The Next Three Weeks and After – Getting Back to Normal?
The Takoma Park City Council will be considering the details of the proposed City budget over the next three weeks. They will be looking at what is needed for responding to the pandemic right now, what will be needed for the recovery period, and what will be needed for the City in the long term.
On the evenings of Monday, April 20 and 27, the City Council will have budget work session discussions on the capital improvement program and on departmental and non-departmental budgets. At the end of each work session, at the Council meeting of April 22, and then in detail on May 4, there will be discussions of the budget reconciliation list. The final budget to be adopted by the City Council will be based on the outcome of the budget reconciliation decisions on May 4. The budget will then be officially adopted with the approval of the budget ordinances in mid-May, in time to meet the County and State requirements for budget adoption.
Last Monday, the budget work session was devoted to programs and funds that support residents and businesses in Takoma Park, particularly when they are having difficulty. The City has at least a dozen staff involved in reaching out to those in need, sharing information, and in helping review or process applications, payments and legal documents.
On Monday the 20th, the work session will be on capital projects and purchases. In a time of the pandemic, it is hard to think of planning for future infrastructure projects or purchasing vehicles, but these are part of our long term planning, budgeting, and good stewardship so that the City can function today and when the pandemic is over. I am recommending that some capital projects be pushed off until FY2022 and will be recommending that we continue with others in order to take advantage of grant funds or not put the City in a more difficult financial situation in future years.
On Monday the 27th, we will be looking at the proposed departmental work programs for FY21. Based on the evaluation done so far by the staff and finance department during the last couple of weeks, I will recommend a number of individual line items that may be removed or changed in the budget to help bring down the proposed tax rate, increase reserves, and/or move funds to programs that the Council would like to augment. As I have stated before, the FY2021 budget was largely prepared prior to the current health pandemic, and we have been carefully tracking City expenses and discussing how this and next year’s finances will be impacted.
A note about the tax rate. I have been asked why I proposed to increase the tax rate for FY21, particularly during a pandemic. There are two main reasons.
- Under the Maryland State Code (Section 6-308 Tax-Property Article), the Council cannot approve a tax rate that is larger than the tax rate that is advertised for the budget public hearing. The City Manager must propose a tax rate that will be larger than or equal to the one the Council will adopt.
- There are more questions this year about the coming year’s work program and budget than in any previous year that I have worked for the City of Takoma Park. What will happen to the City’s expected revenues? Will we be required to do different work or offer different services or assistance during a pandemic that might cost us more money? Having the larger tax rate available as the Council considers the budget allows flexibility in their deliberations.
As I have noted in prior messages, I have taken a number of steps to save money or increase flexibility while the Council considers the budget this year. We put a pause on union negotiations and pay increases, I proposed the postponement of some capital expenditures until FY22, and I have delayed some expenditures on art projects (the Lincoln Avenue mural, the Holton Lane sculpture, and the restoration of the BY Morrison mural). Funds that couldn’t be spent due to the pandemic were rerouted to programs to assist residents and businesses. Most of these actions are to provide flexibility as the Council considers the FY21 budget or to provide timely assistance.
Getting Back to Normal?
In the last week, there has been a lot of discussion at the national and local levels about beginning to plan to “get back to normal’ after this COVID-19 pandemic. As Chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s Chief Administrative Officers (COG CAOs) Committee, I have been involved in communications with leaders of the various jurisdictions in the National Capital Region about how we are handling the current situation and what might be involved in reopening businesses and services. I will be serving on a COG CAO subcommittee in the coming weeks to address this topic.
There are a number of aspects to consider. There is the expertise of the public health specialists regarding what is happening in specific locations and populations and what is needed in terms of testing and contact tracing to begin lifting stay at home orders. And, there are the fiscal resources of our government operations and the needs of the individual communities to consider as we implement the public health recommendations.
The Washington, DC area is complicated by consisting of two states and the District of Columbia. There are large numbers of people who live in one jurisdiction and work in another so the actions of one jurisdiction affect the other two. Fortunately, the elected leaders of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are communicating with each other. And, there is a strong interest by area elected officials and the CAOs in having the National Capital Region’s
jurisdictions coordinate on pandemic response.
On a recent conference call of the CAOs, some of the issues that were raised dealt with speaking with a unified voice to the extent possible and a discussion of the intersection of child care, business needs, and government operations.
Obviously, we all want our businesses to reopen and residents to return to work. People need money to support themselves and their families and we want to see Takoma Park getting back to normal.
We will want to know when it is safe to have businesses reopen and what the precautions are that the businesses will need to operate under. And, we know that there is great concern that COVID-19 infections could flare up again if testing and contact tracing is not robust, so we must be prepared for setbacks.
- If more people are allowed to go to work, though, how will children be cared for?
- If schools reopen, will they be safe for the children, teachers and other child care providers?
- And, particularly in a community with multi-generational immigrant populations, will the children bring home illness to the more vulnerable grandparents in the families?
- What happens when some children can attend school and others must stay home due to health constraints?
I know the jurisdictions that operate school systems are wrestling with these issues. And, in Takoma Park, there are governmental impacts of school system decisions. As a traditional provider of children’s programs and care, will the City of Takoma Park be called upon to start offering these programs? Do we have the right staff and facilities for this? What will be needed to train and protect our employees for the services they may need to provide?
To the extent possible, the jurisdictions of the National Capital Region want to work on the same timelines and think holistically about the implications of our actions and non-actions. Just as the virus does not respect jurisdictional boundaries, neither do the impacts of our decisions at this time.
As the Council considers the details of the proposed City of Takoma Park budget over the next three weeks, we will all be thinking about the scenarios we may be facing over the next year. We will be looking at what we need for responding to the pandemic right now, what we will need for the recovery period, and what we will need for the City in the long term.
The City of Takoma Park will need to be flexible and nimble to respond to the changing demands. Just as we have made great strides to respond quickly to the concerns and needs of residents in multifamily buildings, homeowners needing help, and owners of small businesses, we may need to have funds available to ramp up services or go without certain revenue depending on the timing of actions in the region.
This is a hard time. However, I can’t express enough my appreciation for the great staff of the City of Takoma Park. They rose to the challenge and continue to come up with creative, cost-effective ways to serve and help. As a small jurisdiction, it is inspiring to see City staff doing amazing work. And, it has been so wonderful to see the outpouring of appreciation from our residents to our staff.