Living longer in Montgomery County
I was pleased to learn recently that as part of its annual rating of "America's Best Places to Live," "Money" Magazine has ranked Montgomery County first among the "Best places for a long life" citing a life expectancy at birth of 81.31 years.
Among the factors that helped Montgomery County earn the first spot are two top-ranked hospitals, Suburban and Naval Medical Center, plus compact, walkable
neighborhoods, such as Bethesda and Rockville's new Town Square. The presence of large recreational areas such as the C&O Canal National Park was listed for its impact in helping "keep residents in shape."
Other area counties in the top 25 were: Fairfax , VA, ranked seventh; Arlington Co., VA, rated 15th; and Howard Co., MD, ranked 22nd.
Come out on Community Service Day
"Together we can!" is not only the theme of this year's 22nd annual Community Service Day on October 25, but a phrase that captures the essence of what this event is all about.
This is the day that we ask our families, friends and neighbors to come out, spend a few hours and make our communities even better by helping neighbors and neighborhoods in need.
It's as easy as picking a project – or coming up with one of your own – and registering through the Volunteer Center.
Just log onto www.montgomerycountymd.gov/volunteer or call 240-777-2600 to sign up for either Saturday the 25th or Sunday the 26th. Businesses and community organizations interested in organizing a project should call Kathleen Meaney Stobie at 240-777-2611.
I'll be out there helping to make a difference and hope you will be, too.
Our County budget challenge
I am proposing two furlough days that would affect all County employees and save about $6 million toward the $8 million hole left by the County Council when they passed the budget last May. The remainder would be met through better-than-expected savings from our early retirement program and from limiting senior management pay.
Updated revenue reports in November will tell us whether we need to go beyond the two days. Given the difficulties with the national economy, the downturn in the housing market, and the state budget crisis, I believe we will need an expanded savings plan for this fiscal year that might involve more furlough days. In addition, we project a $251 million gap in the budget that begins next July 1.
Incidentally, I will contribute back to Montgomery County whatever my equivalent pay would be for however many furlough days are necessary.
As you may know, over the my first two years I have reduced County government agency spending from a 14 percent increase in the year before I took over to 6.9 percent and, then, last year, to 1.6 percent. I have initiated a hiring freeze and eliminated 225 positions. My current six-year capital budget increased by only 1 percent, compared to an average of 25 percent for each of the previous two cycles.
I have already said that I will not increase taxes next year. Although I am legally bound to support the labor agreements signed by the County – in a way that the Council, by the way, is not -- I am engaged in discussions with the County employee organizations over the depth of our budget challenges and possible ways they could contribute to a solution. Lacking that – or Council action in this area – I will be proposing a budget next March 15 with significant reductions in critical areas.
Honoring the best of the best in the arts and humanities
I know many of you are interested in the arts and humanities and would like an opportunity to help honor local leaders in the field, plus enjoy a free evening of performances and entertainment. I'm pleased to invite you to join Catherine and me at the 7th Annual County Executive's Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities to be held on Monday, October 20 at 7 p.m. at The Music Center at Strathmore.
Six individuals and one business will be recognized for outstanding achievements and contributions to the arts and humanities in Montgomery County. We will also honor recipients of the FY 2009 grants in the arts and humanities. These are the most prestigious honors the County confers on individual artists, organizations and patrons of the arts and humanities.
Thanks to the Montgomery County Executive's Ball for the Arts and Humanities, the County Council and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County for organizing this stellar event.
Investing in pedestrian safety
On my way to one of five events I held during the first two weeks of September to announce new steps Montgomery County is taking to improve pedestrian safety, I came upon a tragic scene. A young woman was lying dead in the road – our most recent pedestrian fatality. This heartbreaking tragedy is just another reminder of the urgency of our efforts. We are making progress in creating a truly walkable community, but we're still losing too many lives -- and even one death is too many.
Last year, there were 412 pedestrian collisions and 17 deaths in the county. So far this year, we have suffered 13 deaths, and in the first four months of 2008, there were 145 pedestrian collisions. We can't accept this and must and will do more engineering, more education and more enforcement.
My message during "Pedestrian Safety Week," (first week in September) reiterated the strong commitment I made to improving pedestrian safety when I took office, and outlined a number of new initiatives that, I hope, will prevent future tragedies.
On September 2, I highlighted the start of Strategy One of my Pedestrian Safety Initiative – targeting pedestrian safety improvements in areas with the highest frequency of collisions. Over the next few months, we'll intensely focus on Piney Branch Road between Flower Avenue and the County line, which over the past three years, had 22 pedestrian-related collisions. We'll make engineering improvements and beef up education and enforcement. Then, based on our successes, we'll use the results as a model to target other problem corridors.
Engineering changes are making a difference in enhancing safety. Last year, we installed pedestrian improvements on Connecticut Avenue that reduced traffic speed by 10 miles per hour, made drivers more aware of pedestrians, and increased compliance by motorists yielding to pedestrians at the crosswalk. I went to see similar engineering changes on Arcola Avenue in Wheaton, where a 14-year old boy was killed two years ago. I'm optimistic that these kinds of innovative approaches can calm traffic and increase pedestrian safety and comfort.
On September 4, I released new "Road Code" Executive Regulations that are designed to make sure that County roads fit into their surroundings and the environment and better accommodate their many different users, including bicyclists, vehicles, mass transit – and, of course, pedestrians. A 24-person Stakeholder Work Group of advocates for pedestrians, bicyclists, the disability community, transit, motor vehicles, environmental concerns, and County agencies overwhelmingly endorsed the proposed changes to the way we build and rebuild roads in the County.
As a former college professor, I understand the importance and impact of education as we increase our pedestrian safety outreach efforts to build a culture of safety. On September 5, I announced the availability of a pedestrian safety video called, "Walk SafeTM: Keeping Pedestrians Safe in the Danger Zone" that is being distributed to adult English-as-a-Second Language (ESOL) teachers, Montgomery County public schools, community groups, faith organizations, non-profits and others who work with non-native English speakers. This group is at much higher risk than the general population of being involved in pedestrian collisions, so we are ramping up our efforts to reach them, and other high risk groups.
Community briefing on home invasions
As a participant in the recent public meeting held at Seven Locks Elementary School regarding the series of home invasions that have plagued the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, I heard first-hand the concerns that residents have.
I am prepared to use whatever resources we have, whatever we need, whatever my officers tell me they need, in order to resolve this.
The next public meeting is scheduled for October 6 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Walt Whitman High School auditorium. The school is located at 7100 Whittier Boulevard in Bethesda.
Chief Tom Manger and officers of the Montgomery County Police Department will brief the community on the status of the Police Department's efforts and to answer questions from the audience.
Disappointed by state cuts in transportation
The reductions to state transportation funding announced recently by the State of Maryland are terribly disappointing. I understand that the economic downturn and budget challenges on the state level are very real. Still, these cuts affect hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for Montgomery County projects that are critical to meeting our goal of reducing traffic congestion and giving County commuters more transportation options.
I'm especially concerned by reductions in state funding for congestion mitigation at Bethesda intersections that will be severely impacted by the closing of Walter Reed and the transfer of operations to Bethesda Naval. At a time when we need to do more transit, the cuts will adversely affect our Ride On system, as well as start-up funding for the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway.
I will work with our delegation and the state to try to get these projects back on line as soon as possible.
I urge all concerned residents to turn out and hear from our police first-hand.
Encouraging a four-day, 10-hour work week for County employees
In order to help save energy, protect the environment, and mitigate traffic congestion, I have directed County government departments to expand the number of employees who work four-day, 10-hour schedules within the normal 40 hour, five-day work week
As a major employer in the county, we have an important obligation to set our own bar for excellence in this area very high. However, I want to emphasize that the expansion will be done consistent with my emphasis on continuous improvement in customer service.
While full-time county employees will continue to work a minimum 40-hour week, greater emphasis will be placed on reducing rush hour commuting.
Montgomery County already does a great job on this and has a substantial percentage of our employees on Alternative Work Schedules, but we can do better. Expanding our four-day, 10-hour schedules can extend County services a little before and after normal working hours to improve access to County services for working families.
Already we estimate that existing programs save more than 88,000 gallons of fuel every year. By expanding the number of employees who work four-day, 10-hour schedules by just 800 people we estimate we can save almost 50,000 gallons more -- and help keep the air we breathe a bit healthier. Although many private employers in the County are also promoting similar traffic and environmentally- friendly work schedules, I encourage County businesses to take a close look at increasing the number of employees participating in flexible work schedules.
Recommended reforms to County service-connected disability retirements
I said from the start that I wanted to keep what's working and fix what isn't, and I'm concerned that our system for dealing with claims for service- connected disability retirements isn't working the way it should – and hasn't for some time.
We need to make sure that our Disability Retirement Program works in an objective and equitable manner, consistent with a wise use of public tax dollars.
Over the past eight years, 2,141 County employees retired. Two hundred ninety-two (13.5 percent) of those received service connected disability benefits. A total of 226 (77.4 percent) of those receiving service-connected disability retirement benefits were Public Safety employees (Fire & Rescue, Police, Sheriff, and Corrections).
By way of comparison, service-connected disability retirements for Public Safety as a percentage of retirements over the same eight years in Prince George's County were 25 percent (Police and Fire & Rescue), Howard County 4 percent (Police & Fire), Anne Arundel 23 percent (Police & Fire), and Fairfax County 3 percent (Police, Fire & Rescue, and Sheriff).
I recently received a seven-point program of recommendations designed to clarify procedures and amend certain requirements with respect to determining an employee's eligibility to receive service-connected disability retirement benefits under the Montgomery County Employees Retirement System.
The recommendations are the product of a nine-month-long examination of the Disability Retirement Program by the County's Office of Human Resources, in conjunction with Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, the Montgomery County Police, and the County Attorney.
The recommended changes are:
- Change the Montgomery County Code to allow a denial of benefits if an employee is being terminated as a result of intentional wrongdoing, such as a felony, fraud, or recklessness.
- Consider changing the current broad "disabled" qualification into two – "fully disabled" and "partially disabled" – each with their own criteria and different benefits (late recommendation from the Police Chief, who was represented on the work group).
- Require a disability retiree to undergo a periodic physical examination during the five-year period following retirement and periodically thereafter until age 55 and/or 60 to determine if the individual can return to work or continues to meet the criteria for disability retirement benefits.
- Consider as a factor in deciding whether to award or reduce service connected disability retirement whether job-related injuries are not reported or not reported in a timely fashion.
- Restrict retirees from being able to file for disability retirement after they retire, excepting claims for occupational disease such as those for heart and lung disease relating to police or fire-fighting activities.
- Change the law to require that non-service connected disability beneficiaries and service-connected disability beneficiaries' benefits integrate with Social Security at normal retirement age – as is the case with normal retirement benefits.
- Require that required periodic physical examinations be performed by the Office of Human Resources' Office of Medical Services.
We value all of our employees – including our Public Safety employees who put their lives on the line to protect our families and our property. We know that many of them continue to 'work hurt' because they are committed to serving the citizens of Montgomery County.
I want to work closely with the County Council and with our employee organizations to take a hard look at this issue. We have to help those employees disabled to some degree in service to this County while ensuring that any such designation is just and proper and makes sense to County taxpayers.
It's a pleasure to welcome OpGen Technologies Inc. to their new 15,000-square foot headquarters facility in Gaithersburg.
The company – formerly based in Madison, Wisconsin -- is a recognized industry leader in single molecule DNA analysis technology and a recent graduate of the Montgomery County Business Innovation Network.
The move to Maryland is a significant success for the County's ongoing business development efforts. This decision by a company like OpGen, an industry leader in microbial genome optical mapping technology, illustrates the breadth of the life sciences culture and community found in Montgomery County, and their continued growth and success here will help further the County's position as global biotech leader.
OpGen's genome-mapping system is used by academic, commercial and federal entities worldwide for comparative genomics and genome sequence assembly/validation. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration asked OpGen to help determine the source of salmonella outbreaks from spinach and then again more recently, from jalapeno peppers.
This re-location allows OpGen to take advantage of the County's highly-educated workforce, presence of federal agencies and labs, and the nation's third largest concentration of biotech companies. Since graduating from the County's incubator facility in just four short months, the company has hired some 15 new employees and expects to grow to more than 100 employees within the next two years.
Getting the word out by connecting with Connected Communities
In an effort to expand the ways in which we communicate during emergencies with those who live and work in Montgomery County, we are now participating with Connected Communities at http://connectedcommunities.us.
This collaboration between Montgomery County, Connected Communities, and local listservs, helps ensure that critical information is delivered fast and efficiently to county residents.
Upcoming public meetings/outreach
Continuing our intent to provide as many opportunities for our residents to express their opinions and give us feedback on projects, programs, services and issues, here's a schedule of online chats, call-in shows and Town Hall Meetings for the remainder of 2008:
- Thursday, November 6 and December 18 – noon to 1 p.m.
- Wednesday, October 1 – 7:30 p.m.
- Wednesday, November 12 – 7:30 p.m.
Town Hall Meetings:
- Thursday, November 20 – 7:30 p.m. in Clarksburg at Rocky Hill Middle School, 22401 Brick Haven Way
I look forward to having the chance to speak directly to or chat online with many of you in the months ahead about issues of concern.
Finally, check out the County's website at www.montgomerycountymd.gov for the latest developments.