Thursday, February 26, 2015

Howard County Board of Education Approves $776M Budget Request

The big news this week is that the Howard County Board of Education approved their budget request (5-2), which will now be passed on to the County Executive.  Weighing in at $776.3 million, this budget request is approximately $17 million more than FY2015.  Here are some numbers for historical comparison:

FY2016 $776.3M for ???? students ($5.7M over Maintenance of Effort)
FY2015 $758.8M for 53,157 students (?? MoE)
FY2014 $725.3M for 52,595 students ($8.0M over MoE)
FY2013 $703.7M for 51,996 students (MoE Level Funding)
FY2012 $683.8M for 50,062 students (MoE Level Funding)

Notably, the approval of this budget request coincided with the re-election of Paul Lemle as HCEA President, in the context of allegations that the Administration and Board were meddling in the election of union leadership.  I've yet to see solid proof of this, but I will say that I've seen enough to believe that "something is up".  I'll add that it would be entirely inappropriate for representatives of the Board or Administration to involve themselves in any way with HCEA elections and may merit Board investigation to ensure that this is not the case.

I mention Mr. Lemle's re-election because HCEA is taking their case to the public to explain their concerns regarding this Budget Request:

Dear friends, colleagues, and community members,
The Board of Education voted today to adopt a $780M budget that cuts vital services in media and kindergarten even as enrollment increases by over 1600 students.  The discussion now centers on the new Governor, County Executive, and County Council—and we need to keep advocating for our students.

Please join HCEA for an open community meeting on Tuesday, March 3rd, 5PM in the Centennial HS cafeteria.  We will clarify the impact of the cuts and develop strategy for the next part of the process.  RSVP here to give us an idea of how much pizza we need!

School Superintendent Renee Foose will soon publish her Executive Summary and official Budget Request, which I will post here.  I don't find myself competent to digest this Request in any meaningful way other than to provide numbers for comparison and note the Educator Union's concern with respect to the same.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ellicott City Meters Slated for Removal

I have been told by a reliable source that the parking meters on Main Street in Ellicott City are slated to be removed next month.  While County Executive Kittleman promised to get rid of these meters during the campaign, I am a little surprised to see him act on this so soon.  This is a complicated problem that will not be solved by the removal of meters with nothing in their place.

Let's start with the premise for the meters.  Contrary to the impression by some that this was a money grab, the County was trying to figure out a way to free up parking on Main Street.  In the absence of regulation, street-side parking would consistently be filled by residents and employees of Main Street vendors.  For all intents and purposes, there was no Main Street parking for visitors.  I have spent just about my entire life in Howard County and can probably count two instances in which I was able to park on Main Street before the implementation of the meters.  Since then, I've probably parked on Main Street over 50 times.

I think a lot of the parking issues in and around Main Street have to do with the physical exertion necessary to access most of the larger lots.  My friend Tony McGuffin, long-time Ellicott City resident and advocate, has a joke that when Ken Ulman was born he could probably hear people debating Main Street parking from Howard County General Hospital.  This is nothing new.  When you're dealing with a town on a steep incline, where you park can be dispositive on whether you're interested in whatever it was that brought you downtown.

And let's be frank, these meters had serious issues.  They were not what most people were used to and, thus, created a great deal of frustration.  There was an apparent zealotry in the enforcement of late payment (enabled by technology) that made people feel like they were being shaken down for money.  And if the sun was over your shoulder, paying that meter could take some time.

But I felt that a number of those problems were resolved by opening up additional free parking in some of the lots.  Parking on Main Street was a choice.  Sometimes you felt like it was worth the money, sometimes you didn't.  And while we all may be sympathetic to those who are flummoxed by new technology, I don't believe that imposes restraint on its use.

So in about a month's time, we'll see how things change.  I expect that it will be much more difficult to park on Main Street and that, yet again, we will become accustomed to the same car parked in the same spot for months at a time.  I hope, and anticipate, that the Administration will have a system to put in place of the meters, such as a two hour parking limit (with chalk sticks exchanged for ticket pads).  But one thing is certain, the debate about parking on Main Street will continue for years to come...and some baby at Howard County General Hospital will inherit the storm.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Monday, February 23, 2015

"The Reasons Why They Disagree"

On September 11, 2011, I met Ken Ulman in his office.  I can recall this day easily (through the powers of Google) because my meeting with Ken was periodically interrupted by war room reports regarding the "disgustingly epic" manure spill on Main Street Ellicott City.  It was like walking onto the set of Parks & Recreation, which, by the by, has surprisingly never done a "manure-spill-on-Main-Street-Pawnee" episode.

This was still over a year off from my Democratic conversion and in the context of numerous posts in which I was strongly critical of Ken (for reasons of varying legitimacy).  We were meeting because Ian Kennedy had indicated that Ken would be interested in doing so and I wanted to talk to him about new opportunities for partnership now that I was on the CA Board.

Because of said manure spill, the meeting was delayed, and I had a chance to look around the meeting room where there were numerous "big idea"/leadership/self-help books filling the book shelf.  It felt like a creative space with a lot of young energy (and people who were truly losing their minds over horse and/or chicken poop).

But I was obviously scared stupid.  There were not many reasons for Ken to like me and plenty of reasons for him not to like me.  As of 2011, I was not too far off from the bomb-toss writing that I had begun this blog with, which often didn't amount to much more than trolling from a higher plane.  (My one beer bounty for whomever called me a "snarkapatamous" is still unclaimed).

So when Ken walked in, I was...clenched.  He sat down, somewhat oblivious as to the purpose of our meeting, and half-laughing half-shaking-his-head about the civic challenges laid at his feet that morning.  Ken being Ken, he walked me through what had happened and how they needed to respond, doing about 85% of the talking.  Then he switched to saying this, which I will never forget (paraphrasing):

"You know, I have a lot of people who disagree with me and the things I do.  A lot.  And that comes with the office.  To be honest with you, I try to ignore the blogosphere and the random criticism that comes our way, because it would be paralyzing not to.  But I do listen when someone gives me the reasons why they disagree.  You've taken some pot shots at me, but you've also provided some fairly complete arguments about why what we're doing may not be the best thing.  I appreciate that.  Now what are we here to talk about?"

That conversation has informed my writing more than any other experience I've had in local politics.  I continued to write pieces that were critical of Ken's policies, but I did so with diligent focus on "why" I disagreed.  Because otherwise, I was just making noise.  Noise that may be read.  Noise that may be adopted by partisans.  But noise that did nothing to move the public conversation.

I hold myself to that standard for all elected officials.  I admittedly will not write about certain people who I consider close friends, but that is more out of fairness to myself than to any of you.  You can't split the baby on those things.  But when I write, and when I disagree, you should expect to see my reasons for doing so.  And if you don't, dismiss it as noise.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Leave Your Guns At Home, Howard County

Council-members Calvin Ball, Jen Terrasa, and Jon Weinstein have pre-filed a bill that would prohibit gun owners from carrying their weapons in County-owned buildings (CB8-2015).  If you read the bill, you will see that it is heavily circumscribed with numerous exceptions for law enforcement personnel, retired military, and bank guards.  Said otherwise - this law clearly went through a great deal of deliberation, even going so far as to consider licensed hunters on County property during the occasional "these deer are getting out of hand" seasons.

I think all of us who pay attention to hyper-local news were surprised when it was noted earlier this year that Howard County had no prohibition against carrying guns into public buildings. Libraries, senior centers, the Robinson Nature Center, and, of course, the Howard Building - all available to anyone with a gun and a permit.

It should be no surprise that with the prevalence of random acts of public violence, there have been lesser known shootings on municipal property.  The Kirkwood City Council shooting occurred on February 7, 2008, in Kirkwood, Missouri, United States; a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri in St. Louis County. A gunman went on a shooting rampage at a public meeting in the city hall, leaving six people dead and two others injured.

On January 27, 2015, in New Hope, Minnesota, a man opened fire during a police swearing-in ceremony in the City Council chamber, injuring two officers, before being killed by the police.

Unlike other gun control laws, the bill before the County Council cannot be so easily dismissed as "if you make guns illegal, only criminals will have guns."  Limiting guns in public spaces needs to go no further than a metal detector at the front door, something I need to pass through to watch the Ravens, but not a contentious County hearing.

As a lawyer, I appreciate and am thankful for the metal detectors at the front of every courthouse in the state.  My wife and mother may not be excited to hear that I've had pro se litigants tell me that they have firearms they intend to bring to court.  I just smile and show up for the hearing extra early to make sure I'm inside before that becomes an issue.

Those who participate in our democracy should have similar reassurances that the other people in the room are not armed.  Or, to use a phrase common among those who favor strong gun rights, we only have "good guys with guns" and no "bad guys with guns".

I believe this is precisely the type of "common sense gun law" that our County Executive said he would support when he ran for office.  Guns have no place in the Council Chamber or public library.  Let's put that into law.

Have a great Friday doing what you love!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

It's Time to Legalize Marijuana in Maryland

My second column at Center Maryland is up: Cut Waste, Increase Revenue, Legalize Marijuana.  While still early, I think I am starting to hit my stride with this one.  I like the Hogan piece, didn't love it.  I love this piece.

I love it because it is important.  Every time I read about the legalization of marijuana, it seemed there was a compulsion to make light of the subject.  "Rocky Mountain High", "munchies", jokes about fog.  Because these are white middle aged males writing about marijuana.  They've never seen a friend go to jail over the substance.  They've never been strip searched for drugs.  The business end of the war on drugs was pointing in the opposite direction.

And no, a not-just-yet-middle-aged white guy doesn't have a much superior perspective on things, but I've worked extensively with people who are trying to have criminal records expunged or have otherwise had their lives ruined by "substance-abuse crimes".

Here's the thing about legalization - we need to stop talking about it in terms of the end user.  I am one of the strongest proponents you will meet for full legalization, but I have absolutely no intention of ever smoking marijuana after it is legal.  None.  But if you ask me whether I want to fund the enforcement of drug laws and the imprisonment of those who breach its code, my answer is "no".

So while you may be tempted to respond to this post by saying "I really don't like the smell of marijuana and don't want my neighbor using it" - I would remind you that this is not the question at issue.  The question is whether you are willing to fund a system that makes it illegal, fosters a black market, and puts people in jail.

Any politician worth his or her salt will spend dedicated effort to decrease the number of people we put in jail.  Many believe our collective "future us" will be ashamed of how we handled gay marriage or global warming, but I think a just as likely source of disappointment (and horror) will be the mass incarceration of our poverty class.  As much as I prepare for my grandchildren asking me why we let the world burn, I plan for them to ask why we put so many people in cement boxes.

Legalizing marijuana barely registers on this count.  It is already decriminalized in Maryland and drug crimes are beginning to represent a smaller proportion of our prison population overall.  But we need to start here, if nothing else as an example of how hollow the justification for prohibition really is.

And if you like this column, please share it on Facebook.  I normally don't make this pitch, but I am taking a hiatus from the Big Blue Monster and would appreciate anyone helping to get the word out.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Whither the Rain Tax

The Baltimore Sun recently published an op/ed on the current state of the "rain tax" in relation to Governor Hogan's promise to repeal it.  For all intents and purposes, there is nothing to repeal:
Now, having created this boogeyman of the "rain tax," Mr. Hogan is proposing to slay it through legislation that does absolutely nothing to change the status quo. The governor is not trying to forbid counties from implementing fees to meet the EPA requirements. He just wants to stop requiring them to do so — which has actually been the case all along. True, former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler at one point threatened to levy $10,000-a-day fines against Carroll County for its refusal to enact a stormwater fee, but the O'Malley administration's Department of the Environment determined that the county's plan to dedicate property tax and other revenues to the cause instead was proper. Unless Mr. Hogan intended to reverse that ruling, the counties are perfectly safe to reduce or eliminate their fees no matter what happens to the governor's legislation.
 As noted in the piece, local jurisdictions privately lobbied for state action so that they would not have to request piecemeal revenue by way of local tax increases through their delegations.

Or they could do what Carroll County did - decrease spending on schools, public safety, and other county amenities to fund storm-water mitigation projects mandated under federal law.

It gets back to the basic premise of government budgets - more taxes, more services; less taxes, less services.  We just went through an election cycle hearing that taxes could be cut on the back of "waste, fraud, and abuse", but if you believed that I have some swampland in Florida to sell you. There is surely waste, fraud, and abuse in government, just as there is in the office next to yours or the most finely tuned corporate juggernaut.  But 1) digging it out ends up costing as much as it saves, and 2) it is a juvenile way to talk about "spending within our means".

Now here sits Governor Hogan, working with friends and cabinet members who know this "rain tax" gambit was more campaign ploy that policy, who must now either toss up a meaningless piece of legislation to "check the box" on his campaign lit, or back down and say "this is in the hands of the counties".  Because guess what - there is a very good chance that four years from now, regardless of what the Governor does, "Angry in Arbutus" and "Fed Up in Frederick" will still be "taxed for the rain that falls on the roof of their homes" by way of a storm-water management fee that sends dedicated funding to mitigation projects mandated by the EPA.

Which brings us to Howard County.  The 2014-15 Budget squeezed by a shortfall.  The 2015-16 Budget squeezed by decreased revenue projections.  And Governor Hogan is further cutting our state education funds to the frustration of our County Executive.  Does this sound like the platform for cutting a dedicated revenue stream and shifting funds from other priorities to cover the mandated expense?  No, my friends, it does not.

Have a great Snow Day playing with the people you love!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

1950's Ellicott City in The Goddess

Did you know that in 1951, Ellicott City served as the background for a movie loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe?  Big hat tip to my friend Josh Tzuker who brought this to my attention.  It is always fun to see places you recognize on the big screen, but even more fun to get in a time machine back to when the place you know looked a lot differently.

You can see a lot of Ellicott City in "part 1", but feel free to watch parts 2 through 9 on YouTube.