Takoma Park residents and businesses look to the Mayor and City Council for leadership on a broad range of issues. We expect our local leaders to make sensible decisions that respond to the broad set of community needs, reflecting public opinion and priorities and advancing racial equity.
The Climate Emergency is a global crisis that calls for a response at all levels including local. Climate Action is central to my mayoral platform.
Here’s an endorsement quote offered by author and climate advocate Mike Tidwell —
“Seth understands environmental challenges, and he knows how to make local government work. As mayor, he will make Climate Action a top city priority.
“Seth drafted Takoma Park’s polystyrene food serviceware ban and wrote a bill expanding recycling. He worked with activists to ban cosmetic lawncare pesticide use and helped pass a countywide ban. He promoted curbside food-waste pickup for composting and advanced Takoma Park’s environmental sustainability agenda. He has spoken out for fossil-fuels divestment, solar expansion, and watershed and the urban forest protections. My vote is for Seth Grimes for Mayor of Takoma Park.”
The city must take strong action on stormwater, fleet conversion, tree-canopy expansion, and green construction of city buildings. We should prioritize decarbonization via education, assistance, and incentives. Now is the time, and the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, via the Energy Efficient Home Improvement credit and other incentives, will facilitate this work.
I was shocked that the only route put forward by the city (March 2022), to meet its commitment to being net zero by 2035, is the purchase of carbon offsets, “which at current GHG emissions levels would cost at minimum about $757,000 per year.” This is a total cop-out. Further evidence of recent inattention: Library renovation plans didn’t meet even basic green-building standards until community members spoke out.
I believe strongly in community involvement, so long as we maintain strong equity, representation, and inclusion criteria. The Climate Action Coffee and its subgroups, the Takoma Park Mobilization Environment Committee, and Friends of Native Trees Takoma are among the homegrown groups that are making a difference. I fully support their efforts. We count many climate professionals and advocates among our Takoma Park neighbors and should tap their expertise and energy.
For a look at my rivals and more on my plans, read Candidate Positions on Climate Action.
The Budget Process
Takoma Park’s budget process is backward. Each year, the city manager proposes a budget for the next fiscal year, and then the council conducts a somewhat-painful process of altering the proposed programming, staffing, and spending to meet council priorities and respond to public testimony. As mayor, I will turn the process around with extensive up-front public-council-staff discussion of programs and services to guide the city manager’s budget drafting. I’d like to see the city manager develop a budget proposal with programs and staffing based on property-tax revenue generated at a target rate, providing additions for the council to weigh. My inclination is to set the target at the inflation rate because, absent an increase in other revenues and given inflation, a limitation to the constant-yield rate — yielding zero growth in property-tax revenues — will force reductions.
I would prioritize meeting residents’ needs including food and housing security and public safety, centering on equity, before curbing and perhaps rolling back recent years’ staff and spending growth. Our strategy in all cases should be data-informed, with defined performance and impact metrics. We should ask whether service-level targets being met and, importantly, whether a given service is actually addressing the challenge it’s targeting.
For a longer take, read An Old-New Approach to City Government.
I recognize the importance of this issue to Takoma Park property owners. In my four years on the city council, my colleagues and I held the four-year increase to 2.5%, less than half the inflation rate. By contrast, in the seven years since I left the council, the council has raised property taxes $643,000 per year beyond inflation. These increases are the result of growth in city staff numbers and unsound project decisions. One of those decisions is illuminating: The extreme expansion of the library project, from a $3.5-$4 million renovation with modest accessibility expansions that my colleagues and I voted in 2015 to a $13.8 million over-expansion whose construction is only now getting underway.
Let’s prioritize program and service excellence while right-sizing staffing by looking at goals and impact, ensuring that we prioritize the needs of struggling and vulnerable community members. I have done analyses in the past. See, for instance, the 2020 analysis I co-wrote with former Councilmember Tim Male with ideas for more than $2 million of ideas for reductions in that year’s proposed budget and more than $2 million in budget policy changes. Count on me for similar analyses going forward
Takoma Park resident David Navari is known for his insightful Takoma Park tax and budget analyses. He writes,
“Takoma Park needs leadership with the knowledge, skills, and vision to craft an open, equitable, data-driven budget process. We need leadership that will guide the council in making sensible staffing, spending, and tax choices. As Mayor, Seth Grimes would be a refreshing change in leadership as he combines pragmatism, careful deliberation, good listening skills and has a long history of civic involvement that I think would serve Takoma Park well.“
Fortunately we can expect additional county tax-duplication funds each of the next two years, under Montgomery County Bill 2-22, about $675,000 additional each year. That amount represents 4.7% of the adopted FY23 property tax yield of $14,425,815, that is, the additional county payment will offset a 4.7% inflation rate. (The Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers (CPI-U) in the Washington DC area rose 7.5% in the year to July 2022.)
The real cliff will come when we’ve expended our federal ARPA funds. Quoting the city’s FY23 adopted budget, this year we are adding “three ARPA administrative positions that will be full-time positions funded by ARPA only for the duration of the ARPA funding period through March 2026.” But outside those fixed-duration positions, this year:
- “the Community Ambassadors program ($50,000) funding source switch[ed] from General Fund to the ARPA Fund”;
- we instituted an ARPA-funded Direct Cash Assistance program and we’re giving funds to local small businesses;
- we have the goal of hiring “an ARPA funded Payroll Specialist”;
- moved $433,753 in the Sustainability budget to the ARPA budget;
- we’re hiring Mental Health Crisis Counselors at a cost of $600,000 ARPA funds over 2 years; etc.
There’s going to be a lot of interest in continuing this spending. We’ll need discipline to make sensible choices, some of which may involve shifting funding from non-ARPA programs to continue stuff we started with ARPA funds.
I am committed to negotiating termination of developer NDC’s Takoma Junction lease.
The unrolling of Takoma Junction revitalization effort is truly regrettable, and we are at an impasse. However the city may be legally vulnerable. Precipitous action to terminate NDC’s ground lease could be counterproductive. An NDC lawsuit would be expensive for the city and could prompt NDC action that would harm the TPSS Co-op. Let’s proceed carefully.
I am well positioned to lead the city forward in seeking a Takoma Junction resolution. I co-chaired the city’s Takoma Junction Task Force and served on the council that selected developer NDC’s plan. I have been open about my disdain for the bait-and-switch NDC pulled in 2015, when they eliminated the 2nd story apartments they had proposed, and when (possibly later) they moved the TPSS Co-op delivery solution off the city lot to a layby service lane. My recollection is that I was the only council member to oppose this move. Nonetheless, I have maintained a working relationship with developer NDC and with both pro-development community members and the Community Vision group.
I believe we can find common cause around other opportunities and rebuild community trust in order to move forward on Takoma Junction and other city matters. I pledge to work to do just that.
For more on Takoma Junction and a look at another opportunity, replacement of the City’s New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center with the addition of apartment housing, visit my write-up, A Tale of Two Opportunities.
Our Local Economy
Tax & Service Duplication
Takoma Park and Montgomery County both offer police, recreation, library, parks, and public works services and own and maintain their roads. State law recognizes this duplication and mandates tax-duplication payments from the county to the city, however payments reimburse only part of the city’s service-delivery cost. Should the city stop offering certain services and in favor of county service delivery?
I believe the city should not give up services to the county. City service quality is high and often broader than the county’s. The county would not support our library or likely the New Hampshire Ave. Rec Center, and we’d lose the coverage and innovation we benefit from in having our own police force. (I particularly appreciate Police Chief Antonio DeVaul’s policy drastically reducing traffic stops in non-threatening situations.)
I’ve tracked this issue for almost 20 years. I served on the leadership team of Takoma Park’s Tax and Services Duplication Issues (TASDI) Committee back then. We can and should continue to seek a boost to tax-duplication payments. One step is to negotiate for Takoma Park property owners to receive the same exemption from the county’s line-item Recreational Tax — $0.0259 per $100 assessed value for the current levy year, $194.25 for a $750,000 property — that Rockville and Gaithersburg property owners receive.
In any case, I’m open to discussing a city-service remix. Setting up a city Charter Review Commission — Montgomery County has one — would provide a public mechanism for this discussion. Let’s explore this in the months ahead.
Safe Streets: A Bike & Pedestrian Friendly Takoma Park
Takoma Park should pursue Vision Zero policies to make our streets safer for everyone, including lowering speed limits from 25 MPH to 20 MPH on residential streets and from 30 MPH to 25 MPH on Piney Branch Road and along Carroll Avenue.
We need roadway improvements, more and better sidewalks, and bike infrastructure creation. But our city doesn’t always get it right. On biking, just a few weeks ago, I challenged the decision to mothball the Maple & Philadelphia Bike Share station during library construction, rather than relocate it. Unfortunately this challenge was unsuccessful, surely in part because no city council members came forward to help.
More on biking in particular:
- One of my first steps, if elected, will be to work with Montgomery County officials to allow the location of Bike Share stations in curb-parking spaces in the public right-of-way, and then I will work to reactivate the moth-balled Bike Share
Further, as mayor I will:
- Ensure successful completion of the New Hampshire Avenue Bikeway project.
- Continue to work with Montgomery Parks to close segments of Sligo Creek Parkway to motor vehicles seven days per week, beyond the current Friday-Sunday closure.
- Reopen exploration of creating separated bike lanes as part of the city’s Maple Avenue Connectivity Project, and explore creation of bike lanes on other streets.
- Promote the development of resources for cyclists of all kinds, in cooperation with groups such as WABA and with community members — I’m inspired by the Rockville Bike Hub, for instance — for learning to ride and to maintain and repair a bike. I’d also like to support bike donation and low/no-cost availability for financially constrained community members.
And I will look to community members for ideas, connections, and help with a city pro-bike agenda.
Public Safety and Policing Reform
Public safety is a must, ensuring that residents, business, and visitors feel and are secure. Most Takoma Park neighborhoods are safe, but we do have problem areas, particularly along New Hampshire Avenue. I support Takoma Park’s police department and their efforts to keep our community safe although I do note that over-policing is also a concern, particularly for our community’s most vulnerable members including nonwhite neighbors, youth, and individuals suffering mental-health crises.
I led efforts to get Takoma Park to de-police routine public interactions by moving them to civilian control, to engage mental-health crisis responders, and to get rid of the city’s K9 policing unit. This work was through the Equal Justice (EJ) committee of Takoma Park Mobilization, an organization I co-founded in late 2016. We were successful on all three fronts! It helps that EJ members were appointed to the city’s Task Force on Reimagining Public Safety and these requests became task force recommendations. However I believe that the city council has not adopted any other task force recommendations, so we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Takoma Park has undertaken one other, significant policing reform in recent years. Police Chief Antonio DeVaul moved the Police Department away from random traffic enforcement to targeted enforcement, reducing stops by 80% from 2015 to 2020 and improving “the quality and impact of the stops.” That’s excellent, because traffic stops are a) notoriously racist, including here in Montgomery County and b) too-often escalated or pretextual for harassment or unmerited searches. Also, c) fines disproportionately penalize people who are less well off and d) for many infractions, traffic stops don’t actually contribute to public safety.
Now let’s look at police staffing, in light of both the changing approach to policing and crime trends. I wrote in April 2020:
We talk about data-driven government. What do the numbers say? Here’s an example: Takoma Park crime numbers have trended down over 10 years, from 739 crimes in 2008 to 483 last year, in 2019, matching national trends. That’s 1 1/3 crimes per day on average and one violent crime every three days.
This trend hasn’t been affected by understaffing. For instance, we were understaffed much of last year. The police chief reported back in October 2019, “We are currently at 36 out of 43 sworn.” So can we safely cut police numbers? It’s worth discussing.
The city manager’s proposed FY21 budget adds one police officer to the Operations Division. We’ve gotten along fine, safety-wise, without that officer. So not only should we evaluate cuts; we should stem additions.
The city’s Reimagining Public Safety process has stalled out. Let’s restart it, relying on data and allocating resources with a focus, in Chief DeVaul’s words, on quality and impact.