High taxes, slow job growth, traffic congestion, and growing K-12 education costs are some of the most serious problems facing Montgomery County, according to a candidate questionnaire released by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington last week. In their responses, the seven candidates running for county executive and 25 of the candidates running for at-large and district county council positions pitched their qualifications — if not their detailed policy solutions — for addressing these issues.
Candidates also shared their positions on a variety of issues important to many in the Jewish community, including busing for private school students, security funding for religious institutions, and on-site services for special needs students in private schools. These are matters over which the county government has direct influence, so the stakes are high in this election.
On security, all of the candidates decried anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and most support county security funding for religious institutions. “There is no greater responsibility for government than our obligation to keep residents safe from harm,” District 1 County Council candidate Andrew Friedson said.
Busing for Nonpublic Schools
Candidates were divided, however, on busing for private school students. For instance, County Executive candidate Marc Elrich said he is “open to ideas that don’t push up county costs,” while County Council At-Large candidate Lorna Phillips Forde said buses should be reserved for public school students only.
Not all candidates drew this sharp distinction between public and private schools. At-Large candidate Gabe Albornoz supported nonpublic school busing: “With over 35,000 Montgomery County students attending nonpublic schools and MCPS over-enrolled in many schools, I believe nonpublic schools should be viewed as a potential partner in educating county children.” County Council At-Large candidate Seth Grimes said reinstating the busing pilot program would reduce traffic congestion, a public benefit.
Easing Traffic Woes
On the subject of traffic, there were plenty of ideas for improvements. Several candidates, including County Council At-Large candidate Danielle Meitiv, wanted to increase mass transit options. County Executive candidate David Blair proposed a combination of reversible lanes on I-270 and adaptive traffic lights. At-Large County Councilmember Hans Riemer proposed express bus routes (which are already in the works, according to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation) and more bike lanes.
Taxes and the Economy
When it comes to taxes, Montgomery County has a relatively low property tax rate compared to other Maryland counties: The average rate is 0.93 percent of assessed property value according to SmartAsset.com, compared to 1.1 percent statewide.
However, since Montgomery County has high property values, with a median home worth $460,100, MoCo residents have a higher property tax bill (median: $4,259) than any county except Howard County (median: $5,251). And in 2016, the Montgomery County Council voted unanimously to increase property taxes by 8.7 percent — an average of $326 per homeowner.
In their responses, candidates were divided on the 8.7 percent tax increase. Incumbent council members Roger Berliner, George Leventhal, Marc Elrich, Hans Riemer, Sidney Katz, and Nancy Navarro didn’t disavow their votes to raise taxes in 2016, but generally said that further tax increases are unlikely or undesirable. Others, such as House of Delegates Majority Leader Bill Frick (who is running for County Executive) criticized the tax increase. “Rather than repeatedly increasing the tax burden on property owners, we need to switch our focus to recharging Montgomery’s economy, building our tax base, and reducing spending,” Frick said.
Energizing the Montgomery County economy and growing the tax base are key goals for many candidates. According to an April 2018 report by Empower Montgomery, Montgomery County lost 12,511 jobs (-0.3%) from 2011 to 2016. At-Large County Council candidate Steve Solomon said the high commercial office space vacancy rate — which is 14 percent according to the Empower Montgomery report — is a sign of economic weakness.
Candidates’ plans for improving the economy are generally vague. Sixteen of the candidates call for more “economic development,” but only a few give concrete steps they will take. Neil Greenberger (running for County Council At-Large) proposed increased funding for the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-government organization responsible for wooing businesses to the county. Most candidates want to increase business partnerships with Israeli companies.
Read the full questionnaire and responses on the JCRC website: http://www.jcouncil.org/site/PageServer?pagename=involved_mdadvocacy
Dates to Remember
June 5, 2018: Deadline to register to vote or change your party affiliation.
June 14 - June 21, 2018: Early voting for the primary election.
June 26, 2018: Primary election
Visit www.777vote.org for more info.
By Gabe Aaronson