Inclusion | Opportunity | Innovation

My budget priorities

Dear Resident:

The County’s budget for the next year is done. There is good news to share, as well as unfinished business.

Our budget process has two stages. The Executive prepares a draft and submits it by March 15. The Council then makes changes and finalizes the budget by the end of May.

Here are some of my highlights from this year, reflecting my own priorities.

Starting with education, we fully funded the MCPS budget request, thanks particularly to an increase in state funding. We also fully funded Montgomery College. Neither were fully funded in the Executive’s budget. MCPS will now reduce class size guidelines further.

On child care and pre-k, this is the third year in a row that we will expand pre-k for low income kids. Including this year’s expansion, the number of poor children benefiting from full-day pre-k will reach 1500, from 750 three years ago. This has been my highest priority in early education policy.

I want to salute Council President Nancy Navarro and Council Education Committee Chair Craig Rice and for their work on early education, and the County Executive for including the funds in his budget. We are making progress, though we have more to do.

I’m particularly thrilled by our expansion of after school programs. I have worked hard to add programs every year to our budget. This year I was joined by Councilmembers Albornoz and Jawando as we added four new high poverty elementary schools to our comprehensive Excel Beyond the Bell program, bringing the total to 8 that we have added in 3 years.

Each of these programs serves 120 children, five days a week. With 8 schools, we will now reach nearly 1,000 elementary age children served every school day!

We also added 3 middle school programs and we created a new initiative called Skills for the Future to support youth STEM programs.

On transit, we were able to restore four of the seven routes proposed for reduced service in the Executive’s budget. I am disappointed that we could not restore all seven. Cutting bus service is sure to increase driving and works against our social equity and environmental goals.

I am however happy that RideOn and WMATA bus service will now be free to students, all the time. This should create a whole new generation of transit riders. Thanks Councilmember Evan Glass for your advocacy!

I am particularly grateful that my colleagues agreed to reject the Executive’s proposed cuts of $5 million to the bicycle and pedestrian “Priority Areas” program (BiPPA). This is a construction program that builds new safety infrastructure in areas of the County with older infrastructure. It has projects planned in Wheaton, Silver Spring, and along the Purple Line corridor. Thank you Transportation Chair Tom Hucker!

We also restored funding for new Metro station entrances in White Flint and Forest Glen, both badly needed to make these station areas more accessible. The Executive had proposed cutting them from the budget.

On the climate emergency, I want to thank my colleagues for supporting my proposal for $400,000 to begin a comprehensive climate change planning initiative.

And finally, we were able to restore crucial funding to our Parks system, which was slated for significant cuts in the executive’s budget. I want to thank Councilmember Friedson, our Council’s Lead for Parks, who pushed until we got it done.

You may wonder how the Council was able to fund these programs. The answer lies in changing certain priorities within the budget. We did not raise taxes. We did, however, make changes in other ways, including scaling back some compensation that was excessive.

The County Executive’s proposed 9% raises were not affordable. Scaling them back enabled the Council to add funding to many of these key priorities mentioned above. (Though my view is that the 7% raise the Council agreed to for many employees was still more than we can afford, and I opposed that proposal too).

So as for unfinished business: while we crafted a better budget, the County still has an underlying problem — we have a structural deficit. A structural deficit is when our revenues continually come in below our expenditures. It happened again this year. The budget that we passed is substantially funded by using reserves intended for retiree health expenses. That practice needs to end.

We need to fix our structural deficit by bringing our expenses in line with our revenues. The County Executive has talked about “right-sizing” County government, and Councilmembers have indicated support. That would help ensure that compensation does not grow faster than revenues, leaving room to fund critical priorities.

Going forward, we need to work together to make changes that will put us on a more sustainable path.

Thank you for reading!

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Transit, safety, and street trees

Dear Resident:

If you care about transportation, energy and environmental issues, this update is for you.

Zooming out, I am sure you are following the Governor’s proposal for I-495 and I-270. In a letter to Secretary Pete Rahn that I organized with Transportation Committee Chairman Hucker and the County Executive, the County has insisted that the State stick within existing rights-of-way and add transit to the project, which would protect our neighborhoods and parks. We have our work cut out for us as this discussion continues.

We also call for expanded MARC service on the Brunswick Line, including the possibility of MARC-VRE through-running so County residents could have a fast, one-seat trip to job opportunities in Virginia and visa-versa.

Zooming in, last week the Council’s Transportation Committee, where I serve along with Chairman Tom Hucker and Councilmember Evan Glass, worked on the Department of Transportation’s (MCDOT) budget for the upcoming year.

Following are our recommendations to the full Council. You can read the Council staff report here. Any new proposals will need to be funded by the full Council by reordering priorities within the overall budget. We will see where things end up and now is a great time to share your views at the Council.

Transit

Bus Service: Students Ride Free
The committee recommended that kids under 18 (or 18 year old students) should be able to board for free on RideOn and WMATA buses in the County during all hours of service. The initiative, championed by Councilmember Evan Glass and which I strongly support, will hopefully build a new generation of transit riders. I will never forget the freedom that the bus provided me when I was young and I want all kids to have that opportunity.

Currently, elementary and secondary school students can ride free from 2:00-8:00pm weekdays, a measure that I championed with Councilmember Navarro in my first term.

Rejecting cuts to RideOn
The County Executive recommended cutting service on RideOn Routes 26, 38, 49, 55, 57, 59, and 64. Cutting bus service is not the way to go. The Committee rejected those proposed cuts.

Bus Rapid Transit on Veirs Mill and 355
Earlier this year, I advocated for the acceleration of planning and design for BRT on Veirs Mill Rd, as I have for years. The Committee, however, has agreed to defer a decision on Veirs Mill BRT until MCDOT announces their recommended alternative for BRT on MD 355, which is expected early this summer. Should fiscal capacity not allow both, the fuller picture on MD 355 will allow the Committee to better weigh the relative priority of each corridor and decide which BRT route should go first.

Electric buses
To help us reduce emissions and meet our climate goals, the County has begun transitioning the RideOn bus fleet to fully electric buses. While the price difference between electric and diesel buses is narrowing, it is still quite substantial at about $350,000 per bus. Thanks to federal grants, 14 electric buses are on order and will be in service within the next year. I am committed to doing more, which is why I recommended an additional 5 electric buses. Note that plug-in buses would draw power from a 100% renewable County energy portfolio due to our County law.

Vision Zero – bicycle and pedestrian safety

Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas (BiPPAS)
The County Executive has recommended cutting funding in the Capital budget that helps us meet our safety goals, including funding for Bicycle Pedestrian Priority Areas (BiPPA), a program I championed that allows us to make fast improvements in the highest need areas of the County. To make safety a higher priority in our infrastructure, I advocated to not only restore funding but to add new funding to those BiPPA programs. We also created specific BiPPAs for Wheaton, Veirs Mill Rd., Silver Spring, and the East County stops of the Purple Line. Now we need to keep it all together in the final budget.

Pedestrian Safety Audits
At Councilmember Rice’s initiative, the Committee recommended adding $100,000 to MCDOT’s budget for pedestrian safety audits. These audits target specific “high-incident” areas and recommend improvements to make them safer. We need more audits.

Street Trees

The County Executive recommended cuts to various programs that plant and maintain trees as well as remove stumps; the Committee did not agree and instead increased funding in future years. Due to funding, the backlog for removing a stump is currently 17 years. That is unacceptable.

Mobility for seniors and persons with disabilities

A few years ago, the County imposed a small charge on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to fund programs that provide transportation for those with disabilities and seniors of limited income. The charge has generated over $5 million for critical programs such as Call-n-Ride and Seniors Ride Free. One of our more challenging problems is ensuring that there are enough taxis and/or ride hailing vehicles that are wheelchair accessible. The Committee discussed ways to use funds from the charge to incentivize more wheelchair accessible vehicles in taxi fleets. We expect the County Executive to transmit an executive regulation in the coming weeks that addresses this issue.

We have a ways to go before we will know what we can afford to add into the final budget. But the Committee’s actions are the right calls.

Best regards

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large


Gaithersburg Book Festival
May 18, 2018

If you are a lover of great books and great writing, I highly encourage you to check out the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 18, 2019. Meet authors like Jeffrey Deaver and Lulu Delacre, attend writing workshops for adults, teens, and kids, visit the Brew & Vine Cafe, and much much more. Best of all — entrance is free, parking is free, and it’s awesome all day long.

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 — 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