Responding to Crisis. Planning for the Future.
The uncertainty and enormity of the COVID-19 crisis hangs over us all. We do not know how long it will go on, or the lasting impact it will have. And, I know the next couple of weeks will be especially difficult ones for all of us.
Right now we are reacting to the situation in front of us. Thinking about a time after the crisis ebbs is difficult. But the crisis will end. And, although there are many uncertainties that make planning for the future harder than usual, we must continue to do so.
A running joke in our family is how much I need to plan. Even this Saturday morning, as my kids were reading the paper and finishing breakfast, I started bugging them with a plan of action for the day.
Each of us has our own way of coping with the uncertainty that is before us. For me spending the weekend looking at the City Manager’s proposed FY2021 budget gives me hope and helps me think about and plan for a time when the pandemic will be behind us.
We are just at the beginning of the annual budget deliberations and will spend the next month digging into the details. I will be looking at this budget to see how we can ensure residents and staff are safe and cared for during the pandemic, and at the same time looking at ways we can best position the City for when the crisis ends. To achieve these goals, I believe we must:
- Build on the efforts to date to address the crisis.
- Understand the current financial situation of the City and potential vulnerabilities.
- Pass a budget that best positions us to anticipate needs, takes advantage of opportunities, and mitigates our vulnerabilities.
Build on the efforts to date to address the crisis.
The City has been able to move quickly during the current crisis because we had an Emergency Assistance Fund, our Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan, and amazing staff and residents ready to spring into action.
For example, working with the Old Takoma Business Association, City staff created a mini-grant program. We have already received 70 applicants. Our grants can help businesses immediately as we wait for the county, state, and federal programs to get up and running. The City has also begun a “Takoma Park Together” (#TogetherTKPK) campaign working with local artists to rally support for our small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out the website for more information.
And, through our partnership with WorkSource Montgomery staff has been able to connect people laid off with new opportunities. In addition, the changes we have made in our Housing Department have increased the City’s capacity to support residents living in multifamily buildings.
Our City staff is providing one-on-one support and using technology in innovative ways to help residents during the pandemic. Personally, I have seen them in action late at night and on the weekends. Together we have been on the phone, talking with building managers and owners to ensure buildings are properly maintained during the pandemic and assisting residents with accurate information in different languages.
I am incredibly proud of the work of the City staff and this and prior City Councils that put in place programs and policies that have helped us respond to the crisis.
We will need to look at continuing to fund these programs and evaluate whether they need more resources and/or should be expanded because these are the programs that are most needed as we react to the pandemic and plan for the future of the community. In particular, we need to take a careful look at:
- The Affordable Housing Reserve Fund, which was created a few years ago and has over $900,000 to be used on the City’s affordable housing efforts, and may be a useful source of funds to help keep people in their homes. In the past the Reserve has been used for our down payment assistance program Homestretch;
- The resources available through the Emergency Assistance Program, which provides assistance to low-income residents who need to pay rent, health care bills or other essentials; and
- The Homeowner Property Tax Credit supplement, which supplements assistance from the state and helps people in our community pay their property taxes. Last year, we assisted 140 people in the City with their property taxes.
In addition, a great deal is happening at the federal, state and county levels to provide assistance. Our staff is working hard to connect residents and businesses to assistance programs.
Since the crisis reached our area, I have been on multiple calls each week with County, State, and federal officials advocating for the City and its residents through encouraging the closure of playgrounds, ensuring students have wifi access, and, most recently, requesting additional information and assistance for those living in apartments and condominiums.
Remember to continue to check the City website for information.
Understand the current financial situation of the City and potential vulnerabilities.
We know that some individuals and families will suffer more as a result of the pandemic, especially those who were already struggling to make ends meet, so we need to preserve and fortify the programs that will provide assistance to those in need.
In addition to understanding the impact of the health crisis on individual families, we also need to think about how it will impact the financial stability of the City. Our City Manager, who was the Deputy City Manager during the Great Recession, provides an excellent analysis of our current financial situation in her transmittal letter with the proposed budget.
An important point on the City’s finances is that our source of revenue differs from counties and the state. The City relies mostly on property taxes. We do not have a sales tax, and while we do receive some of the income tax, it is not a large part of our budget. The next property value assessment for tax purposes comes in 2021. We are unlikely to see an immediate drop in revenue. Predicting the medium- and long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis is much more difficult.
In the past, the City’s revenues fell when the County and State cut back funding and services. For this reason, members of Council and I have been spending a great deal of time pressing elected officials in Rockville, Annapolis, and Washington to ensure the City is able to receive relief funds directly.
Pass a budget that best positions us to anticipate a need, takes advantage of opportunities, and mitigates our vulnerabilities.
I have heard from some people that at this time we need to focus all our energy on reacting to the crisis and should abandon long-planned projects, such as the library renovation, or curtail the repairs to sidewalks that keep Takoma Parkers walking around town safely, to focus on addressing the current crisis. While it is critical that we focus on the immediate crisis, it is also important to continue planning for the future to ensure that we remain the diverse, inclusive and supportive community that is seeing us through the pandemic.
The library renovation is a good example of that approach. The current library is held together with duct tape and love. But that won’t work forever. We have discussed this project for years, borrowed money, and been awarded state dollars for it. The current construction estimates fall within the budget. And we cannot easily spend the money we have set aside for the renovation on other projects or for other uses.
The library provides so much to our community and is an especially valuable resource for many of our families who will be hardest hit by this pandemic. It provides access to the internet, classes in multiple languages, and a safe place for children to go after school. When we think about the future of our community and how we preserve what we value about Takoma Park, the library occupies a central place in my thinking. Moving ahead with planning for the renovation and taking advantage of decreased construction costs in the future should be among our top priorities.
We all have a strong tendency to react to difficult situations in the moment. Whether it’s a tough conversation with a family member or a colleague, our instinct is to preserve what we have now, while considering the future can be scary. I know things are uncertain. It is hard to plan when so many changes each day.
The budget is an expression of our hopes and dreams for the future, understanding the constraints we have, and I see in that future an even better version of the Takoma Park we all love. These days are demanding ones, but I know we are up to the challenge.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback as we go through our budget process. There will be many opportunities to provide your input. We begin on Monday, April 6th with the presentation of the proposed budget by the City Manager. Please join us.