Inclusion | Opportunity | Innovation

Pay raises we can afford

Dear Resident:

Today the Council took an initial vote on next year’s compensation for County employees, as proposed in the County Executive’s budget.

As part of our annual budget process, the County Executive is responsible for negotiating labor contracts with the unions. The Council then has the final responsibility of making sure that compensation is affordable.

While I support a raise for our employees, the County Executive’s proposal includes a 9.4% increase for many County employees in the MCGEO bargaining unit. (Increases for Fire and Rescue and Police officers are about 5.9%; teachers and school support personnel are scheduled to get 4.5% increases, on average.)

MCGEO members are the workers you will see driving a bus for long hours, inspecting rental housing, or providing health services. Like other public employees, they keep this county humming, and they deserve a raise.

But after careful consideration, I voted no on the 9.4% raise, as did my colleagues.

I cast that vote because I take my obligation seriously to look to the future as a steward of our tax dollars.

Under the County Executive’s agreements, total compensation would grow at nearly double the rate of county revenue. When compensation grows faster than revenue, it consumes more of the budget over time, leaving less for new initiatives.

I think you will agree that we must be careful to preserve funds for goals such as reducing MCPS class sizes, expanding pre-k and afterschool programs, improving transportation and fighting climate change, to name a few.

By comparison, Federal employees, who make up a large share of our taxpayers, are receiving increases this year that are less than half of that amount.

While there is no doubt that the Recession was tough on our employees, with pay freezes for several years, since then, they have received steady raises.

The County Executive’s proposed 9.4% raise is all the more difficult because it is plain now that our budget has a structural deficit. The only way the budget achieves balance is through an extraordinary measure — using revenues from last year identified for the retiree health benefit fund.

Like a large ship, the County’s budget changes direction slowly. I think this is an important moment to begin to “turn the ship” and express the Council’s strong desire to start taking steps to resolve our structural deficit.

The County Executive talked about our fiscal challenges on the campaign trail, as did Council candidates. The County Executive’s mantra was that as a leader trusted by the County unions, he could work with them to right-size County government — recognizing that it is more affordable to provide raises to a smaller workforce.

He’s right about that, and I hope he follows through. I am prepared to work with him.

The budget we received, however, adds 90 new positions, exacerbating the impact of compensation increases.

I share the County Executive’s stated desire to make County government more efficient, and I also strongly believe that we can do more to promote economic growth in the County. If we achieve major savings and our revenue growth accelerates from a hotter economy, then I absolutely believe that County employees should share in those gains.

But let’s not count the chickens before they hatch: we have to make the necessary changes before claiming savings.

I look forward to supporting a raise that we can fund over time — one that is more in line with the wage increases that other bargaining units and our taxpayers are experiencing.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

COMMISSION UPDATE
This past February, Councilmembers Jawando, Rice and I sponsored a resolution to establish the Remembrance and Reconciliation Commission to secure our County’s memorial from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to commemorate the three known lynchings in the County. The Commission will include 10 voting members of the public. If you’re interested in being involved as a member of the commission, you can apply online up until May 13, 2019.

Redevelopment that preserves affordable housing

Dear resident,

You have driven Veirs Mill Road. Coursing through densely-populated suburban communities, the highway’s rough edges have resulted in tragic crashes far too often.

But housing in the corridor – from Twinbrook apartment complexes to single family home neighborhoods – is more affordable than other areas of the County, providing a valuable foothold for many families.

With a new Bus Rapid Transit line planned for Veirs Mill Road and ongoing concerns about traffic safety, the Council set out to chart a new vision for the future through the “Veirs Mill Corridor Sector Plan.” Our goal: to improve road safety and transportation options while strengthening an affordable housing resource for the future.

No Net Loss of Affordable Housing
Twinbrook Parkway hosts several older garden apartment complexes between Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill. Constructed before the County began requiring developers to build regulated affordable housing (MPDUs), these units are relatively affordable due to their age and location, but the rents could change based on market conditions in the future. The complexes are also aging and need reinvestment. Substantial renovations could result in higher rents or, if the owners do not invest in the buildings, disrepair.

To incentivize redevelopment that protects affordable housing and the communities living there today, I worked with my colleagues to produce a “no-net loss” housing policy for the plan.

The idea of no-net loss is to allow reasonable redevelopment of existing apartment buildings, while ensuring that each property produces the maximum affordable housing possible, and that overall there will be at least as much affordable housing in the future as there is today.

In Veirs Mill, this vision can be accomplished through a public-private partnership, where property owners are allowed to use density and height provided in the plan to add new housing in exchange for providing housing into our regulated programs that can guarantee affordability. The plan would replace all of the existing market rate affordable units with regulated affordable units over time. When the properties are combined, here is out it works out:

Existing Proposed
Housing units: 924 Housing units: 3,238
Regulated affordable units: 91 Regulated affordable units: 1,185

As you can see, using redevelopment as a tool, the plan would generate new housing in set-aside affordable programs as well as new market-rate housing in a part of the county that is, at least for the foreseeable future, relatively affordable. It’s a win-win.

Keep in mind though that this is a decades-long vision for the area, and it won’t happen quickly. To address infrastructure needs, the plan accounts for the student and transportation impacts and identifies how those needs can be met.

Making safety the priority
Vision Zero is a commitment the County has made to get to zero traffic deaths. The Veirs Mill Plan is our first master plan focused on Vision Zero transportation solutions. The plan recommends measures that prioritize the safety of all users, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists.

The long-term vision for Veirs Mill Rd is recreating it as a multimodal corridor with protected bicycle lanes, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, a new interchange at Veirs Mill Rd and Randolph Rd. that is improves safety multimodally, safer speed limits, and a bridge for the Matthew Henson Trail crossing where two people have been killed in recent years.

There is also a consensus on the Council that we should act quickly to address known safety risks. The urgency is great as even during our Council’s Tuesday deliberation a pedestrian was struck on Veirs Mill Rd.

Our list of short-term improvements include:

  • Build continuous sidewalks – specifically the segments between the Wheaton CBD and Connecticut Ave
  • Build or mark continuous bike facilities – especially where connectivity to trails and transit can be improved
  • Implement school zone speed limits
  • Install signalized crossings at Norris Drive and Andrew St.
  • Install a red light camera at Newport Mill
  • Change the speed limit to 35 mph along the whole length between Wheaton and Twinbrook Pkwy, except between Havard and Bushey, where it should be changed to 25 mph

Working with a sense of urgency and with our partners in the executive branch and the state, we can achieve lasting improvements that prevent needless injury and death. The Veirs Mill Plan’s innovative approach to Vision Zero helps us get there.

Your feedback is always welcome.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Council Update — thinking creatively about the housing shortage

Dear Resident,

Tuesday evening is the Public Hearing on a zoning change (ZTA 19-01) that I have introduced to make it easier to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), such as backyard cottages (aka “tiny houses”), basement apartments, and garage conversions.

These units have always been allowed in theory, but until 2012 they required an onerous and expensive approval process. In 2012 the Council tried to streamline that process, but added new restrictions that we have seen make it impossible to add an ADU on many properties. For example, only property owners with one acre can add a backyard cottage.

The result has been that production of ADUs has barely risen, and there are only 468 legal ADUs in a County of more than 1 million residents.

Montgomery County is facing a housing shortage and an affordability crunch. The two are tied together as the cost of housing is the primary driver of a community’s affordability. As we look to the future, I believe we must think differently and find new and creative approaches to the problem.

ADUs are an important housing solution. They can provide housing for different generations of a family to live together but with a measured independence. As we have heard from many residents, ADUs can enable grandparents to live near their children; or adult children, including those with special needs, to live near their parents.

ADUs can also provide an additional income for the property owner, improving affordability for retirees or young families. Because the units are generally small, they can provide affordable rental units in areas that have become prohibitively expensive.

And because ADUs are dispersed, they provide desperately needed additional housing supply without the concentrated impacts on schools, traffic, and the environment that large new housing developments might have.

Specifically, an ADU is a seperate dwelling unit that is on the same lot as a single family home. It has its own entrance, full kitchen, and bathroom. Providing an ADU is different from renting a room in a house. The tenant in an ADU does not have access to the rest of the home.

While the proposal removes many restrictions, there are nevertheless a wide array of protections that remain. For example, the units could not be used for short-term rentals (i.e., Airbnb) and the total combined structure cannot be bigger than what the code already allows for a single family house. An ADU can only be rented, it cannot be subdivided and sold as two units. The property must be owner occupied. There are more.

You can watch the 7:30pm hearing on livestream here, and the Council will accept written comments up until the final vote. In the weeks after the Public Hearing, the Council’s Planning Committee, which I chair, will hold worksessions to consider amendments and send a recommendation to the full Council.

You can send written testimony to county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov. #mocotinyhouse

More Metro in Montgomery County
Metro could provide MUCH more service in Montgomery County. Metro could run all 8 car trains rather than 6 car trains. Metro could eliminate the turn back on the Glenmont side, as it has (finally!) done on the Shady Grove side. And Metro could reduce headways (meaning running trains more frequently), including on the weekends when ridership has dropped severely. Several years ago, I successfully pushed for the County to include these rider-friendly improvements in our transportation priorities letter to the Governor, which is how we express our request to the State and in turn to Metro. Momentum for these changes has increased as Metro now has a long term capital funding source and the community of advocates has grown stronger. While the Capital funding is huge, these next improvements are largely operating budget expenditures, where Metro has constraints. The good news is that General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has included many of these improvements in his proposed budget, but it is ultimately up to Maryland to fund the new service and the Metro Board to approve it. Time to speak out! #8cartrains #endtheturnbacks

The Lynching of George Peck in 1880
As you know, I have worked with my colleagues to create a Commission on Remembrance and Reconciliation about our history of racial injustice and directions for the future. As part of my learning about our history, I joined local historian Anthony Cohen at an event in Poolesville as he spoke about the long-overlooked story of the 1880 lynching of George Peck, a local laborer accused of assaulting a young white girl. Here is a video about the presentation where Tony examined the details of Peck’s arrest, abduction and murder.

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Correction: This post has been corrected to show that the County has 468 legal ADUs. A previous version had the number at 133.

Council Update — pedestrian safety

Dear Resident,

The Council met on Tuesday, and you can see our agenda here. We began reviewing a plan to improve the areas around the Boyds and Germantown MARC rail stations.

For me this week, a big theme has been walkability and pedestrian safety. You’ve seen the wrenching news about pedestrian crashes. Just last Wednesday, five pedestrians were struck in a single day.

To get the County sufficiently focused on this problem, the Council passed a Vision Zero resolution in February 2016 (3 years ago) that committed the County to achieving zero fatalities on our roadways.

The Leggett Administration followed up by presenting a two-year action plan and announced the intention of developing a separate 10-year action plan. We seemed to have momentum at that time.

I am concerned now that we lost what momentum we had. For instance:

  • Of the 41 action items in the two-year action plan, 20 are behind schedule or not yet started.
  • The County has not started the 10-year action plan
  • The County has not hired a Vision Zero coordinator
  • The new County Executive has recommended cutting funding in the Capital budget that helps us meet our Vision Zero goals, including funding for Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas (BiPPA), a program I have championed which allows us to make fast improvements in the highest need areas of the County.

Not all of the news is bad. Last fall, the State Highway Administration (SHA) engaged with the Council and announced some changes that it plans to make that prioritize safety, and expressed openness to a new approach. It is a start.

The Council too has a important role to play in making sure we reduce serious and fatal collisions on our roadways.

We are now reviewing the Veirs Mill Corridor Plan, which is a great Vision Zero plan and focuses on changes needed to promote safety in that area. Read recent coverage of that plan here.

We need to make safety a higher priority in our infrastructure, which is why I advocated–and my colleagues agreed–to restore funding to those BiPPA programs as well as for the pedestrian entrances to our Metro stations (White Flint and Forest Glen) at the Transportation Committee this week. My colleagues also supported my request to accerelate planning and design for BRT on Veirs Mill Rd. We have a long way to go before we will know what we can afford in our capital budget. But the Committee’s actions are a great and necessary step forward.

We also need to get back to our Vision Zero plan. The Transportation Committee will soon review the County’s progress on implementing the plan–a special thanks to Chair of the Committee, Councilmember Tom Hucker, for agreeing to a worksession.

We need to take action.

During a shutdown, feds ride free
The Council approved a resolution I authored that would allow the County to waive fares for federal employees and contractors to use RideOn during a future government shutdown. This will enable the County to act more quickly next time.

Farm Breweries, Wineries: Part Two
Following up on an initiative that I organized last year with our farmer and maker communities to expand farm breweries, wineries, and cideries, the Council approved a zoning change that allows these businesses in 25 acre lot size, rural residential zones. Two young brothers want to open one in Olney, which would be the 4th brewery in that part of the County (Brookeville Beer Farm, Waredaca, and Elder Pine).

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large