Shadowing the City Council, in a Good Way

A lot of people have offered to support my campaign for city council in 2017. Thank you! But that isn’t what I need at this time, now that the disappointment has worn off. Yes, I admit, even though it is virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent (simple math, really), I was disappointed in the outcome Tuesday evening.

They (still) need our help…

Our friends and frenemies on City Council still need our help to envision the future, define the mission, develop ideas, set policies, and direct the city manager on how to implement Council’s decisions. This is a lot of work for anyone, but especially for a part-time elected representative.

I hope you will join me, not in waiting two (or more) years for an incumbent to retire but to follow the issues facing council every week. Tuesday night was a great example. I asked Konrad, Rodney, and Emmett where they stood on the issue of lowering the Homestead Tax Credit limit, from 10% to 2%. A decision needs to be made by November 25, so we need to engage the community and come to a decision real soon. My discussion with Konrad got a little heated on my part when he said he didn’t have a position, that he needed to know the impact…

If you don’t know the impact, then you’re not doing your job.

Ouch, OK that was rather harsh. I apologized later. And, more importantly, I pledged to help him research and understand the impact of setting the limit lower, and to understand many future issues especially issues tied to community and economic development.

BUT, the budget, IMHO, is the most important work conducted by the council. Members of council should know the city budget revenue and expenditures, both current and forecast for the next couple of years. This includes knowing how much revenue comes from residential property taxes and how much of that comes from home owners.

In hindsight, I should have known this issue myself long before these last few weeks of the 2015 campaign. I should have raised the issue at the work session on 9/23, to prompt the mayor to request an analysis of the impact of changing the Homestead Credit limit. If I had, then perhaps Konrad would have had a different answer.

Working together, we will stay informed and make better decisions

That is the bottom line. Please consider joining my “shadow council” team, to attend council meetings, work sessions, and committee meetings, working to keep everyone aware and informed of important issues facing our wonderful community.

Cover photo credit: Ramsey County, Minnesota

Council and Property Taxes

Revenue for the current FY 2016 city budget now exceeds the pre-recession level, $26.4 million vs $25.0 million in FY 2010. This recovery occurred despite large drops in the triennial residential property assessments, 12% in 2009 and 14% in 2012.

What does the future hold?

The three year assessment performed in 2012 has expired and a new 2015 assessment will be used (in combination with the tax rate set by the council) to set tax bills for the next three years. Council (city and county) are betting that property values have increased, by as much as 35-50% in some cases. Quoting our current FY 2016 city budget:

“An analysis of recent sales of Greenbelt homes comparing the sales price to the current assessed values reveals the sales prices are an average of 36% higher than the assessed value. With Greenbelt being reassessed this year, it is expected there will be a noticeable uptick in the new assessed values which will positively impact the FY 2017 through 2019 budgets.” (Adopted Budget – Introduction, 2015 p. 3)

A 35-50% increase in property taxes?!?

No, it’s not that bad.

To help homeowners deal with large assessment increases on their principal residence, state law has established the Homestead Property Tax Credit. The Homestead Credit limits the increase in taxable assessments each year to a fixed percentage. (Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation)

BUT, the deadline to set the Homestead Credit limit is fast approaching. Every county (by Nov 15) and municipality (by Nov 25) must set next year’s limit on tax increases due to property assessment changes. No action will keep the limit the same. If no action has ever been taken, the limit of taxable value change is 10%.

The county has already acted and next year the county limit is 0%. I.e. regardless of your new property assessment that will be disclosed next year, your county taxes will not increase (unless they vote for a tax rate increase, of course).

Projected annual property tax increase: County 0% vs Greenbelt 10%

The city’s limit is at 10%. Why the difference? Simple. The county limit is tied, by County Charter law, to the annual change in the Consumer Price Index. Greenbelt has no such law, and city council did not see it necessary to take action on their own initiative. Ever.

The new council meets on Nov 9 and 23rd. Shall we try to get the council to take action, e.g. to set the limit to something reasonable like 0-2%? Or are folks ok with the default 10% limit?

We’re talking about millions of dollars here: $1.6 million per year

The current value of Greenbelt property is about $1.9 billion. If we assume just a 25% increase in assessed value, equal to the drop of the two recession year assessments, and a modest 2% annual growth, the city will collect $1.6 million more in annual revenue. This is assuming we do nothing and let the Homestead Tax Credit stay at 10%, and that everyone eligible for the credit will remember to apply for it.

However, if we instead set the Homestead Credit limit at 2%, the city will still see a significant increase in collected revenue, close to $700,000 per year. And we would see this revenue increase continue into the future for a couple of decades!

I think the choice is obvious.

No one likes higher taxes, but a gradual increase over 15-20 years is much better than a massive shock over 3 years. The longer period gives residents an opportunity to evaluate revenue needs of new projects, maybe pressure the council for tax relief, AND it gives the council time to develop the commercial tax base through economic development.

I ask for your vote on Tuesday, but regardless of the outcome, I’ll press the new council to act to set the Homestead Credit limit to a reasonable value.

Special Business District

The incumbent candidates for City Council have had ample time to develop a plan of action to evaluate and take advantage of the special business district created by the County Council.

587 days and counting…

So I don’t buy it when they say they need time to study it. If true, they would have referred the issue to the Advisory Planning Board in April of 2014. Instead, as I was told, they sent a simple “thank you” letter back to the County Council.

At a minimum, this district, targeted at the science and technology sector, can provide expedited review and approval of plans and designs, and tax incentives for qualified businesses. Read the full resolution CR-7-2014 where the County Council commits to “pursue the full range of public economic incentives for facilities, equipment, and related infrastructure necessary to support science and technology development within the District.”

I have proposed we form a special task force to focus on economic development opportunities and number one on their agenda would be to engage our neighbors and both the County Council and the newly formed state Department of Commerce in developing a coordinated plan for this new sci-tech district.

Maryland’s Silicon Valley?

No, it is not likely that Greenbelt would develop into a San Jose as the center of a Maryland version of Silicon Valley. Our first goal should be to compete with Reston and the Dulles Technology Corridor, and with Rockville and the I-270 Tech Corridor. The model of what we need to do is not complicated and the examples of how to implement it are not hard to find.

One twist to our story could be a strength that we draw from our unique history. There are just a few areas in the country who are building a culture that supports technology worker cooperatives. We can easily add Greenbelt to that map.

The Many Faces of Economic Development

The final News Review question of this campaign season is on economic development. Should the city have an economic development program and, if so, what kind of development should it seek?”

Council should work with residents to create a vision of our city’s future, build consensus support for desired changes, and set achievable goals. We need to then design a sustainable economic development program that addresses several areas of opportunity to support those goals.

Many residents have a negative reaction to the suggestion of development of any kind. Some, with good justification, fear the risk of change, risks like environmental damage, increased traffic congestion, impact on schools and city services, spiralling property values and related taxes, and gentrification of neighborhoods. But these are risks we face that are made worse by the lack of planning and without program support.

The North Core of Greenbelt Station is the last remaining undeveloped property zoned for commercial development. Securing the site for the new FBI headquarters will create commerce, additional local jobs, and attract new residents. We need to support businesses seeking to relocate or expand to contract with the FBI, NASA, and other federal agencies in our region.

A very different challenge exists inside the office buildings of Greenbelt West and Greenbelt East which have the highest vacancy rates in the region. Council has no strategy to address this issue. I propose we form a special task force to focus our efforts to develop and recruit businesses in the science and technology sector. From the University of Maryland, to NASA, to Fort Meade, our region is saturated with organizations with a sci-tech focus. The county and state have already put policies and programs in place to support this type of development.

Finally, our retail shopping centers need support for zoning and redevelopment changes to keep their properties attractive and competitive. Roosevelt Center, in the heart of Historic Greenbelt, is seeing a revival and we should design plans to keep it strong and vibrant.

How to Enjoy and Protect the Forest Preserve

The third weekly set of questions asked by the Greenbelt News Review focuses on the Greenbelt Forest Preserve. What uses by residents should or should not be permitted in the city-owned property designated as Forest Preserve and should handicap access be provided? How should it be maintained considering there are invasive plant species and human-generated trash?

The City Council established the Forest Preserve in 2003 after decades of work by the Committee to Save the Green Belt and many like-minded residents. As is the healthy nature of Greenbelt, both the purchase and then preservation of the woodland parcels were not without opposition.

The current permitted activities are easy to describe. Visitors are allowed to walk on established trails, up and over logs and across streams. Walking with dogs on leash is permitted. Enjoy the scenery, plants, and wildlife, but visitors are not permitted to blaze new trails or maintain old ones. Providing any amenities, unfortunately including handicap accessible paths, is contrary to the nature of the Preserve.

The city ordinance explicitly prohibits “commercial enterprise” activities. A non-profit group was recently blocked from conducting educational activities when the group charged a fee. I expect this issue to resurface in the future and I look forward to helping create a permit system that is fair to non-profit organizations looking to provide high quality educational programs, a valuable service in any community.

Management and maintenance of the Preserve is covered by a 62 page document. The guidelines calls for proactive measures to maintain the health of the forest and for “continuous evaluation of the forest health.” Indeed, the Forest Preserve Advisory Board is charged with producing an annual health report.

I think the recent controversy with contracting a large firm to produce our first health assessment should have been avoided by contracting a forester to make the initial assessment in 2003 when the Preserve was established.  In the face of threats from invasive species, stormwater runoff, etc. there was no excuse to wait twelve years and then turn to a development oriented engineering firm for help.

Water under the bridge, we need to act now to protect the Preserve.


Starting the Campaign Debates

While the nation is focused on the major party presidential campaigns and the popular televised debates, our non-partisan local city council election has just a couple of community forums (see videos, when available), combined with traditional door-to-door campaigning and posting on the blogs and social networks.

The latter Internet media may be “newfangled” to some candidates, but it is where I am most comfortable, having been online (and actually helping to build the Internet) since 1977. By now, most of the incumbent candidates have found my blog, or at least my Facebook page and posts that I’ve shared with the various Greenbelt groups.

Good, now we can have a discussion if not a debate…

[I’ll try to be formal and accurate with attribution of ideas, good and bad. Let me know if I’ve made a mistake and I’ll be happy to correct the record.]

Should our next budget include funding for additional staff?

Mr. Herling says he has pushed for hiring a director of economic development since 2003. I’m not sure of that fact, but most see that he and Mr. Jordan have been at the forefront of contracting first the Sage Policy Group (see report) and now the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (see proposal).

The work that the Hyattsville CDC will execute will add very important information, info that they label a “business toolkit”, to our city website. Indeed, this type of information is the standard minimal level of support for any municipality serious about supporting business development (see Bowie, Hyattsville, New Carrollton, and College Park as examples).

Sometimes adding staff is better than outsourcing to a contractor

It is good that this work is being done, but for the money being spent I would have pushed to fund a new staff position, at least half-time, shared between the Planning & Community Development and the Public Information & Communications departments. A person with good web skills, and teamed with some pro bono help to get started, could not only assemble the business section, but also maintain it into the future as will be required of the contracted work.

Speaking of the future, the work to support the review of development plans, impact studies, and compliance to regulations for the Greenbelt South Core and North Core (aka FBI) projects is enormous. We can’t expect the same static staff level of the last decade to function well until we hear and respond to their cries for additional staff.

What type of economic development is appropriate for Greenbelt?

You’ve heard me say we should emphasize our ignored science and technology sector. It seems like a good match for Greenbelt, surrounded by technology and federal agencies, with residents who work in the field, and with an abundance of empty office space.

We should be working to take advantage of the county’s action (18 months ago) to create a special business district exactly for this effort. More recently, we have a pro-business governor and a newly restructured state Dept of Commerce formed from a bipartisan effort of the Maryland General Assembly. These resources will not last forever; other communities will jump at the opportunity to get this type of support from the county and state.

Incumbent reaction to my sci-tech area of emphasis has been understandably lukewarm. I believe Ms. Davis said we should study it, which seems to be the council’s collective response to most ideas, new and old. I understand the need to create community consensus; that’s a mission we have at the Greenbelt MakerSpace.

Without great art, science and technology is just a bunch of numbers

We’re making progress with educating residents, and council, about the role of sci-tech in Greenbelt. I think we are now past the point where folks view this as competition, or even a threat, to our historic embrace of the arts. A lot of good effort has built a strong arts (and entertainment) reputation for Old Greenbelt. That should never be put at risk, but set forward as an example. I look forward to helping the city build an equally strong program to support science and technology.

Are we ready to expand the budget for new projects?

The only incumbent to consistently challenge new spending is Mr. Roberts. Under the policy position I label Fiscal Restraint, I want to add my voice to his in support of keeping property taxes under control. This is especially important in 2016 as most residential property will be reassessed upwards, as much as 35% to 50% by some estimates. This “found” revenue will fund spending increases for the next 3-year cycle of city budgets.

New projects on tap for 2016 range from a new dog park for Old Greenbelt, championed by Ms. Pope, to high-definition cablecast capabilities for council meetings, championed by Mr. Jordan. For both, I can see higher priorities and less expensive solutions. While a zero-growth spending policy may be detrimental to economic development targeted to create a sustainable future, pressure for a tax reduction over unchecked spending seems like a wise policy.

Other ideas…

I believe Ms. Stewart suggested that we focus on sustainability and green energy businesses. That’s a great idea as that is a business area that encompasses a lot of sci-tech. The greatest feature of a sci-tech business district is the unbounded breadth of business ventures to support. You may see me focus on computer science and network “cyber” security business opportunities, but that is only because that is what I know best.

Ms. Mach has come out to suggest we focus on co-op businesses, another good idea that should, of course, fit well with the history and brand of Old Greenbelt. I think, however, like the general focus on opportunities at Roosevelt Center, that this is unlikely to make a serious dent in the million square feet of vacant office space in Greenbelt.

Mr. Putens has suggested we focus on the needs of our senior community noting that Green Ridge House is occupied at capacity with a long waiting list. I look forward to exploring ideas with him to create and execute a plan of action to meet this need.

If there is an issue out there, or an idea that you have, that you would like to see added to this list, please use my contact form to contact me, or catch me out in the community or at one of the forums. I’m hosting an event at the New Deal Cafe, Sunday October 18, from 3 to 5pm. Come for discussion and stay for the belly dancers at 6pm.

Small Businesses working with NASA and FBI

Should Greenbelt be chosen as the new home for the FBI, we will gain a second major federal agency that is eager, and required by law, to contract for products and services from small business firms. I know NASA pretty well. I am a employee of a contractor, though not a small business firm by any means. To help meet the guidelines however, larger firms often subcontract with smaller ones. NASA is in the sixth largest federal agency employer of small businesses with more than two billion dollars in annual contract work.

As just one example of possible work with the FBI, they are in the middle of an eight year contract for “information technology supplies and support services” valued at up to 30 billion dollars. The prime contractor is required to have 40% of all work awarded be to small businesses. And while I talk a lot about science and technology, because that is my career, the opportunities for small businesses cover everything including construction, facilities support, security guards, administrative management, and even “men’s and boys’ cut and sew apparel.” Yes, that last one is a real job category, providing $84 million in annual services in HUBZone contracts (see below).

In addition to preferences given to small businesses, federal agencies also look to hire disadvantaged, minority-owned, women-owned, and service-disabled veteran-owned firms. Federal agencies are also looking to hire firms based in, and with employees living in, HUBZones. A HUBZone is a “Historically Underutilized Business Zone” and Greenbelt has one such area that we call Greenbelt West.

Clearly, the economic impact of bringing the FBI to Greenbelt goes far beyond what we see on the surface. The City Council must create plans and programs to support the entrepreneur and small business firm seeking to locate in Greenbelt. Imagine the change in our community if the residents of Franklin Park can see the Greenbelt Metro station as a destination employment area rather than a transportation hub.

City Preparations for the FBI

The second question asked by the News Review is what must the city do to prepare for the possible relocation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters to the Greenbelt Metro Station site? And what if that doesn’t happen?

The possible relocation of the FBI headquarters is a double-edged sword that should provide an excellent opportunity for growth but could easily cause significant disruption to our community.

The city needs to work closely with the developer of the project and numerous county, state and federal agencies to ensure that plans and reviews are completed to everyone’s satisfaction. Major planning issues related to transportation and environmental impact need to be resolved, and the construction needs to be monitored for compliance with code. Our planning department will desperately need additional staff to support this enormous project.

Next, we need to look for opportunities to be able to provide services to the FBI from Greenbelt based companies. This will include working with the FBI to determine what can be provided, and working with the county to streamline planning and development regulations to make it more attractive for companies to base themselves in Greenbelt.

But the need for economic development is not solved with the successful arrival of the FBI headquarters and the picture is only slightly different without it. If the FBI story is chapter one, we still need to write the preface and many more chapters to achieve a diverse, sustainable future.

As one of the few “answers” we obtained at the economic development forum held on October 4, we know we need to create a vision and establish goals for both community and economic development. We should pursue the idea of developing our science and technology sector as I have strongly supported.

In short, we need to find qualified people to craft a vision with measurable goals, foster unified community, and create a realistic plan for growth. And ultimately execute the plan to fruition.

Successful economic development is a long path and articulating our vision and goals is job one.

Articulating our Vision and Goals is Job One

In a comment on Facebook, in response to various statements that our region has a poor track record for supporting new business ventures, I wrote

The only way to overcome the issues of the past is to develop and implement a plan for the future.


I choose to emphasize the need to create and implement a plan, to move forward with confidence.

I still believe this, but after Sunday’s “People’s Economic Development Discussion” hosted by the Greenbelt Community Development Corporation, I left with the clear understanding that I’m ahead of the curve. I need to help answer the questions they fired back in answer to most of our questions

What is your vision? What are your goals?

It was equally obvious to me, in speaking with people at the event and later at the New Deal Cafe, that we need to be sure to address vision and goals at two levels. Those of economic development are subordinate to community development.

I can easily state the top three goals of economic development as I see them

  • to widen and diversify the commercial tax base, to provide tax relief to residents while funding the city to provide high quality services and infrastructure
  • to increase the productivity and competitiveness of local businesses
  • to provide high quality job opportunities, to employ our youth and attract investment in youth development programs

My enthusiasm for development of our science and technology sector is just one leg of a much broader program I see we need to improve the economy in Greenbelt. Development of the Greenbelt Station North Core is another. Revitalizing our retail shopping centers is a third. And supporting the “brand” of Old Greenbelt and our local Arts and Entertainment scene is yet another.

More work is needed to paint a clear picture of our vision. And

all the economic strength in the world isn’t worth much if it doesn’t support our vision and goals for the community itself.

We have many different neighborhoods in three distinct areas. Some have rallied around the cry of “One Greenbelt”. But just as there are many pieces to the economy, there are also many communities in our small city. We need to embrace our diversity and support each to have their own identity, to understand and support their vision of the future, to set and achieve goals that strengthen their homes and lives.

We have a lot of work ahead of us and I look forward to serving on the City Council as a member to lead on issues where I have the skills and experience, and to help others have a voice where they have needs I have yet to learn and understand.

How to Research Property Values

To prepare for the council candidates’ forum hosted by the Greenbelt East Advisory Coalition, I wanted to get a better idea of residential property values. This information is needed to discuss services allocated to each segment of our city, i.e. do Greenbelt East residents get a fair deal, and to talk about the impact of an increase in assessed property values.

The old GEAC website had information from 1998 and 2001, but no recent data. I fired off a letter to the city requesting an update but I didn’t expect an answer the very next business day.

Kudos to the city for being able to produce such a report so quickly!

While waiting for the city’s report, I went to, an “information portal” to Geographic Information Systems for Prince George’s County. There is a lot of information on pgatlas, but I went straight to the maps and searched for some random addresses, at least three in each housing association or apartment complex, and grabbed each property’s assessed property value.

I had no way of knowing if my samples were representative but I tried to find the high, low and average value. I then averaged the samples for each association and multiplied by the number of units found in the old report.

Association Estimated Total Actual Value Error
$449,580,533 $454,342,557 1%

My estimates were off by +/- 30% for some areas, but I nailed 5 areas to under a 5% error. And my overall estimate was off by just 1%. I admit, I got a little lucky, but I hope this proves two things

  • The data is out there if you look for it
  • Math can be your best friend

I look forward to using my technical skills and business leadership experience to help guide the deliberations and policy making of the City Council.