Council's 2010 to-do list
Tight budget to underscore entire year's goals
Facing a nearly $600 million deficit, the Montgomery County Council has a tough role in 2010. Its nine members will have to make painful budget cuts, enact new legislation and lay the groundwork for Montgomery's economic future all while planning for an election in the fall.
Members have their own agendas, some wildly off the mark, but there are a few broad initiatives that will occupy much of the entire council's time. Here's a look at a handful of them.
Economic development County Council President Nancy Floreen has made economic development her top priority. Her proposal for a new economic development authority should help raise awareness about a boiling-over anxiety among business leaders that the county is slipping behind competitors when it comes to attracting companies (and jobs). However, without a clear focus and the right people in key positions, the proposal will amount to little more than a rebranding of existing efforts. Floreen said she is accepting ideas from the business community as to how the authority could be developed and envisions one similar to agencies in Prince William and Fairfax counties in Northern Virginia. Council member Mike Knapp also plans to introduce some form of a biotech tax credit, which should help attract business. One question is whether these efforts are too late for the eventual recovery.
County/state collaboration Council member Valerie Ervin, chairwoman of the Education Committee, vows to work closely with legislators on reforming the way the state considers waiver requests for its rigid maintenance of effort law, which requires local jurisdictions to fund education at the same level as the previous year. Ervin favors shifting responsibility for those decisions away from the State Department of Education to an entity with more financial expertise. This is an opportunity for the council to demonstrate willingness to cooperate with state leaders and effectiveness in advocating for changes to antiquated funding rules.
Growth Two major growth plans are coming up a vote. The White Flint Sector Plan should be ready by February and will outline development, including thousands of homes, for the next 30 years near the White Flint Metro Station. (On a side note, council member Duchy Trachtenberg plans to introduce a bill that would mandate oversight of the implementation of redevelopment projects like White Flint). The more controversial plan is for Gaithersburg West, which could bring tens of thousands of jobs over several decades. Knapp, who serves as chairman of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, is working feverishly on a memorandum of understanding with Johns Hopkins University that will help clarify Hopkins' plans for a 6.5 million-square-foot biotech campus to expand its existing 38-acre campus in Rockville, which holds 4,000 graduate students and 13 life science companies, as well as the county's acceptable parameters for building density.
Transportation One major development will be the results of a feasibility study on council member Marc Elrich's plan for bus rapid transit. The plan, which Elrich has done a yeoman's work on selling to diverse constituencies, has been lauded as visionary. It would connect dozens of population centers with a network of high-speed buses and reduce vehicle traffic. Once the study is released (toward the end of the year), Elrich will have to work with state planners on implementation. Again, this is an opportunity to see just how effective the county's representatives are in dealing with the folks in Annapolis. Another transportation effort will be a push to reduce the onerous tolls on the InterCounty Connector.
These initiatives would be complex enough on their own, but this is an election year, and council members will have to split time between fundraisers, community events, meetings, and other endeavors, such as reducing criminal recidivism (Phil Andrews), budget planning reform (Elrich) and creating a partnership between the school system and the Department of Health and Human Services (Trachtenberg). Oh yeah, there's that small task of replacing Montgomery County Planning Board chairman Royce Hanson, the iconic public servant whose term expires in June.
The plates are full, the budget is tight and the politics are intense, with several credible challengers already testing the waters one sign of mounting discontent with a council that many view as rudderless and one of weakest in decades.