Friday, April 24, 2015

Columbia Village Elections, 2015

The Columbia Village Elections of 2013 were painful.  I saw so many good people lose races they cared deeply about due to bad process, misinformation, and entrenched interests.  Thankfully, as I predicted soon thereafter, despite winning seats those entrenched interests were not particularly sophisticated when it came to governance.  If you could tell me one iota of harm (or good) that has resulted from the 2013 elections, it would be news to me.

But that should not take away from the importance of these elections.  I would say the reason the Columbia Association has kept steady over the past two years is in great part due to leaders from places like Dorsey's Search, River Hill, Owen Brown, and Kings Contrivance.  Without those leaders, and the delicate majority they were able to muster on important votes, we would have a much different $63 million non-profit-community-organization-and-homeowners-association on our hands.

You should vote this Saturday.  Not just out of civic obligation.  You should vote because five minutes of your Saturday is the least you can give in appreciation to those who will be spending hours, and sometimes days, away from their families doing Columbia's work.  I've never found guilt or obligation a good motivator, but if you're otherwise inclined to say "don't care" and go about your day, I think you should do so knowing that someone else is carrying your share and your failure to vote is disrespectful.

Here are my endorsements for contested Village Elections:

Dan Woodruff - Dorsey's Search, CA Rep/Columbia Council

I really cannot recommend Dan enough.  He is one of the smartest community volunteers I've met and knows CA's books backwards and forwards.  Dan is even-headed while also maintaining a passion for all things Howard County.  It will be my honor to vote for him tomorrow.

Ed Coleman - Long Reach, CA Rep/Columbia Council

Ed Coleman was a better CA Board Member than I ever was.  If elections were job interviews, he would have won in 2013.  Ed considers process and outcomes in ways that very few can.  He brought pragmatism and common sense to complex issues.  If you live in Long Reach, vote for Ed.

No Endorsement - Hickory Ridge Village Board

There is a contested election here, but I don't know enough about the people running to make a competent endorsement.  I hope someone will provide one in the comments.

Shari Zaret, Jenna Salmon - Kings Contrivance Village Board

I served with Shari on the CA Board and found her to be a tremendous leader, an empathetic thinker, and a dedicated public servant.  I have only recently met Jenna Salmon through my work on the Columbia Festival of Arts Board, but am so excited to see her name on the ballot.  She is an enthusiastic, friendly, and passionate leader.  I look forward to seeing Jenna do many things in this community for years to come.

Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, Marcia White, Frederick B. Eiland, and Bill Woodcock - Oakland Mills Village Board

I've stated my reasons for supporting these folks before.  There's a lot of passion in Oakland Mills.  Let's hope that passion can be put in a constructive direction.

I'm saddened to see so many vacancies on our local boards.  If you are curious as to whether there is a vacancy where you live, check this run-down in the Flier.  I'll tell you this much - in 3 and a half years, we're going to have some heated primaries in Columbia for some important seats.  If you're willing to sit on the sidelines now, when the unglamorous work needs to get done, don't expect too many people to stand up for you when you're going for something bigger.

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love!  Don't forget that the Ellicott City Spring Festival is this weekend!  I'll be selling popcorn at the Wine Bin from 2:30 pm to 4:00 pm, which benefits Voices for Children.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where Howard County's Going, We Won't Need Roads

In third paragraph of Amanda Yeager's article about the FY16 Capital and Operating Budgets, we learn a concerning fact - there has been no money allocated for road resurfacing in this year's budget.  Not a little.  Not "some, but not enough".  Zero.  As in, "I have more money budgeted for road resurfacing than the Howard County government."

You can find a more detailed review here:
Click to Enlarge
DPW Director Jim Irvin was also quoted as saying the last time road resurfacing had been completely defunded was under County Executive Hugh Nichols, who served from 1978 to 1986.

Kittleman "administration officials" explained that the complete absence of funding for road resurfacing was a matter of transparency, describing this line item as having been raided by previous Executives.  So we can't have roads and transparency?  Why not just promise not to touch it? I don't get this explanation.  (Speaking of transparency, when can we expect to see the dollars and cents of how the County saved $15.8 million in FY15?)

We just had a fairly severe winter and I presume I'm not the only one who has found pot-holes along county roads.  How is this going to be addressed?  We can have the best school system in the world, but it's not worth a dime if your child's bus pops a flat on the way there.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!  And don't forget to do your research on Village candidates before this Saturday's vote!  I'll be providing a run down tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ellicott City Flooding - The Reason for the "Rain Tax"

Throughout the latter end of his campaign for County Executive, Allan Kittleman promised to take action on Ellicott City flooding.  He said the words many residents and concerned citizens were desperate to hear, which is that we've done enough studies and its time to build.  Once elected, County Executive Kittleman carried this promise through to his State of the County address, stating:
 "I think we've done enough studies and planning," he said. "It is time to start the work."
And he followed through on that commitment in his FY16 Capital Budget, allocating $3.4 million in the Capital Budget for Flood Mitigation and Stormwater/Waterway Enhancement in addition to the $2.7 million allocation from earlier budgets.

In a tight budget year, this is an important commitment and one that can't come soon enough.  But let's look at where the money is sourced:

Click to enlarge
Of the money allocated, $1.4 million comes from the Stormwater Management Utility Fee, i.e., the "Rain Tax", i.e., the "I can't wait to repeal the 'Rain Tax'", i.e., "you're being taxed for the rain that falls on your roof, folks" tax.

As you may have heard, one of the "principal successes" of Governor Hogan's first legislative session was the repeal of the "Rain Tax"; a repeal barely worth the paper it is written on:
While the General Assembly agreed to lift the demand that Baltimore and the nine largest counties charge the fees, state law still requires them to come up with the money for projects to safeguard and improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Rain Tax is Dead.  Long live the Rain Tax.  As repeatedly stated over the past year, counties have always been free to set whatever utility fee they wish for stormwater mitigation so long as the necessary projects are put in place.  Now they are free from the legal farce of imposing $1 stormwater fees instead of nothing. Similar to a car with an emissions problem, no one is saying you need to buy a new car, but if you're going to drive you need to make sure your vehicle meets the necessary standards for being on the road.

But as shown above, the Stormwater Utility Fee has its uses.  Important uses.  Life-changing and life-saving uses.  When asked whether he would repeal the Rain Tax now that he was free from state mandate, County Executive Kittleman responded that he didn't like the fact that Howard County had a stormwater remediation fee, but:
"We have to be practical and pragmatic."
Notably, "practical and pragmatic" were not conditional phrases used when "repeal" was the word of the hour.

Mitigating the threat of devastating floods in Ellicott City will require a long-term commitment and County Executive Kittleman has shown his understanding of that issue with this Budget.  But he did so with an assist from the Rain Tax.  It's a good thing no one got around to repealing it first.

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Notes Around Town

I've had a number of small things I've wanted to write about that were not enough to make up a post, but big enough to require mention:

  • First and foremost, I've started a new job working with Talkin & Oh, LLP in Ellicott City doing land use/zoning and continuing my security clearance practice.  It is quite disorienting to dedicate oneself to a new area of law after practicing an entirely different field for nearly six years, but this work lines up with my interests and talents in ways that were never available in medical malpractice (my former field).  I also have the confidence of working with two of the best attorneys in the field who will challenge me to get up to speed quickly and meet their level of work.
  • Last month Nicole (Indiana Jane) and I tried Haven on the Lake.  It was fantastic.  Rob Goldman gave us a full tour before we settled in for a "Flow Yoga" class.  The amenities are unlike anything else available in Howard County.  You feel like you are at a resort, particularly around the Movement and Relaxation Pools.  The yoga instructor was one of the best I've seen (and yes, I've done yoga 10-12 times in my life, none of it pretty).  Admittedly, the membership rates are outside of what we can afford right now, but I want to push back on the notion that we can't have a "high end" facility among the CA offerings.  If we're going to be a community that welcomes retirees and encourages people to "age in place", this is precisely the kind of experience that will make people want to live here in their golden years.  And as an added bonus for those who have children, there is a day care facility on site, which watched our (then) 4 month old as we participated in the class.  Four stars all around.  This is a top flight endeavor.
  • The newly restructured Columbia Festival of the Arts kicks off TONIGHT with Spark! and goes through the weekend.  You can check out a schedule here.  Although I've recently joined the Board, I have not been as active as I would have liked due to the job-switch and continuing duties of fatherhood.  Nevertheless, I cannot understate how excited I am about the performances being brought to Columbia this weekend.  Of greatest interest to me will be the discussions and enrichment activities added on to the performances themselves to help audience members learn more about the art.  The two acts I am most excited about are The Amish Project (a one-woman performance) and The Whipping Man (a Civil War drama).
  • My friend Calvin Ball is having a fundraiser next Tuesday, April 21, 5:30 pm at the Stanford Grill.  Regular admission tickets are $20.15, which is accessible for anyone who wants to attend.  I will be there and look forward to seeing many friends there as well.
  • Allow me to join the chorus of people supporting the Eiland-Kirk-Davidoff-White-Woodcock Slate (you all couldn't think of a slate title?) for Oakland Mills Village Board.  Village Elections are next weekend and I can't emphasize enough how important it is for you to educate yourself and vote.  Many Columbians dismiss the importance of Village politics and hyper-local elections, but you should only do so knowing that the individuals elected will hold themselves out as carrying your support whether you vote or not.  Time and again, Village Boards tell our local electeds what their village "wants" and these petitions are accepted in the absence of an alternative.  If you want to speak for yourself and have your voice heard, carve out 10 minutes next Saturday and vote.
That's all for today!  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Howard County's Money Pit

Two weeks ago, County Executive Kittleman issued his $342.9 million FY16 Capital Budget.  Despite the guarded tone and notes about cutting back in the article, readers should know that this Capital Budget is approximately $80 million more than Ken Ulman's FY15 Capital Budget, which came in at a cool $259.9 million.  These numbers will fluctuate depending on the needs of the County at any given time (ex., FY14 Capital Budget was $442.4 million), but I think it is important to view any budget in the context of its predecessors so as to avoid the declaration of a "new era" of County spending.  If you get into the meat of the budgets themselves, you will see that more often than not they are carrying over planned expenses from the previous year.

But inside of this context there is a very curious line item: The Howard County Courthouse.  It's the Rodney Dangerfield of County priorities.  For perfectly understandable reasons, too.  There is no political gravity here, which may explain why this can goes so far when kicked.

As recently as 2012, a $9 million renovation was planned for the Courthouse, but this was scrapped after officials determined that the Ascend One building would not be a suitable temporary location due to security concerns.  Notably, this was after approximately $1.5 million had been spent on preparing the building for the move.

The next year, Ken Ulman plotted out $31.6 million over four years, starting in the FY14 Capital Budget, to upgrade and renovate the existing courthouse.

In 2014, Ken Ulman's FY15 Capital Budget included $3 million for expansion of the Howard County Courthouse.

And now, in 2015, County Executive Kittleman's FY15 Capital Budget includes....(drum-roll please)...
...$300,000 on a new feasibility study for a planned expansion of the county's circuit courthouse. He said the cost of renovating the existing courthouse was close to the cost to build an entirely new courthouse and he would like to examine other options, such as a relocation of the court. 
 "Feasibility study" is the way your government tells you they are going back to the drawing board.

I don't blame Executive Kittleman for taking this approach.  This problem has now crossed into its third administration and there is no reason for him to be stuck with a plan he disagrees with.  Nevertheless, this needs to get done.  Our judges are citing security concerns and our lawyers are embarrassed by the tree-house of a structure we offer to the state for resolution of local disputes.

But the next time you start using your imagination on things included in a Capital Budget, think of the Courthouse.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Memoriam: Jerry Richman

I learned of the passing of a good man yesterday.  Taking a hiatus from Facebook, I've been a bit out of the loop on many things, including births, engagements, and, sadly, deaths.  Last night I learned that Jerry Richman had died.

I've spent 30 minutes looking for a picture of Jerry on Google, but have come up empty.  What I was able to find were numerous articles and public records memorializing the important role he held in his community.  Jerry was an attorney.  He took difficult cases and won a lot of them.

I remember him as "Mr. Richman".  He was one of two people in this County who still called me "Tommy".

"Tommy - how are you?  And how's your father?  Great great, everything sounds great."

I've known Mr. Richman since I was little.  As I grew up, I looked up to him as a respected attorney in his community.  In 2007, I was confronted with a difficult career decision - did I stay in private practice or did I become a government attorney for the DoD?  What were the career pitfalls that I may not be seeing?

I called Mr. Richman and he talked to me for an hour.  He had worked for the Department of Justice and emphasized that I could always come back into private practice, but that being a government attorney was best when you're young and don't have many financial obligations.  I took the job with the DoD and while it didn't work out, I learned important skills and now have a security clearance practice because of it.  Being a government attorney was the right thing for me at the right time.  Thanks to Mr. Richman.

He was a warm, friendly, kind man.  I am sure that those on the other side of the courtroom may not have seen him that way, but that's in the nature of the profession.  I will miss having him call me "Tommy"; a humbling reminder that many people in this County have known me my entire life.  And I will certainly miss Jerry Richman.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Howard County Contracts, Favoritism, and Blowback

Amanda Yeager with the Howard County Times wrote about the Transition Team Report submitted to County Executive Kittleman last week, which may be found online here.  At one point I thought I knew most of the people on the Transition Team, but considering the article cites 133 members, I was likely mistaken on that count.  Either way, I know most of the Transition Team leadership and appreciate the comments included in the Times piece.

While I have not yet had an opportunity to fully review and digest the entire report, one recommendation stuck out at me and has me concerned:
The present way in which County funds are spent on contracts within the Office of Purchasing should be re-evaluated. Currently, there is a 10% set aside requirement for the Equal Business Opportunity Program (for women, minority and disabled-owned businesses). It is recommended that this percentage be increased to 25% over three years, and that veteran-owned businesses be added. It is further recommended that the percentage of contracts that go to County businesses be increased. Currently, only 119 of 649 contracts go to Howard County based businesses.
I have no doubt that this recommendation was well thought-through and will be refined in application (should the County Executive accept it), but wanted to raise an issue of caution.  Government contracting, at all levels, is a difficult business.  It is very competitive and often cut-throat.  Even more concerning is the overlap between instances of government corruption and the distribution of municipal contracts.  You rarely see one without the other.

But even putting all that aside, little of which is implicated by the recommendation, we need to remember that our county contractors work across the state in other jurisdictions that likely prize their home-base contractors over those from other counties.  We can expect any favoritism for local contractors to be reciprocated in neighboring counties, most of which have a higher volume of work than Howard County.  If Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Montgomery, or Prince George's started putting up barriers to entry or preference for local contractors in excess of what may already be in existence, local contractors will suffer.

I admittedly make this comment from a position of ignorance.  I don't know what favoritism is being dished out in those counties.  But I do know that the Columbia Association considered a similar policy three years ago and we were advised by local contractors that the long-term outcome would not be favorable for them.

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