Archive for the ‘Montgomery County’ category

Can’t Stop Spending that Cash of Yours

18 April 2013

Okay, I don’t really feel all that much sympathy for the county executive.  But watching Ike Leggett maneuver is a little like watching a Buster Keaton movie;  “Oh, no, he’s about to walk under that falling piano!”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Leggett put out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year (2014), detailing plans to (what else?) increase spending and (what else?) increase taxes.  He proposes to increase property taxes by 2.2%.  As the average tax bill in the county is about $4500, that is roughly an additional $100 per household annually.  (You’ve got that just lying around, don’t you?)

Furthermore, he’s is proposing to extend the “temporary” energy tax once again. According to legislation passed two years ago, residential energy taxes are scheduled to go back to 0.5 cents per KWH; instead, they’ll more than double.  Business rates are scheduled at 1.3 cents per KWH; instead, they’ll almost double.  Again, we’re talking hundreds of additional tax dollars to the county, which every home and business has to spare right now because we’re in such flush economic times.

Leggett also proposes to increase spending by $190 million (4.1%) this year, after an increase of $199 million the previous year.
Now comes the County Council budget analysts, who tells us that after increasing spending by $390 million over these two years, the county budget will have a $300 million deficit the following year.

Kate Jacobson, what will I do without you?


Damn the low-income residents and the jobless: Anybody but WalMart!

10 April 2013

The building on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Aspen Hill Road in Aspen Hill has been empty for three years.  At the same time, downcounty residents have been looking forward to a WalMart opening in the area, where heavy discounts on household goods and groceries would be available.  And to complete the confluence of opportunity and fortune, Walmart is interested in occuping the space, which would establish dozens of jobs.  Sounds like a fortuitous win/win/win situation, right?  Who could oppose this?  Councilman Craig Rice, who is often looking out for the interests of low-income residents,  is eager to see it happen.

But Councilman George Leventhal, who is often looking out for politically popular causes, is trying to stop it.  After all, criticizing Walmart is all the rage among Leventhal’s upper-income constituents.  It’s chic to oppose the lowbrow store, which doesn’t serve gourmet fair trade chai or organic truffles.  Leventhal complained that “the county has not had a chance to weigh Walmart over other potential uses for the land.”

It’s been three years, George, and no one else is moving in there.  Yet he continues to block the approval process, hoping that someone more tasteful might be persuaded to move there.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr and Charter Schools

24 March 2013

Is MCPS superintendent Joshua Starr being hypocritical? He recently wrote in Education Week praise to a Boston pilot school. (Pilot schools are very similar to charter schools, but have somewhat less flexibility in teacher pay and seniority rules). He praised the autonomy given the principal and teachers, and the results of a tailored education that flexibility gives to meet the needs of the students.

Joseph Hawkins notes on Patch that this is nothing new for Starr; he has offered admiration before for progressive schools and others that provide a more flexible approach than that mandated within strict MCPS guidelines. That’s all well and good – but it appears to be just talk. He has spoken out against charter schools, in the fashion of Henry Ford’s dictum about car colors. Everybody should be happy with what MCPS provides – nothing better or different is necessary.

If charter schools are going to be given a chance in Montgomery, they will have to overcome the “one-size-fits-all-and-you-should-be-grateful-we’re-giving-you-this-much” attitude of the teachers’ union and the MCPS leadership.

Helping Low-Income Residents — A Valuable Change in Zoning Regulations

9 September 2012

The county planning board is proposing a beneficial change in zoning regulations, to make them less restrictive.   The change would make it easier for homeowners to create accessory apartments (better known as “mother-in-law suites”) in their homes.  These apartments have kitchen facilities, bathrooms, and a separate entrance.

There’s a public hearing on the proposal on Tuesday, at 7:30 pm,  in the council building.

There are clearly problems that can be caused or exacerbated by these apartments.  They can increase crowding, including parking.   There’s a more general concern about stress on public and private services and infrastructure.

But they also have multiple benefits:
— They provide a way for families to live close to each other, when it is not otherwise financially feasible.  The classic example is a separate apartment for an elderly parent, who otherwise could not afford to live near a grown child.  Often, a mother-in-law suite is the difference between an elderly parent living at home and institutionalization.

– They help alleviate the problem of housing affordability by increasing the housing stock.  This county has a serious affordable housing problem.  Simple economics suggests that one reason for that problem is insufficient supply of housing units to meet the demand.

– They help provide additional income for people who are struggling in the bad economy..

– -They help alleviate unnecessary sprawl.  Cheaper housing can be difficult to build in the densely populated part s of the county.  If not for these apartments, people might be looking to build new housing on unused green space.

If we are serious about alleviating housing costs, and helping the poor get on their feet — this zoning change would be a change for the better – and deserves support.

Addressing PEPCO Problem — for real

4 September 2012

I thought it best to follow up on the snarky approach from my post on PEPCO solutions.  How about something a little more practical?

The problems that need to be addressed include (apparently) better maintenance of the infrastructure for distributing electricity, and improvement of PEPCO’s responsiveness, especially to repairing wiring and connections when storms cause outages.

How can these problems best be addressed?

First, forget about Councilman Berliner’s dream of a publically owned power company.  There is little empirical evidence to suggest that a publically owned utility would be more efficient or responsive than an investor-owned utility like PEPCO.

Keep in mind that PEPCO is already a monopoly – granted and enforced by the state.  The main problem with a government-granted monopoly like PEPCO is that the firm has little incentive to improve service.  Since the law precludes any competition with PEPCO, they don’t have to fear that customers will abandon them in favor of a different electricity provider.

How, then, can we provide incentive for PEPCO to do better?  In theory, oversight from the state is designed to pressure them to be more responsive to consumer needs.  And there have been many cries for the Public Service Commission to “crack down” on PEPCO.  But the PSC doesn’t seem to have successfully induced PEPCO to better service.  In fact, it almost seems like PSC has done the opposite.

The policy solution may go back to that problem of incentives.  Despite the monopoly they are granted, there are ways to improve the utility’s performance incentives.

1)      Emphasize competition, wherever possible.  Maryland law has already been changed to allow some flexibility and competition in generation of electricity.  You can choose which of several firms you would like to buy power from.  But in distribution  of electricity – that is, bringing it into your home — we have no competition yet allowed by law.  One way to do this is to emulate the model that is used for pay television services.  In much of the county, you can choose your service provider for pay television.  In addition to satellite services like Direct TV and Dish Network, service is provided by Comcast, RCN, and Verizon.   If you get junk mail, or see television commercials, you know how fiercely those three firms battle for customers.  For the most part, they are not building redundant wiring networks.  They are competing for the right to use the existing network infrastructure (both cable and telephone) to provide services to customers.   A similar model is used in telephone service.  You don’t have to purchase your telephone service from Verizon; there is an array of CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers) that you can contract with.  This doesn’t even discuss VOIP or other options.  All of this competition has helped lower rates and improve service;  wouldn’t it be nice to see the same thing happen for electricity distribution?

2)      Reduce barriers to entry.  We need to make sure that the legal framework for electricity is advancing to meet the technological framework, which is changing all the time.  Cogeneration, home solar, local generation – these are just a few ways for people to get electricity and (at least partially) bypass the PEPCO network.  Any legal or administrative obstacles to increasing these options need to be removed.

3)       Fix the “decoupling” policy.  Decoupling was the legislative solution to an apparent paradox (or conflict of interest) that confronts electric utilities.  On the one hand, the state wants to conserve energy, and utilities are required to subsidize energy efficiency programs for consumers.  That left the utilities in the awkward position of urging customers to buy less from their businesses.   The decoupling policy was the remedy: it guaranteed income to the utilities even if power consumption dropped.

The problem is that this creates a tremendous disincentive for utilities to be efficient about restoring power.  As UMBC economist Tim Brennan phrases it, “[T]he silliest thing we could do would be to promise these utilities the same profits regardless of how much electricity they deliver.”   The PSC has already taken steps to limit the charges that utilities can make, but the issue needs to be addressed more comprehensively.

Predictably Preposterous Policy Prescriptions for Pepco

15 August 2012

Everyone recognizes that Pepco’s performance in maintaining stability of electricity supply is poor.  The question is: What to do about it?  Here are some knee-jerk, mindless suggestions we’ve heard from local politicians, and my quick assessment:

– The problem is corporate greed.  PEPCO spends too much to compensate executives and shareholders, and not enough on maintenance.  The Public Service Commission needs to regulate them more strictly, and come down hard on them.  [Fantasy]

– Montgomery County needs to take over PEPCO’s assets and run it as a publicly-owned utility. MoCo could do a better job and be more efficient and responsive.  [Drug-addled fantasy]

– The Federal government needs to take it over. [Complete schizophrenic dissociation from reality]


Distracting the Police from Crime

19 January 2009

Our good friends at Help Save Maryland From People Who Look Different are at it again. Now they are seeking to implement racial profiling on a grand scale. They seek to divert police resources from rapes, murders, burglaries, and other actual crimes, to profile Hispanics as possible immigrants (gasp!). This is particularly idiotic at a time when violent crime in the county is on an uptick.

This isn’t the time to assuage the ravings of a few foaming xenophobes. Keep police resources focused on crime. The Prince George’s County Council passed a resolution in 2005, precluding the police from enforcing federal detainers for immigration warrants. MoCo should adopt that policy, too.