Wednesday, December 27, 2017

MoCo Council prevents Robin Ficker from testifying on tax bill

Email from Montgomery County Council
President Hans Riemer to Robin Ficker on
Christmas night; there is no mandated limit
on how many speakers can testify at a hearing
Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer rejected County resident Robin Ficker's request to testify at a hastily-scheduled public hearing Tuesday on a bill that would allow pre-payment of property taxes before December 31. Ficker is running against several members of the Council for the office of County Executive. This was a clear conflict-of-interest for the Council in excluding Ficker's testimony, as he would surely have discussed the Council's record property tax hikes in his remarks, and the narrow tax relief the bill would provide for only one tier of taxpayers. Some of his opponents on the Council used the taxpayer-funded Council public relations office to issue statements praising themselves following the hearing Tuesday, despite being the ones who forced County residents to pay more than $10,000 in property taxes, starting in 2016.
Ficker is mobbed by supporters
outside the Council building earlier
this year
Ficker's exclusion raised eyebrows because the Council had all day to listen to testimony; this was an emergency session and there was no other item on the agenda, as anyone can confirm by examining it. The Council recently used a similar tactic to limit public participation in the debate over a proposed expansion of Old Angler's Inn, which left more observers in the hearing room than actual speakers.
Ficker's successful ballot
questions limiting Council terms
and tax increases have enraged
councilmembers, who prevented
him from testifying Tuesday
The tax bill passed 7-1 yesterday, with Councilmember Craig Rice voting against it, and Councilmember Tom Hucker absent. It remains uncertain if all or any taxpayers who pay more than $10,000 in property taxes will be ultimately be able to prepay and/or save money. But councilmembers were forced to reverse their opposition after other local jurisdictions quickly allowed their residents to prepay. Many of those paying that amount were only put over the $10,000 mark by the Council's record 2016 and 2017 tax hikes. While the Council took pains to blame Donald Trump, who is unpopular in blue Montgomery, it was the Council themselves who put so many of those affected by the federal tax changes into that position.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

MoCo Council president Hans Riemer arrested

A Montgomery County Councilmember who has had trouble obeying the law in the past found himself in handcuffs Wednesday. Council President Hans Riemer was arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol by U.S. Capitol Police yesterday, after refusing an order to disperse following an immigration rally.

"I was arrested today," Riemer wrote on Facebook last evening. Riemer has promised to introduce legislation to declare Montgomery County officially a "sanctuary county" for illegal immigrants, according to Gustavo Torres, Executive Director of CASA de Maryland.

Riemer has run afoul of the law in the past, including violating his own Open Data law this past spring, when he directed that a file required to be posted on the County website be removed. In 2014, he appeared to have inside information on illegal activity in the County's Department of Liquor Control, over which he has oversight authority, but waited to report it until after he was safely reelected that November.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Riemer seizes Council presidency, declares war on his constituents

A backroom political deal culminated Tuesday with a unanimous vote by the Montgomery County Council naming Councilmember Hans Riemer Council President for the final year of their current term. In a rambling seven minute speech, Riemer took aim at the County's established suburban neighborhoods of "cul-de-sacs," which he described as "appealing, if exclusive, suburban communit[ies]" that are home to "those who already have every advantage."

Delivered with a sneering tone and slight smirk, Riemer's remarks echoed those of his colleague George Leventhal a few years ago. Leventhal declared the suburbs "a mistake," and during the Westbard sector plan battle, told residents angry about the plan to urbanize their neighborhood they should just be glad they were "lucky" enough to live there.

"People used to come here to get away from the city," Riemer said Tuesday, announcing a new "metropolitan" identity for a County where a majority live in leafy, suburban neighborhoods. Riemer appeared delusional when referring to the visceral anger displayed by residents toward the Council in the last several years - a backlash that culminated in the passage of term limits by an overwhelming margin in November 2016. Despite having his own term limited by that vote, in Riemer's world, "emotions in our community are charged" because of Donald Trump, not his own votes for tax hikes and urbanization of existing rural and suburban neighborhoods.

Riemer's Trump-like reputation for falsehoods was on full display in yesterday's speech. Moments before casting a vote to pass the controversial Westbard sector plan in 2016, Riemer claimed the Westbard community was "a mile from two Metros." That was a four-Pinocchio whopper, given that Westbard is at least two miles from any Metro station, nowhere near the quarter-to-half mile distance universally agreed upon for "transit-oriented development."

On Tuesday, Riemer stated that the Purple Line would place the University of Maryland "minutes away" from Montgomery County residents. In reality, the light rail's average speed between Bethesda and College Park will be less than 19 MPH. He came up with a new definition for the County's longstanding achievement gap between white and Asian students, and their black and Latino peers. Stunning observers active on education issues, Riemer falsely described Montgomery County Public Schools' gap as only affecting those between the ages of "zero and five." A clever scheme to absolve failed County officials from any blame, but unfortunately, completely false.

Riemer was more honest about the County's hated government-controlled liquor monopoly, which he took steps to strengthen and preserve during his current term. "We may have a reputation for liquor control," Riemer acknowledged. That control has frustrated restaurant and bar owners, who are forced to pay higher prices while getting poor selection and service from the County. Meanwhile, residents are among the few in America who cannot purchase beer and wine from grocery, drug and chain convenience stores.

Riemer's disdain for his suburban constituents, who represent a majority of County residents, raises questions as to how he intends to get anything done this year. It also brought to mind a quote from chef Anthony Bourdain:

"He’s a classic example of the smirking, contemptuous, privileged guy who lives in a bubble. And he is in no way looking to reach outside, or even look outside, of that bubble, in an empathetic way.”

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Despite record tax hikes, bungling Montgomery County Council runs up $120 million shortfall

Montgomery County is facing a $120 million budget shortfall, despite record tax hikes on residents in 2016 and 2017. County Executive Ike Leggett has asked every government department to identify 2% budget cuts, and encouraged the Council to follow suit.

The shortfall seemed to take the Council by surprise, despite projections of a structural deficit as far out as the forecast goes. More knowledgeable observers know exactly why revenues are down - the County's private sector economy has been moribund for some time, and the wealthiest residents are fleeing to lower-tax jurisdictions like Loudoun, Fairfax, Frederick and Howard Counties. Montgomery has dropped far out of the Forbes Richest Counties Top Ten list in 2017.

Add in the heavy debt load councilmembers have run up, and the fiscal scenario worsens still. How much debt is there? If County debt was a department, it would be the third-largest department in Montgomery County government. Yikes.

The spendthrift County Council has also engaged in a hurricane of wasteful spending. In just one example, earlier this year they approved $22000 for a surveillance camera system that, in the real world, can be purchased and installed for under $1000. Importantly: this expenditure was not itemized in public budget documents, instead lumped into a $34500 line item. Multiply this by every budget item, and we could be talking about millions in wasted funds. Don't expect this Council to identify them!

What raised eyebrows among many who follow the County budget closely yesterday was the petulant insistence by some councilmembers that they would not make major budget cuts. Considering that taxes are at a record level, many are wondering what planet these folks are speaking to us from. Leggett warned at an NAACP meeting last week that the Council simply cannot use a tax increase to solve shortfalls in the coming years. He clearly knew then what became public yesterday - we have a $120 million shortfall.

Prediction: The County Council will use another tax increase to close the budget shortfall, as they have every year since 2010. Then they will be voted out of office in November 2018.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Montgomery County Council clueless in meeting with Maryland transportation official

Another clueless performance by the Montgomery County Council in a transportation meeting yesterday has many in the business community questioning their fitness for office. In a failed attempt to dress down Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's transportation secretary Pete Rahn, their politically-motivated meeting ended up instead exposing how poorly-informed the Council is on the basics of modern infrastructure, its operation, and financing.

Councilmembers repeatedly demanded "transit" be part of Hogan's massive Express Lanes plan for the Capital Beltway, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. They were unaware that it is standard practice for regular and rapid buses to use Express Lanes on highways.

Council President Roger Berliner asked Rahn if he could "fold in" the stalled Corridor Cities Transitway BRT project into the $9 billion dollar Express Lanes project. This was patently absurd for two reasons: The CCT runs on a completely different route than I-270, for starters. And the CCT, like all bus and rail service, will be a money-loser; transit does not generate profits like Express Lanes. What sane private corporation would try to combine the potentially-narrow profit margin of these particular Express Lanes with a surefire money drain like the CCT?

Finally, Councilmember George Leventhal showed how out of touch he is with his constituents when he advised Rahn that the more transit is part of the Express Lanes plan, "the more it will be easier (sic) to assuage our constituents." Huh? His constituents, tired of being stuck in traffic, want the popular Express Lanes plan proposed by Hogan. Leventhal should listen to voices beyond the yes-men in his office before daring to speak on behalf of his constituents.

Rahn, in contrast, demonstrated he has his finger on the pulse of frustrated Maryland drivers. His only misstep was waffling on how much the project might end up costing taxpayers, off-message with Hogan's promise that private companies would take on the financial burden.

Business leaders watching the hearing - and Montgomery's moribund private-sector economy and plunging wealth numbers - were reminded of a similar amateur-hour performance by the Council earlier this fall. In a worksession on autonomous vehicles, councilmembers showed a laughable lack-of-knowledge of the basic nuts-and-bolts of this now-arriving technology.  Many referred to autonomous vehicles as a futuristic fantasy, apparently unaware that Tesla vehicles on the road right now have fully-autonomous capability. The Council also didn't know how the cars might be insured. As more evidence that the Council hadn't even done the most basic research ahead of the session, they didn't know Volvo had just announced it would take on drivers' insurance liability itself.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Jobocalypse ahead after Montgomery County Council approves $15 minimum wage

"That's a lot of extra
Slurpees to sell"

The potentially-devastating impact of a $15 minimum wage was evident moments after it was unanimously passed by the Montgomery County Council yesterday. A Bethesda restaurant owner observing the proceedings, who had been planning two additional ventures in the county, declared he would never open another restaurant in the jurisdiction. He said his existing downtown Bethesda restaurant might even have to close in the coming years, as a result of the new financial burden in a razor-thin-profit-margin industry.

Just consider the impact of two full restaurant operations, with all of the employees those would entail, now never existing. All of those jobs just vanished, and the economic impact of that unemployment far outweighs the slight cash boost to workers in existing restaurants - assuming they don't lose their jobs, or get replaced by touchscreen kiosks. Now multiply that among other entrepreneurs deciding to take their dreams - and jobs - elsewhere. Montgomery County's outlay of services, required by those unemployed folks, will increase, not decrease. Taxpayers will pick up that bill, along with the increased prices of food and merchandise. Heckuva job, Brownie!

Of course, this is exactly what the Council wants. The more unemployed people, the more people who have to crawl on their knees to the Council for "services." Dependency on government is the aim, and that involves keeping those at the bottom of the ladder from climbing the rungs.

Councilmember Hans Riemer and his colleagues effectively terminated the middle-class business opportunity of Airbnb a few weeks ago. Up until that point, a modest real estate investor could have bought a few small homes and condo units, and generated a good cash flow from Airbnb rentals.

Without the same level of tenant damage concerns, or having to seek evictions of problem tenants, a middle-class County resident could have more-easily generated money for larger investments and ventures than with traditional renting. Now, you can only rent out your own current place of residence - just one unit - and you have to be on the property during the rental. Nothing makes an Airbnb more appealing than a hotel room than a landlord sitting on your couch, right? Thanks, Hans!

Imagine, initiative and some work allowing County residents to attain upper class status - status the County Council enjoys now, as they work a few hours a week for $137,000 a year. Notice they don't consider you deserving that amount, too. $15 isn't even close to a living wage in Montgomery County, and they know it.

Increasingly moribund Montgomery County has suffered a net loss of over 2000 retail jobs since 2000, according to the Maryland Retailers Association. We've had a net loss in jobs since 2005, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. Montgomery County's restaurant sector has "slowed since 2012, and remains flat," according to Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. 

Surprisingly, Councilmember Craig Rice also voted for the bill, despite his previous and correct concerns about the impact on African-American job-seekers, young workers in particular. According to a 2015 survey by The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, BETAH Associates, Inc. and Montgomery College,  only 8.7% of black high school students surveyed in the County are employed, and only 30.7% of black high school dropouts have been able to obtain employment. Among Montgomery County's young black high school graduates, only 39.7% of those surveyed are currently employed. 

The hits just keep on coming from the most anti-business elected officials in the region. A Council that has done literally nothing to improve traffic congestion, or to provide direct access to in-demand Dulles International Airport for international businesspeople, is spending most of its time criticizing Gov. Larry Hogan - - who is actually doing something in proposing Express Lanes for I-495 and I-270, and funding Metro. And that's when they're not telling us which snacks to buy from vending machines, or banning circuses.

Reaction to the $15 wage vote by local Chambers and business organizations was muted yesterday. In the next few days, we'll find out if those leaders are ready to "get dangerous" and challenge the MoCo cartel, as former Gov. Bob Ehrlich exhorted them to do in 2004. Or go quietly into the good night, in the most moribund private sector economy in the D.C. region.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

MD A.G. opposing $4 billion deal...for company in his own state

A virtually unprecedented situation is unfolding in Maryland. The state's attorney general, Brian Frosh, is opposing a $4 billion dollar merger expected to be a financial boon for a his own state. In a move that has left many in the business community again scratching their heads over the anti-business mania of the Montgomery County political cartel, Frosh last Friday joined his peers in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in opposing the merger of Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media Company.

Hunt Valley, Maryland-based Sinclair forecasts the merger would be a boon in boosting revenues, cutting costs and generating cash flow to pay down debts. Should such benefits come to pass, the cash flow would also go to the state of Maryland via taxes. But now Maryland's own attorney general is stepping in to try and stop the deal, which is currently before the Federal Communications Commission.

Despite that potential revenue boost for the state, Frosh is calling the merger "a bad deal for Marylanders." The attorney general claims the deal would raise the cost of cable, and reduce programming choices for viewers. Apparently, Frosh is unaware of Netflix, HBO Now, Sling TV, Hulu, YouTube TV, Playstation Vue, Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access, Crackle, Tubi TV, Acorn TV, and Pluto TV, just to name a few.

Frosh and his fellow travelers also say the merger would improperly use the UHF Discount rule to avoid the FCC cap on total station reach, and advise the FCC to wait until the District of Columbia Circuit Court issues its final ruling on the UHF rule. But clear heads can rule today that the Montgomery County political cartel has once again lost its wits.

While the deal should certainly be scrutinized by regulators, it is astonishing to witness a state's attorney general trying to sabotage a deal - and lower profits for - a company in his own state. It does not help Montgomery County and Maryland shed their horrible international reputation as anti-business jurisdictions. And will therefore give just one more reason for corporations to avoid us and relocate to Virginia instead.

Bad deal.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Olde Town Advisory Committee to brief Gaithersburg Mayor & Council tonight

The Olde Town Gaithersburg Advisory Committee will give its annual briefing to the Mayor and Council tonight at City Hall. They are expected to report success in leasing percentages in Olde Towne-area apartment buildings, new dining additions, and the imminent delivery of the Olde Towne Park Plaza.

Still a drag on Olde Towne are crime, failure to attract retail despite low rents relative to other parts of Gaithersburg, and the concern that those issues will eventually impact the rental apartment market.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

MCPS a top ten offender in spending money that doesn't go to the classroom


Montgomery County is ranked 8th in the nation in school spending that goes to administrators, rather than the classroom, according to Fox 45's Project Baltimore investigative unit. Baltimore City was the worst offender in the nation, their journalists found. Montgomery County Public Schools rank 8th out of all school systems in America in pumping cash to administrators, rather than to teachers and classroom costs. Six of the top ten are in Maryland.

This is once again proof that the record tax hike of 2016 did not go to hire teachers or improve academic performance (as recent PARCC test results proved - math scores declined, and English scores rose statewide, proving there was an obvious flaw in English portion of the test, rather than actual success by MCPS). In fact, a large chunk of the recordation tax money went to pay off the County's legal costs in the Silver Spring Transit Center debacle, in an outrageous and corrupt bait-and-switch by the County Council.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Gov. Hogan proposes massive traffic congestion relief plan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposed the largest traffic congestion relief plan in the nation on Thursday, which would widen the entire Capital Beltway (I-495) within Maryland, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD-295). The $9 billion plan would add tolled Express Lanes to each road, but not charge for use of existing lanes.

To expand capacity on the B-W Parkway, the state would have to be given control of the road by the federal government. Hogan has begun preliminary discussions with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke regarding this issue, he said. A private partner will be solicited by the state to construct and operate the new Express Lanes on all three highways. Because of the public-private nature of the plan, Hogan can largely move forward on his own to implement it, another plus in what is sure to be a contentious election year legislative session in Annapolis.

In a press conference yesterday, Hogan called his plan "unprecedented" and "absolutely transformative." The popular governor predicted that the congestion relief would assist the entire region, not just Maryland residents. Aside from the clear practical benefits, the highway plan is a brilliant political move, as many of Hogan's rivals have already taken the bait and come out opposing traffic congestion relief(!).

Other politicians, even those not in Hogan's party, smartly endorsed the plan. Robin Ficker, a Republican candidate for Montgomery County Executive who has called for such a plan for I-270 for years, praised the governor's proposal. "We say thank you to Governor Larry Hogan for putting forth a plan to widen the 495 beltway and I 270," Montgomery County Young Republicans VP Dan McHugh said in a statement. "This will help alleviate the terrible traffic problems we have here in Montgomery County!! This is what happens when you elect Republicans - we get things done!!" Patricia Fenati, a GOP candidate for the House of Delegates in District 14, recalled the many hours she has spent over the years driving from the upcounty into the District for work. "Finally, a hero has come along to look at that problem, and come up with a solution," she said of Hogan.

Predictable criticisms and the old "induced demand" canard came from organizations engaged in the War on Cars in our region following yesterday's announcement. "Induced demand" theory has never been proven, as missing pieces of our regional freeway system have been to blame for growing congestion on our few highways. For example, there is no second Potomac River crossing, and no M-83 Midcounty Highway Extended, to relieve traffic on the American Legion Bridge and I-270. And the Capital Beltway was doomed to be jammed when anti-car forces foiled the original plan to run I-95 through Washington, D.C. That dumb move sends East Coast traffic around our Beltway 365 days a year, creating massive traffic jams.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

First debate for Montgomery County Executive candidates this Saturday, 10:00 AM

The 2018 election season is getting an early start this weekend. Five months before the candidate filing deadline, the men who have already thrown their hats in the ring for the open Montgomery County Executive office will square off in a forum hosted by the Montgomery County Muslim Council. The debate will be held this Saturday, September 23, from 10:00 AM to 1:30 PM at the Potomac Community Center, located at 11315 Falls Road in Potomac.

Expected to participate are Republican Robin Ficker and Democrats Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal. Democrat Bill Frick of Bethesda just entered the race yesterday, and I will update this article as soon as I can confirm his participation.

The event is free to attend and open to the public. From the schedule, it appears Congressional candidates will speak first, and the County Executive candidates will go on at noon. However, you will have the chance to "work the room" and speak one-on-one with the candidates between 10-10:30, and between 1-1:30. This is the first real chance to hear the platforms and positions of the candidates in their own words.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Gaithersburg Mayor & Council to consider height waiver for Olde Towne property

Gaithersburg's Mayor and Council will consider a request for a height waiver from the owner of the "Fishman property" at their meeting tonight at 7:30 PM at City Hall. The Olde Towne property is located at 315 E. Diamond Avenue.

There is currently a four-story height limit on the site, and Ellisdale Construction is seeking the waiver to allow a six-story apartment building with ground floor retail. There will also be an accessory parking garage of three stories.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Gaithersburg Mayor & Council to review options for new City Council chambers (Photos)

Gaithersburg's Mayor and Council will review two architectural options for the future relocated City Council chambers (which will be moved to 16 South Summit Avenue) tonight. There is an option for an attached Mayor & Council conference room and overflow seating area. City leaders will also ponder a range of options for interior finishes.

Officials will be looking at the costs of each option, and comment on the possible materials to be used. Architectural firm ShraderGroup will then present a final design proposal to the Mayor & Council at their November 27 meeting. Tonight's work session will begin at 7:30 PM at City Hall.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Montgomery Village Wendy's to get makeover

The Wendy's at 18350 Contour Road in Montgomery Village will be getting a makeover. A $250,000 interior renovation is planned for the near future. This a national effort Wendy's calls a "brand transformation," that includes remodeling of restaurants across America to include fireplaces, more inviting seating options, and flatscreen TVs and Wi-Fi.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Gaithersburg Planning Commission to consider Verizon request for cell tower atop Cadence at Crown apartments tonight (Photos)

The Gaithersburg Planning Commission tonight will examine a request by Verizon Communications for a "stealth" cell tower atop the Cadence at Crown apartment building, located at 113 Ellington Boulevard in Downtown Crown. This will consist of panel antennas, some of which will be hidden, but others will match the building materials while being visible from the street below.
Views of how the tower panels
atop Cadence at Crown will appear
A 200' fenced equipment area will also be added to the top of the parking garage, but will not take any existing parking spaces. City staff is recommending approval of the cell tower, with conditions.

Commissioners will also consider a new building sign approval requested by Fitzgerald Automotive for their dealership at 904 Russell Avenue. The sign would be 22.4 SF in size. Staff is also recommending approval for this agenda item.

The meeting will be tonight, Wednesday, September 6, 2017, at 7:30 PM at City Hall.

Debate excluding Republican candidate still charging $70 to get in on website

Debate ticket order form
still showing $70 admission fee
for general public this morning
Responding to a public backlash against the idea of charging voters $70 to hear three Democratic candidates for Montgomery County Executive debate on November 15, event co-sponsor Bethesda Magazine announced on its website yesterday morning that the entry fee would be waived, and the debate open to the public. But Republican candidate Robin Ficker, who remains excluded from the debate, questions why the forum's other sponsor is still charging the $70 admission fee on their website.

As of press time, the debate ticket order form on the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce website still shows admission charges for members and non-members of the Chamber. It's possible that people are still buying tickets without knowing the event is now free.

Ficker and others continue to press for his inclusion in the debate. A non-profit hosting a debate that promotes only one of the several political parties active in the County raises some questions. Organizations with tax exemptions cannot endorse candidates or parties unless the expenditures are through a separate political action committee. The Chamber has operated such PAC in the past, but it is not listed as the sponsor of this debate.

Another reason Republicans are wary of Ficker's exclusion is that, in heavily-blue Montgomery County, few debates are held after the primaries. Republican, Green Party, Libertarian and independent candidates are given few public forums to reach voters then, and so it is urgent that organizations include them in primary season debates.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Gaithersburg to consider buying house on MD 355 for Olde Towne revitalization tonight (Photo)

Gaithersburg's Mayor and Council will consider purchasing a house at 305 S. Frederick Avenue at their meeting tonight. A resolution approving the purchase has been prepared for tonight's agenda. The City has already three other homes adjacent to this property, with the stated purpose of revitalizing both the MD 355 corridor there, and Olde Towne Gaithersburg. If the property is acquired, the City will then have assembled a contiguous parcel just shy of one acre.

Ficker blasts County Executive debate hosts for inviting only Democrats, charging $70 for tickets

Montgomery County Executive candidate
Robin Ficker is mobbed by supporters
after speaking at County Council building
earlier this year
Republican Montgomery County Executive candidate Robin Ficker strongly criticized news that he has been excluded from a November 15 debate hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Magazine. Only the three Democrats who have filed for the office so far - Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal - are invited to participate. Ficker said that, in contrast, the Montgomery County Muslim Council has asked him to be part of their September 23 County Executive candidate forum at the Potomac Community Center on Falls Road at 10:30 AM.

Ficker and County Republican Party Chairman Dick Jurgena questioned the non-partisan status of the hosts in a statement released this morning by the Ficker campaign. "Is this just a dog and pony (or should I say circus animals) show to help the Democrat particpants to energize their base?" Jurgena asked. Ficker charged that the Chamber enjoys non-profit tax status, but is displaying favor toward one political party.

"Obviously there is a quid pro quo between the council member-county executive candidates and the Chamber," Ficker alleged.  "By promoting their candidacies, the Chamber is not only taking advantage of these public office positions to collect $70 a head, but the council members must have promised the Chamber something in return for holding this campaign forum. What is the quid pro quo?"

Both men also questioned the admission price of $70 for non-Chamber members. "If [County] residents want to hear only one side of the issues, they can go to the Montgomery County Council meetings and listen to the term-limited Democrats, and they can save the cost of the $70.00 ticket fee for admission," Jurgena said. Chamber President and CEO Ginanne Italiano said the high price is due to the debate's inclusion in the Chamber's annual legislative event, and that ticketholders would have access to an open bar cocktail reception afterward.

Ficker took a shot at the three Democrats invited, noting that all are barred from running for their current Council seats, due to voters overwhelmingly approving Ficker's term limits ballot question last November. "If these Term Limited County Executive candidates want to hold a forum hosted by a political party club, exclude me and charge party members $1,000 to attend, that is fine with me," he said. "But when a nonprofit Chamber of Commerce holds a County Executive forum, they should invite candidates of both parties and should accommodate Montgomery Countians to listen for free."

Monday, September 4, 2017

Arson at pool in Montgomery Village, car stolen on Crestwood Dr., auto parts taken on Heritage Farm Dr.

A fire caused by arson at a Montgomery Village pool on Highland Ridge Avenue was reported to Montgomery County police at 1:44 AM yesterday, according to Montgomery County crime data. No further details are available at this time.

On September 2, a car was reported stolen from a residential parking lot on Crestwood Drive at 9:59 AM. A day earlier, auto parts were stolen from the driveway of a home on Heritage Farm Drive.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Kung Fu Tea to open in Germantown

Hi-YA! Kung Fu Tea will soon karate-chop its way into the Fox Chapel Center at 19717 Frederick Road in Germantown. The shopping center already has several other Asian businesses, including Bonchon and Great Wall supermarket.

The popular bubble tea chain is growing this year, after hugely-successful openings in Rockville and downtown Silver Spring. They also will open a new location in Bethesda, at Westfield Montgomery Mall.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ride On Extra buses will be free during October

Two of the alternatives to the proposed boondoggle of Bus Rapid Transit in Montgomery County - express buses and free Ride On fares - will be realized on a very limited basis in October: A new express bus service called Ride On Extra will begin service along MD 355, and fares on Ride On Extra will be free that month. Service will run between Gaithersburg and Medical Center station in Bethesda.

The buses are a lite version of BRT, with similar features like low-floor boarding, 10-minute peak rush hour headways, and free Wi-Fi, but will not take travel lanes along Rockville Pike from cars (as BRT will). Ride On Extra buses will also have traffic signal priority, but the County has never addressed how that random impact on traffic signals will affect the synchronization of lights up and down the Pike. It could cause major rush hour delays on an already-jammed road.

There's no mention of how much the month of free service will cost taxpayers, either. Ride On Extra stops will include Lakeforest Transit Center, Summit Ave., Westland Dr., Shady Grove Metro, Montgomery College, Rockville Metro, Edmonston Dr., Halpine Rd., Marinelli Rd., Security Ln., Tuckerman Ln., and Medical Center. There will be new bus shelters and bus stop flag signs to identify Ride On Extra bus stops.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fredericksburg office market is hot, moribund MoCo's is not

Fredericksburg is a boom town compared to moribund Montgomery County. While our County Council is fighting any attempt to build the roads necessary to jumpstart our lethargic private sector economy, and only talks about increasing MARC rail capacity and a White Flint station, Virginia is building Express Lanes down to Stafford County and more Virginia Railway Express stops and extensions. Along with the business-friendly policies of Virginia and Spotsylvania County, Fredericksburg is booming, while Montgomery County has suffered a net loss of jobs over the last decade, and a loss of over 2000 jobs in retail alone since 2000.

The latest evidence of the difference in business climate is the Liberty Place project in downtown Fredericksburg. Once conceived of as luxury condos, the project will now be an 86000 SF office building with ground floor retail and restaurants facing William Street. "We're responding to the market," Liberty Place developer Tom Wack told The Free Lance-Star of Frederickburg, which noted the "strong demand for commercial property" in the city. The developers will offer free parking for the public in a garage connected to the office building (imagine that in any urban center of Montgomery County!) as part of a deal with the city.

The Fredericksburg City Council is set to vote on a memorandum of understanding for the deal tonight. Very few office projects are being developed in Montgomery County. The JBG Companies is constructing a new office building on Bethesda Avenue, but could not find an anchor tenant, and will now move its own headquarters into the building from down the road in Friendship Heights to fill the vacancy.

"Downtown's gotten pretty hot," Wack said of Fredericksburg. The office market is heating up as home construction continues to explode around Fredericksburg, which recently scored the idX Corporation factory that fled Maryland and the Lidl distribution center with 200 jobs (Virginia also won the sweepstakes for the Lidl corporate headquarters).

Every imaginable restaurant can be found in Fredericksburg, as well as the kind of hip breweries our County Council likes to talk about. Stafford and Spotsylvania counties are adding the jobs that will put less cars on the roads into D.C. every morning. And new infrastructure to reduce congestion for the commuters and businesses who make the increasingly-smart choice to locate in the Fredericksburg area.

Meanwhile, the bedroom-community-building Montgomery County Council is - as usual - asleep at the switch.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

MoCo has the Lockheed HQ, but didn't try to get the Lockheed "factory of the future"

"We don't need the Lockheed headquarters," Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Floreen infamously declared at the Aspen Hill Library in 2010. Such a blase attitude about one of only 3 Fortune 500 headquarters in the County is indicative of why our private sector economy has been moribund for so many years. MoCo intentionally passed on the FBI headquarters; didn't even bother to pursue the idX factory that wound up going to Fredericksburg; and was soundly defeated by Virginia in the contests to woo the headquarters of Volkswagen, Hilton Hotels, Intelsat, Corporate Executive Board, and Lidl, to name just a few. As a result, we've suffered a net loss in jobs over the last decade.

Yesterday, we found out just how blase County officials' attitude toward Lockheed Martin was. While current elected officials inherited the Lockheed headquarters in Bethesda, they apparently have no ongoing dialogue or partnership with the defense and aerospace megafirm. In fact, they've even tried their best to push Lockheed out of the County. As a result, Lockheed is now building a $350 million, 266000 SF "satellite factory of the future" in Waterton Canyon, Colorado, not Montgomery County.

We have many, many vacant properties that could have easily accommodated this factory. Even the recently sold Comsat Building in Clarksburg and former IBM property in Gaithersburg could have been a good fit in terms of size. Montgomery County continues to have the potential aerospace advantages of being near Goddard Flight Center, the Wallops Island launch facility, and numerous airbases as well as the Pentagon - but has yet to take advantage of the advantages!

This is exactly the type of facility I've been arguing we need - aerospace corporate offices, research facilities and high-tech aerospace and defense manufacturing. Why were we not in the running for this factory, or even engaging Lockheed about how we could partner on future ventures? This was clearly in the planning stages early enough that we could have filled the Comsat or IBM site before they were sold. That could have put hundreds of high-wage jobs in the I-270 corridor, and enable Montgomery County residents to drive west or north to work, without leaving the County. Instead, the Comsat site will be residential, and dump hundreds more cars going south on 270 every morning.

Montgomery County is notorious across the country, and across the region, for its anti-business climate fostered by the County Council. In contrast, "State and local officials in Colorado have helped strengthen the aerospace industry and foster an environment that helps aerospace companies thrive and grow," according to a statement from Lockheed Wednesday. What a contrast. What a loss.

It takes a special kind of incompetence to get shut out by a company located in your own jurisdiction. A special kind of ignoramus, to not grab the lowest-hanging economic development fruit in the area you are elected to represent. It's "business"-as-usual for moribund Montgomery County.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Marijuana dispensary to open at Middlebrook Square shopping center in Germantown

A medical marijuana dispensary will open across from the new Holy Cross Hospital in Germantown, at 11526 Middlebrook Road, in the Middlebrook Square shopping center. The 2924 SF space is one of several in Montgomery County approved by the state as "cannabis dispensaries." Patients will have to go through a formal process, and have qualifying medical conditions to obtain pot at the dispensary, somewhat like having a doctor give you a prescription to take to a pharmacy.

MoCo Council bodyslammed by regional leaders on new Potomac crossing

Regional leaders delivered a stinging rebuke to the Montgomery County Council this week, approving a new Potomac River crossing study over MoCo councilmembers' objections. The County Council had unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday opposing a new bridge, or even a study of a new bridge. On Wednesday, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) met to consider the crossing and 9 other items for study.

In addition to delivering the resolution to the board, Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich participated in the meeting, expending political capital to try and stop a bridge that would provide an economic boon to Montgomery County. The politically-suicidal move left many on the Board scratching their heads. It also again proved that the Council is impotent, even among their Democratic colleagues at the state level, and across the region. Elected officials on the TPB from the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg, including Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton (who chairs the TPB) all backed studying the bridge.

Even one of the Council's war-on-cars fellow travelers, Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, was perplexed as to why MoCo councilmembers would oppose objective study of a new bridge. Fisette said he too opposed the bridge, but thought it should be studied like the other projects. COG's own 2012 study showed that 25% of traffic on the American Legion Bridge during rush hour is traveling to, or from, the Dulles area. In addition, 27% of Virginia drivers crossing into Maryland are heading to I-270.

During discussion of the Council resolution earlier this week, Elrich had stated a new crossing was "not in the County's economic interest." This is simply not true, as many CEOs whose firms chose Virginia over Montgomery County have cited our county's lack of direct access to Dulles Airport as one of the deciding factors. Elrich said he wanted to prevent competition with BWI Airport, but BWI - like National Airport - doesn't offer the frequency and scope of international business flights that Dulles does. The largest and most-luxurious aircraft can't even land at BWI and National, but can be accommodated by runways at Dulles.

Councilmember Craig Rice said there was "not any benefit for the upcounty" in building a new bridge. Damascus, Clarksburg and Germantown residents who work in the Dulles area, and parts of Fairfax County, would vehemently disagree. Not to mention that offloading a quarter of the traffic on the American Legion Bridge benefits everyone using I-495 and I-270 during rush hour.

Another false impression was given by Councilmember Sid Katz, who declared, "the reality is, there's no money for this." With a private firm building the highway and bridge as a toll facility, the beauty of it is, very little taxpayer money would be needed. Since the road would most likely be an extension of the ICC/Sam Eig Highway, the private operator could also take control of the ICC, and lower tolls along the length of the route within Maryland.

Of the ten projects approved for study by the TPB, the Potomac River crossing would move the most people in the shortest time, for the least dollar amount per-person. In opposing it, the Council not only again declared war on their own constituents, but are actively trying to prevent congestion relief and job creation within Montgomery County, at the behest of their developer masters who want to use office zones for residential development. Protecting BWI, which can't compete on business flights with Dulles, at their constituents' expense? It sounds like Berliner, George Leventhal and Elrich are running for Baltimore mayor, not Montgomery County Executive.

Friday, June 30, 2017

MoCo Council wants to enter student loan business, as Katz sounds alarm on County debt

Plan would create 
with $20-30 million
start-up cost

After creating a barrage of new offices and six-figure staff positions in the last year alone, opening their own microloan bank, and committing Montgomery County to staggering financial liabilities on bus rapid transit and the Purple Line, the Montgomery County Council is now planning to enter the student loan industry. That's not a misprint, and today isn't April 1. But just four days before announcing its intentions, one Councilmember, Sid Katz, raised red flags on the County's massive debt load.

The Council's proposal would create a new Montgomery County Student Loan Refinancing Authority to refinance student loans, much like the Independent Transit Authority that was panned and ultimately defeated by taxpayer opposition. Such an Authority would potentially have all the features hated in the ITA concept - the ability to raise taxes, carry unlimited amounts of debt that could end up being dumped back onto the taxpayers, and a lack of direct accountability to voters. The specifics will be unknown until a final state bill to create the Authority (sound familiar from the ITA fight?) is written, but one detail known is that the Authority will have the power to issue bonds. It should be noted that no other county in the United States currently is involved in student loan financing.

Does it make any sense from a fiscal responsibility standpoint for Montgomery County government to enter the student loan business at this time? The assessment of Katz, the only Councilmember with real-world business experience, suggests the answer is, "No."

"I, candidly, am very, very concerned about the debt Montgomery County has," Katz said during a June 22 meeting of the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy (GO) Committee. "If we don't get a handle on this, if we don't get a blueprint on debt in Montgomery County, it's going to overtake us. Right now, if [our debt] was a department, it would be the third largest department in Montgomery County."

Katz also expressed concern with the uncertain revenue forecast for the coming years. Trump administration cuts to government could drastically reduce income tax revenue for the County, Katz noted. Montgomery County is locked in a structural deficit as far out as the forecasts go - meaning that, as it is now, we already will be in the red every single fiscal year.

In the context of these red flags, a report by the County Office of Legislative Oversight raises many concerns.

How much would it cost taxpayers to launch the Authority? "The Montgomery County Department of Finance has estimated that a Montgomery County Student Loan Refinancing Authority would need $20 to $30 million to start a $100 million refinancing program," the report states.

The report confirms that these start-up funds "would impact the County’s debt levels (the amount the County can borrow)."

It appears loans would be extended to illegal immigrants, according to Page 4 under "Eligibility." On Page 6 of that section, it floats the idea of requiring a co-signer "if a borrower is not a U.S. citizen." In other words, resident taxpayers would be paying to provide low-cost student loans to non-taxpaying, non-resident students. Wow.

Later, the report notes that there are already numerous private student loan refinancing firms, and that their interest rates are actually less than the state-run loan entities the Council wants to ape. Why would we enter a market where there is no vacuum, with a more expensive product? Nuts.

A response from the office of County Executive Ike Leggett wisely pans the idea of entering the student loan business. "Student loan debt is the largest and fastest-growing share of consumer debt, and has the highest delinquency rate of all consumer credit debt," wrote Timothy Firestine, the County's Chief Administrative Officer, on behalf of Leggett. "As a result, there are few states and no localities willing to incur the financial risk and significant cost of operating a Student Loan Refinancing Authority."

Creating such an authority would "seriously impact many of our critically-important programs, ranging from K-12 education to safety and transportation," Firestine added. Starting it up would likely require the County to issue more debt, he said, and budget cuts in other areas would be needed to fund start-up costs, he wrote.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Another MoCo DLC employee busted for stealing $20K+ of liquor from DLC trucks

Kelvin Snowden, Jr., a
Montgomery County DLC employee
police say stole liquor from DLC trucks
Montgomery County's government liquor monopoly is embroiled in yet another scandal. One of their employees was arrested by Montgomery County police yesterday, and charged with stealing $21,769 worth of liquor from the Department of Liquor Control's own trucks.

Police say Jean Auguste, 27, of Lanham, and Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control (DLC) employee Kelvin Eugene Snowden Junior, 31, of Gaithersburg, took the alcohol from box trucks parked at the Department of Liquor Control warehouse, which is located on Edison Park Drive in Gaithersburg. The alleged thefts occurred between Valentine's Day and May 28 of this year.

Montgomery County police responded to the last of what detectives say were 8 total thefts from the DLC warehouse site on May 28, and caught Auguste parked nearby in a Chevrolet Suburban, with cases of DLC liquor in the vehicle. The ensuing investigation led them to Snowden, who they say was the main thief who actually broke into the DLC to steal from the trucks. Snowden also allegedly sold stolen DLC liquor to Auguste on at least one occasion.

This is not the first time a DLC employee has been arrested for stealing liquor from the DLC. In 2014 and 2015, employees were caught stealing alcohol and were fired. Many have called for an end to the outdated Montgomery County government liquor monopoly, which has proved inept, internally corrupt, and expensive and tedious for bars and restaurants to purchase alcohol through.
Councilmember Hans Riemer
was at the center of a previous DLC scandal
County Councilman Hans Riemer was also ensnared in a 2014 DLC scandal that came to be known as "Beerghazi." Riemer appeared to be aware of criminal activity within the DLC - but instead of reporting it immediately to authorities, he kept quiet until after he was safely reelected in November 2014.

Less than 48 hours after the polls had closed, Riemer then appeared in a formal, sit-down interview with NBC 4 in which he attempted to then use the information he had withheld to promote himself as a crusader against DLC corruption. It was clear that the NBC 4 investigation had occurred long before Election Day, and that Riemer had been in on the reporter's investigation all along. But with Riemer having direct oversight of the DLC, revealing the criminal activity in the department before Election Day could have damaged his chances of reelection.

Riemer had previously claimed it was time for the government to get out of the liquor business. But in 2015, he flip-flopped and suddenly endorsed maintaining - and strengthening - the government liquor monopoly. And here we are today, with the same Jurassic World government monopoly liquor system, and another DLC employee behind bars. "Helpless" Hans Riemer strikes again!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Small business event to discuss:"Is your business or family safe in a sanctuary county?"

How do sanctuary immigration policies affect small businesses? That topic will be discussed at the next networking social event of the Small Business Action Network of Montgomery County, on Wednesday, June 28, from 6:30 to 9:00 PM at Hunter's Bar and Grill, located at 10123 River Road in Potomac.

The speaker will be Jonathan Hanen, who the event announcement says will discuss the question, "Is your business or family safe in a sanctuary county?" Montgomery County has been designated by the federal government as a sanctuary jurisdiction.

Recent crime headlines in the County make this a timely discussion, and the County has been blasted by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for not honoring ICE detainers on criminal illegal aliens. ICE said the County put its agents and the community at risk when it recently allowed a man with an ICE detainer who had stolen an assault weapon from a police cruiser to go free, forcing ICE agents to locate and take him into custody in an uncontrolled setting.

SBAN-MOCO is inviting small business owners from across Montgomery County to attend.

The cost to attend the event is $15. The cost to join SBAN-MOCO is $25. There will be a cash bar. Space is limited - to reserve a spot, email your RSVP.

Monday, June 12, 2017

MoCo drags feet on correcting illegal traffic signals, refunds for drivers wrongly ticketed by red light cameras

Montgomery County still has illegally-timed traffic signals, which could be issuing unwarranted red light camera tickets to drivers, a recent report by the County's Office of the Inspector General found. On Friday, Delegate Marc Korman (D - District 16) asked County Executive Ike Leggett to consider an outside audit of its signal timing (the OIG had to rely on the word and data of the County Department of Transportation), turn off any cameras ticketing at an illegally-timed signal, and to begin reimbursing drivers who were wrongly ticketed at those intersections.

After being caught ticketing drivers with illegal signal timing in 2015, the County initially resisted adopting the Maryland-required yellow light time of 3.5 seconds. It then promised to correct the problem. However, the OIG report - based on MCDOT data not confirmed by an independent audit - found that 13% of signals countywide are still illegally timed.

When asked by the OIG for a schedule for correction of those 105 remaining signals, MCDOT refused to produce one. And while MCDOT insists that there are no red light cameras at the out-of-compliance intersections, the OIG noted that "We did not test or verify the accuracy of the information provided by MCDOT."

"Improper timing of traffic signals at locations with red light cameras goes to the heart of the confidence people can have in their government," Korman wrote in his letter to Leggett. 

Montgomery County responded to the OIG report with a one-sentence promise to create a schedule for signal correction, but did not say when such a schedule would be released. Once again, Montgomery County seems unable to deliver the basic functions of government - collecting the trash, clearing snow from sidewalks along its properties (sometimes as long as a month(!) after the snowstorm ended), plowing roads, providing 911 service or completing construction projects on-schedule (with the Wheaton Library being the latest, now a year-and-a-half behind-schedule).

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Double murder in Montgomery Village

Montgomery County police detectives are investigating a double homicide in Montgomery Village. The victims were killed inside an unspecified model vehicle parked in the 8200 block of Gallery Court around 10:45 last night. Police were alerted by a 911 caller in the area who heard gunfire. Both victims died at the scene, detectives say.

Police have not yet released the identities of the two victims.

Detectives urge anyone who may have information about this double homicide to contact the Major Crimes Division at 240-773-5070.  For those who wish to remain anonymous, Crime Solvers of Montgomery County is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for any information that leads to the arrest of the suspect(s).  Tipsters can call Crime Solvers of Montgomery County toll-free at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Taxpayers left holding the bag for $45 million in Silver Spring Transit Center fiasco settlement

Is this a thing of beauty, or what?
Montgomery County taxpayers are left holding the bag in the Silver Spring Transit Center debacle settlement agreed to yesterday. County officials attempting to cover-up their failure to conduct their oversight role on the project filed a weak lawsuit in a case where they themselves were mostly to blame.

The result? Realizing they could not win, the County's ultra-expensive legal team reached a chump change settlement worth a paltry $25 million. That leaves you, the taxpayer, holding the bag and paying $42 million for the remainder of the $47 million in cost overruns, $20 million in damages, and $10 million in legal fees. The settlement also requires the County (a.k.a. you, the taxpayer) to pay $3 million to Foulger-Pratt to settle their countersuit, which was directly caused by the incompetence of the County and County Council. You are now on the hook for a total of $45 million.

The surrender settlement, while inevitable given the County's woefully-weak case, was a total betrayal of the promises made by County Executive Ike Leggett and the County Council. Leggett stated he would not leave taxpayers on the hook for even a penny of the cost overruns. Councilmember George Leventhal promised the Brickyard Coalition in 2014 that he would "ensure taxpayers will not be on the hook for the remediation of the transit center." Councilmember Hans Riemer said in April 2013 he would "protect the taxpayers."

Once safely reelected, Leventhal and his colleagues abruptly turned around and made multiple new appropriations of tens of millions of dollars for the transit center. The taxpayers be damned!, was the clear message from the Council.

On Election Day 2018, voters will deliver the overdue "rough, seat of the pants estimate" Leventhal and his colleagues asked for in January 2015 - with a steel-toed boot.