Update on Budget, Purple Line, and WSSC from Councilmember Berliner
Dear District 1 Residents and Friends,
It hasn't been that long since my last newsletter, but there are three issues that I believe are important to share with you. I hope you find this information useful, and as always, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact my office at (240) 777-7828.
HOW TO REDUCE THE 2010 BUDGET?
As I wrote in my last newsletter, the County is faced with at least a 500 million dollar budget shortfall. Balancing the FY10 Budget while protecting essential government services will be a daunting task..
I would be most grateful for any thoughts or recommendations you have with respect to reaching the objective of balancing our budget in the least painful way possible. The Council will be holding a public forum on Tuesday, January 27. This is one way you can offer your ideas on how to help balance next year’s operating budget. Your feedback is important to me, so if you cannot make it to Rockville on Tuesday, please feel free to send your written suggestions by emailing the Council at email@example.com. I look forward to your participation in this critical examination of government services. Below, you will find the full text of the announcement about Tuesday’s forum.
Montgomery County Council to Hold Forum, Seeking Input on Ways to Reduce FY10 Budget
ROCKVILLE, Md., January 23, 2009—Montgomery County is facing a projected shortfall of approximately $500 million for the Fiscal Year 2010 operating budget, which will go in effect on July 1. On Tuesday, Jan. 27, the Montgomery County Council will hold a public forum at which residents can offer input on areas that might be reduced or eliminated to help the County balance the budget.
The “Community Forum on Ways to Reduce Next Year’s Budget” will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Council Office Building at 100 Maryland Ave. in Rockville. The forum will be televised live by County Cable Montgomery (CCM—Cable Channel 6 on Comcast and RCN, Channel 30 on Verizon. The live broadcast also can be viewed via streaming through the County Web site at www.montgomerycountymd.gov.
For FY09, the Council unanimously agreed on a $4.3 billion total operating budget. The $3.8 billion tax-supported portion of the budget increased by 3.1 percent from the FY08 approved budget—the lowest annual increase since FY 1997. In preparing the FY09 budget, the Council faced a budget shortfall of approximately $200 million. The shortfall was closed with the help of a midyear “savings plan” in FY08.
In November, the Council approved $33 million in mid-year savings for FY09 as the first step toward addressing the projected FY10 budget gap. The Council also asked Montgomery County Public Schools to find an additional $10 million in savings.
“In the coming months, and at public hearings in April, we will continue the tradition of inviting comments on things people want to see funded in next year’s budget,” said Council President Phil Andrews. “But at the Jan. 27 forum, we want to hear suggestions about items that people believe can be reduced or eliminated. The Council and our staffs are constantly studying items that could be reduced with minimal impact on the community overall. However, we know our residents have a lot to offer in this debate and we want to hear their ideas in what clearly will be a very difficult budget year.”
All speakers at the forum will have three minutes to express their views and also can provide supporting materials for the Council’s review. Those wishing to speak must sign up in advance by Monday, Jan. 26. To sign up to speak, call 240-777-7931.
T&E Committee Votes on Purple Line Recommendations
On Thursday, January 22, my colleagues and I on the Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment Committee concurred with the county’s Planning Board and the County Executive and voted unanimously to recommend to the State that it build the Purple Line as a light rail transit system along the alignment which has been in the County’s Master Plan since 1990. I cast this vote because I believe that light rail along the Master Plan Alignment provides a first-class mass transit system consistent with the creation of a sustainable community and is the best long-term option for solving our serious east-west mobility problems, which will only worsen with time.
I examined carefully the request by the Town of Chevy Chase and others that the bus rapid transit on Jones Bridge Road be selected as the preferred alternative, and I wrote to Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari to request that this option be given full and careful consideration. However, along with the Planning Board, the County Executive and my colleagues on the Council, I do not believe that the bus rapid transit (BRT) option that runs along Jones Bridge Road to Wisconsin Avenue in shared traffic lanes and then heads south to downtown Bethesda, thus avoiding the Georgetown Branch Trail, is a viable option. BRT along Jones Bridge Road would provide insufficient capacity to serve a growing ridership, take more than twice as long as light rail on the Master Plan Alignment, exacerbate existing traffic problems, and is opposed by residents living along its route. I also believe that although BRT is less expensive, light rail provides a superior transit system and is more consistent with the quality of life and the urban experience in downtown Bethesda.
Nonetheless, I fully understand and regret that this recommendation will require significant sacrifices on the part of many of my constituents who treasure the Georgetown Branch Trail. The interim trail, which runs along the right-of-way purchased by the county in 1988 for the Purple Line, has over the last twenty years become a unique and beloved resource for the thousands of users who walk, run and bike under the shade of its trees. Although I believe that light rail is not fundamentally inconsistent with a hiker-biker trail, no one disputes that building the Purple Line will fundamentally alter the current character of the trail experience.
Given this context, I believe it is my duty to fight on behalf of the constituents who value the trail to ensure that the trail experience is enhanced to the greatest extent possible. In particular, the State’s representatives have affirmed in response to my questions that the trail is an integral part of the Purple Line project, and will be rebuilt at the highest quality concurrently with the transit portion of the project. In addition, I have obtained assurances that the State will mitigate tree cutting, replant trees and generally provide attractive landscaping, widen the trail from 10 feet to 12 or even 16 feet in some areas, use grass tracks, run the trail under Wisconsin Avenue in a tunnel under the Air Rights and Apex buildings, and limit the extension of the tail tracks into our public commons at Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues. I have also requested that the State examine alternative light rail technologies, such as diesel-electric light rail, that do not require overhead catenary wires and would thus more easily permit tree regrowth. As this project proceeds, I will continue to work with the State to make certain that the completed trail remains an enjoyable recreational experience in an esthetically pleasing environment.
I know that this decision will disappoint many of my constituents who live near the Georgetown Branch trail and use it daily. My responsibility as a district councilmember sometimes requires that I balance the wishes of some of my constituents against what I conclude to be the larger public good. This is the hardest part of my job. In a recent column, Marc Fisher noted that the Purple Line issue required a choice between the greater joy and the greater good. I agree that the “greater joy” of the trail as it exists today must unfortunately be compromised for the “greater good” of shared transit and a trail. I believe that once the State builds the Purple Line and the new, wider trail, Montgomery County residents will have the benefits of both a speedy, reliable transit system and a truly enjoyable, esthetically pleasing hiker-biker trail for generations to come.
Water Main Breaks and WSSC Infrastructure
WSSC Governance Structure
First, I believe it’s important to understand the structure of WSSC.. WSSC's governing board consists of six commissioners, three from Montgomery County and three from Prince George's County, serving staggered four year terms. The positions of Chair and Vice Chair alternate annually between the counties. This bi-county governance model has made decision-making particularly difficult and the fact that the commission has been without a permanent general manager since February of 2008 is evidence of this. I believe that we need to examine the organizational structure of the WSSC and determine whether the bi-county approach to our water and sewer management is tenable going forward. However, any overhaul of the structure of the WSSC will require State legislation. This is an issue that is under review by our Montgomery County State Delegation and by members of the County Council. In order for critical decisions to be made, I believe change is necessary. What form that change ultimately takes has not yet been decided. My bottom line is that I do not want our infrastructure needs to be held hostage by a different set of priorities that are held by our colleagues in Prince George's County. Therefore, at a minimum, I want Montgomery County to be free to invest in its own critical infrastructure needs now.
Communication Services From the WSSC
In the past several weeks, there has been an unusually high number of water main breaks in both Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. As a result, my office has been in close contact with WSSC staff and made many inquiries to them on your behalf. WSSC has informed us that they have created a “24/7” rapid response center that handles emergency calls and quickly dispatches crews. For water or sewer emergencies, please call 1-800-828-6439 or (301) 206-4002. You may also email the call center at EmergencyCallCenter@wsscwater.com.
WSSC recently launched a Customer Notification System to alert area residents about WSSC-related situations – emergencies, water main breaks, traffic backups caused by Commission work – that may affect their service or daily routines. By clicking on the Customer Notification System logo on WSSC’s home page at www.wsscwater.com, WSSC customers and other area residents can register and receive e-mail and text message alerts about WSSC-related situations impacting their home, work, school and/or other addresses of interest. I encourage you to seriously consider signing up for these services.
County Council to be briefed by WSSC on Tuesday, January 27:
On the afternoon of January 27th, the Council will receive a briefing from WSSC. I am concerned that the WSSC has not reconciled what we have learned from the water main breaks with its ongoing fiscal priorities. At this briefing, I expect that WSSC officials will be reporting on their investigation into the River Road water main break, the status of large diameter pipe inspection efforts throughout the County, statistics on the pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes (PCCP), as well as methods of monitoring such pipes and their associated costs. Several of you have raised very legitimate issues about WSSC’s notification practices. Improvements can be made and I will be raising this issue along with many others at the January 27th briefing.
I have raised many of these issues with the WSSC in a letter I sent on January 12 to the Chairman of the Commission. The full text of the letter is available here.
The briefing will be held on the 7th floor of the Council Office Building located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. You can attend or you may watch the session live on County Cable Montgomery Channel 6 if you subscribe to Comcast or RCN or on Channel 30 if you have Verizon service.
If you have any questions or comments, contact us by email or postal mail:
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