’s final plans. The current projected cost estimate is $8.43 million, according to Deputy City Manager, Jessica Clarke. But certain project components could be omitted to pare costs. Meanwhile, the City has won $300,000 in state bond bills (grants) pegged for the project. Additionally, the City can access substantial restricted cable grant funds. 

Tentatively, after the bid process and permitting, actual construction could begin next spring. How can we not be excited about the prospect of a beautiful new building providing so many new resources for everyone?