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Friday, September 08, 2006

Stop Digging!

Marc Elrich, at-large candidate for the Montgomery County Council, was just running out of school (he teaches 5th graders at Rolling Terrace Elementary) when I caught him for an interview on his candidacy and his priorities.

Elrich has served in government as an elected official for 19 years while teaching full-time in our public schools and working with numerous committees and civic groups on community matters, redevelopment and development generally, transportation, and other issues: “I don't pigeon-hole very well, and I see the County in all its dimensions.”

One of the silliest parts of elections is when complex topics are boiled down to silly soundbites. Since Elrich really addressed the issues in detail, I've decided to give you a feel for where Elrich thinks the County should go and how we should deal with the challenges we face with a minimum of commentary, by just giving him some space.

I think the county faces pretty serious challenges, but none more serious than trying to manage growth in a responsible way. Not because I'm nuts about growth and think it's the center of the universe, but because funding what it takes to support growth affects a host of other funding decisions. I want to be sure we make good decisions and that we avoid simplistic approaches that primarily end up digging us a deeper hole. I think we're ill-served by a debate over the growth "rate", and that the real issue is growth "policy". I'm not "no-growth".

Whether I'd be fast or slow growth would depend on the three things: the policies that govern it, the infrastructure to support it, and the availability of resources to fund the infrastructure. People who try to get out of this by saying we're simply going to grow by 300,000 people and that's a fact, ignore the reality that we have some power and something to say about this. But worse, they refuse to say how they're going to accommodate it with either the facilities or the capital to build them.

No one talks about the cost of infrastructure to pay for the roads and schools, they just talk about "gotta have growth". How bout the other gotta haves: police, fire stations, rec services, classrooms, and transportation (roads or public)?

I would focus on using our capital resources to do the fixes that we need now - school additions and modernizations, road projects that improve local mobility, and I'd put off projects that are meant to foster further growth. Every dollar that growth siphons off is a school not fixed or a road not improved, or a limitation on our ability to expand library hours and rec services. Park and Planning told the Council that growth is costing more than the revenue it generates, so under current practices we're both neglecting existing problems and digging a deeper long term hole to get out of. Just one example, the Annual Growth Policy Report in 2003 told the council we needed 12 fire stations - we're, in this Capital budget over the next several years - building the first 4 stations that we've constructed since 1981. So I'd prioritize spending on getting us caught up.

I'd raise impact fees on new development to make sure it paid for itself - with higher impact fees, fees that covered the cost of expanding the infrastructure you could sustain more growth than you can with lower fees - and the Council, when it gave up Policy Area Review and the fees that came with it and replaced it with Impact Fees actually created a system where they collected less money than before - and this was told to them by both the Planning Staff and their own staff.

I want to say something else about building what we need and fixing existing problems. If we're fixing things because people find the schools overcrowded and the roads over-congested, you'd think your goal would be to keep them fixed. But under the changes this council made to Adequate Public Facilities Law (and in truth this has been going on for longer than the past 4 years, they just made it worse), anything you fix is guaranteed to be wrecked again because all of the failing intersections, the congestion and the crowded schools are what the Council and Executive have defined as "adequate public facilities". So if you want real improvement you have to adopt better, more sane definitions of adequate: a definition that fits with what the community would consider adequate, so that when you fix a school or an intersection, it stays fixed, rather than simply making it possible for the next development to come along and fill it back up again. No wonder people are frustrated, we fix something and then let it get messed right back up again.

I'd increase the fees for new development so I didn't compound the problem. I'd prioritize how we spend current revenues and the projects in the CIP to address the existing shortfalls. There's no quick way out of this mess.

There's a lot at stake. Oddly, it's really a matter of degrees and over what period of time.

Most people who listen realize I'm not talking about grinding the county to a halt and most people think this is a pretty conservative business-like approach. I've had business people tell that my approach is how they'd approach running their business - you build capacity for expansion and you don't saddle yourself with unsustainable long-term obligations.

That's Marc Elrich up close and in detail. So what do you think? Do you prefer full interviews like the ones Crablaw has featured on FreeStatePolitics, posts based on interviews with some quotes like the pieces I did on Tom Perez and Jamie Raskin, or hybrid pieces like this that avoid some of the repetition that comes out in an interview without inserting too much of the writer's opinion?