Marc Elrich Questionnaire Responses

Brickyard Coalition Inc.
INTERVIEW QUESTIONS FOR COUNTY COUNCIL CANDIDATES 2014

Name

Marc Elrich
Street Address8001 Sligo Creek Parkway
Takoma Park, MD 20912
Education
BA in History, University of Maryland, 1975
Master’s in Teaching, Johns Hopkins University, 1993
Occupation
At Large Councilmember, Montgomery County

 

Questions:

1. If elected to the County Council, what would be your top three priorities over the next four years?

Four years ago, I said I wanted to get my bus rapid transit (BRT) system proposal off the ground.  Well, it’s off the ground and has been added to the County’s transportation master plan.  Now we need to prioritize the routes that would immediately contribute capacity that would enable planned, high value development to move forward.  We are constantly told that if we can’t move people, high paying jobs will go somewhere else, and across the river they are aggressively advancing transportation with that goal in mind.  We have not yet moved toward implementation and that is one of my goals for the next four years.  

I also talked about zoning and regulatory reform.  In many ways, we are our own worst enemy and have created burdens that aren’t justified by benefits.  A great deal of work has been done, but there are obstacles, particularly inter-agency cooperation, that have not been fully resolved.  We can’t afford to allow territorial in-fighting impact our decision-making process.  We also need to have better measures of the impact of new development on transportation, schools, and other services. And we need to do a better job of getting sufficient developer contributions toward the costs of infrastructure needs, because every dollar that is not contributed by development has to be replaced by borrowed dollars that are ultimately financed by the general fund tax revenues.  This creates competition for scarce resources, pitting needed capital projects for new development against capital needed to fix our aging infrastructure, and in the end it competes with money available to fund the operation of County programs.  We cannot continue to fall farther and farther behind in addressing our needs.

I also think we need to do a better job of preserving affordable housing.   It is more efficient to preserve and renovate than to try to build new units in high-rise condos.  We need a policy that reviews the affordable housing stock annually and evaluates our success based on the number of units as a whole.  We continue to lose large amounts of affordable housing to rent increases and, if the market becomes healthier for investors, we can expect another uptick in condo conversions.  The loss of units exceeds what we are capable of building, so while we like to celebrate what we build, the truth is that more units than we build are slipping beyond the reach of county residents.  We need more aggressive policies that seek to preserve the existing stock of affordable housing, and we need innovative ways to add units.

2. Please list what you consider to be the top three failures of the county council over the past four years, and what do you think should have been done to avoid or mitigate the problem.

In my view, the failures are centered on poor land use and zoning decisions. The Council has struggled with misguided master and sector plans sent to us by the Planning Department, as well as a zoning code rewrite that arrived fraught with problems. In most cases we have not done enough to improve them. For example, we approved the CR zone with a definition of transit oriented development which extends to 1 mile away from transit, a standard that exists nowhere else in the country and is simply used here to justify putting density where it doesn’t belong. The totally outmoded analysis we use for our transportation planning apparently allows some councilmembers to believe that we can approve higher densities without increasing congestion on our roads. And the increased densities recently approved in some of the older areas of the county will drive away existing successful small business owners who will not be able to afford to remain when redevelopment occurs. All of these problems are compounded by the fact that we do not require sufficient developer contributions toward the roads, schools, libraries, and other services necessary to support new commercial and residential development. And because both the Planning Department and Council seem to have taken the “community” out of community planning, there is a lot of anger in communities who have recently gone through the planning process and feel that their concerns were wholly ignored. Things can improve if there are changes in the way the planning process works, if we reengage the communities in a serious way, and if councilmembers are committed to providing needed infrastructure improvements and improved transit solutions to accommodate future growth.

3. What would you do to encourage business, especially small business, to locate and remain in Montgomery County? Please provide at least three specific proposals that you support which would assist businesses in Montgomery County.

We need to streamline the regulatory process, encourage the creation of smaller retail spaces and the retention of existing small businesses, and change the procurement process to provide preferences for local businesses.  Regulation is necessary, but we need to eliminate those that provide no benefits, don’t make us safe, or don’t do anything to protect the environment or communities.  Also, we can make changes in the permitting process that would speed approvals and eliminate duplicate inspections. 

 I think planning should focus on locating new development in locations with access to transportation and jobs, and where we have the best opportunities to do real place making.  We should do more to encourage creation of smaller retail spaces to expand opportunities for small businesses and in some places we should focus more on revitalization rather than tearing down commercial areas that are affordable to small entrepreneurs. I’ve been very concerned about our zoning policies which emphasize replacing lower density retail areas with high density development that is rarely affordable to existing commercial tenants.  In Long Branch I opposed the complete up-zoning of all the commercial property to encourage high density development which will result in the loss of most existing small businesses.  I was unable to convince any of my colleagues to consider the impact on small businesses and this will be a challenge in Langley Park as well where developers are incentivized to tear down existing buildings. I continue to work with CASA, and in Wheaton with LEDC, and with local small business groups to make sure that there’s a place for them in redevelopment. 

 I’m also supportive of procurement changes that would open more bids to smaller businesses as well as preferences for local businesses in the bidding process.  We have small business loan programs that should be continued and we should enhance our capacity to provide training and support for small business.

Finally, I think it’s important to look at models of job creation that don’t rely on relocation of major companies to the County.  Only a limited amount of that is likely to occur, certainly not enough to fill 10 million square feet of vacant commercial property.  We need to find ways to provide technical assistance/support for new entrepreneurial activities.  For example I’ve encouraged kitchen incubators and food processing activities to develop businesses that would also support our Ag Reserve and its farmers.

4. Do you support closing the biotech incubator and replacing it with a cybersecurity center? If yes, why is that a priority? What do you purpose be done to mitigate the loss of the biotech incubator?

This is pretty much done and State is providing money for this as well.  This is a high priority and both the County and the State believe there is an opportunity here to develop a new front in attracting jobs.  I don’t think you can have one “priority.”  When we did the Science City plan, one change I successfully made to the zoning was to make the Life Sciences zone, with all its benefits, into a Sciences zone.  I’ve never believed that Bio-tech would grow fast enough and large enough to serve as the basis for the future of our economy.  It is important, and I believe we can and should do more, but there are other emerging areas that we are well-positioned to take advantage of and we should.   As we were told, the current space needed a major rehab anyway, so I don’t object to it being repurposed for the Cyber center.  There have long been issues with the success and nature of the Biotech incubator and whether it was really doing what was expected.  That said, I believe we should have one, and I expect the Administration to assist companies with finding space and to work with the private sector to create a Biotech incubator in a better form.  I don’t think we should swap focus of one for the other, but we should be open to taking advantage of opportunities that develop – particularly when the state is willing to participate.

5. Would you support any increase in residential real estate taxes over the next four years? Would you support any decrease in residential real estate taxes or any other tax?

Nothing will take away the cyclical nature of property taxes, but we need to operate below the maximum rates.  I support increased tax credits for low-income households and seniors.  I am a proponent of using the Homestead Tax Credit to lower the tax burden on homeowners - combining a higher tax rate with the Homestead credit actually results in lower tax payments from homeowners than a lower tax rate would.  The tax credit also provides some measure of progressivity to the property tax. The goal should be to set tax rates below the maximum rate so that we have flexibility when the next recession hits, because recessions are cyclical events and we should plan for them. The energy tax may be too high, but cutting it would require offsetting cuts in other important county government services or replacing it with alternative revenues.  The benefit of the energy tax is that it generates significant tax revenues from the Federal government, and other tax-exempt entities, that otherwise pay NO taxes to the County, yet consume County services.  I think our tax rates must reflect the services that people want.  

Tax rates should support what County residents expect the government to provide and we should constantly work to provide them as efficiently as possible.  We just had five public hearings with over 150 people testifying and we did not hear people calling on us to cut services or reduce the tax rate.  If anything, people mostly asked for more.  We need to make a concerted effort to increase our efficiency – and I’d apply that to all agencies.  It’s hard to see how services can be expanded without creating more flexibility in existing budgets.  I do not anticipate vastly improving revenues, and I worry about what happens when the next recession inevitably lands here.  I would love to have the opportunity to lower taxes a little, but it’s hard to imagine how to do that based on projected revenues and existing services – unless we make a greater effort to restructure government.  I did support all three of the Executive’s efforts to restructure, but these initiatives were not supported by the council.

 6. In your opinion, what led to the cost overruns and construction problems with the Silver Spring Metro Center and what changes, if any, should the County make in regard to future construction projects?

We are having discussions about how this could have been done differently. It appears that the County took steps that should have worked. They hired an internationally known engineering firm to design the project as well as a well-respected firm described as "a full-service geotechnical and QA consulting firm providing geotechnical engineering, quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC), special inspections, acceptance testing, civil and materials inspection, materials laboratory testing, and subsurface exploration services to both public and private sector clients." This firm had provided these services on projects far larger than this one. And we contracted with a major construction firm to build it. Instead of taking on a project of this scope ourselves, we hired outside expertise.  Despite taking what seemed like reasonable steps, this project went seriously wrong. When the County Executive stopped the project and brought in an outside firm to evaluate the scope of the problems and tell us how best to proceed, the firm's report indicated problems in design, oversight and construction.

After the project is completed, we will do a full evaluation of what happened.  We recently received a report from our Office of Legislative Oversight on County construction practices that indicated that what happened here was atypical, but they observed that when we did do unique/unusual projects we tended to have more problems.  One suggestion for avoiding this on future projects is that unique projects should get additional design review, or that they be contracted as design/build, where there is one party or team that does the designing and construction is responsible for the kind of change orders that bedeviled this project. But we don't know everything we need to know about what happened here, so I'm sure there is more we'll learn.

That said, the project is being "rescued."  The engineering study that the Executive authorized identified what needed to be corrected. There was work on the some of the support structures, replacement of steel that was not put in place before concrete was poured.  Now we're waiting for the weather to warm up so we can pour the overlay over the defective cement pours.  When that is done and they're sure that all structural defects have been corrected, WMATA will inspect it and once they accept that all corrections have been done, they will install their signage and finally we get to open. There is a plan.

7. As a member of the County Council, what would you do to improve the relationship between MCPS/BOE and the County Council?

Budget issues seem to be at the root of most serious disagreements between the Council, the school system and Board of Education. The Council needs to more effectively convey the need for a cooperative approach to budget issues because county funding outside the school budget has a serious impact on children and families, and cuts that put holes in the safety net are certain to harm educational outcomes. I don’t know the extent to which MCPS and the County Executive work together in terms of developing the budget, but it seems important to do so.  I also think the endless discussion of MOE has ceased to be productive and takes us away from discussing educational programming, which is what we’re supposed to do.  Our discussions on ALL programs should be about problems and needs, how to address them, what the costs are, and what resources are available.

8. Would you support and vote for providing the Board of Education members with full-time professional staff to assist in fulfilling their elected duty to provide oversight of MCPS?

Yes, the School Board needs their own INDEPENDENT staff to help board members evaluate proposals, do research and interact with the community.  I think it would make the board a stronger and better participant in the policy development process.  I’ve advocated for this for at least a decade.

9. Do you believe that public school land or county-owned land leased directly or indirectly to a private entity should conform to all Montgomery County zoning, master plan and other land use regulations that would apply to a private landowner?

Yes.  I don’t think land should be leased for uses by a private party that are not consistent with a master plan or existing use.

10. The two MCPS bus depots at Shady Grove must be relocated to another site and other MCPS depots are over capacity. As we understand, there is a joint work group made up of MCPS and county staff led by the Department of General Services considering alternative locations for the bus depot. Would you favor or oppose the use of the Brickyard school site, located on a residential road with three traffic circles and 11 speed bumps, as a location for use as a bus depot?

No.  That would be a very inefficient location for a bus depot. It is hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that.

11. Assuming the selection process was made by competitive bid, would you favor using the Brickyard school site as an organic educational farm in furtherance of the No Child Left Inside policy and as suggested by Governor O’Malley?

Yes.

12. The deer population is exploding in many parts of the County, including the Brickyard community. What specifically can Montgomery County do to decrease and control the increasing deer population?

I think herds must be aggressively culled while protecting residential communities from hunting risks.  I wish birth control were effective, maybe someday it will be, but it does not seem like a viable option.  Our development patterns simply created too many “edge” environments that inadvertently spurred the growth of the deer population to the point where it is now a genuine hazard.

13. Rapid growth has had a major impact on related county services, specifically health, transportation and education. What are your thoughts on common-sense development based on infrastructure and the need for a balanced approach while recognizing the importance of a transparent planning process, accountability and protection of the environment?

I firmly support instituting a process that requires developers to contribute more toward the infrastructure necessary to support new commercial and residential development.  Absent that, taxpayers all across the county are left with the bill and/or new development arrives before infrastructure to support it is in place.  I have urged, unsuccessfully so far, that the CR point system be changed so that low-value amenities are not allowed to be substituted for real infrastructure needs.  I continue to advocate for development in areas near transit and in central business districts.  We need to focus on smart growth areas where transit, housing and jobs will be, and keep development out of what I like to call “dumb-growth” areas that only encourage sprawl.  The wrong incentives simply encourage the redevelopment of neighborhood centers into dense housing projects, leading to a loss of neighborhood-oriented shopping and adding more commuters on our roads.  And there are two crucial changes that need to be made to the planning process.  One is to include the community – both residents and businesses – in the visioning process in a meaningful way for each master or sector plan review by re-establishing participatory advisory committees, not by simply holding large public forums where the discussions are superficial in nature. And the other is to return to a robust, in-depth, science-based evaluation of the effects of development on our watersheds, forest cover, street trees, and open space. We must stick to high standards of environmental protection, preserving and enhancing the last best places in the county. I hope what happened in Ten Mile Creek is contagious.

14. What unique qualities do you believe you have to serve as a member of the Montgomery County Council?

Time and again, I have demonstrated my commitment to finding ways to make local government work better, more efficiently, and more effectively for county residents. I have not been hesitant to take positions contrary to my colleagues if I believe it is in the County's best interests for me to do so.  I listen to and advocate for all County residents and have staked out positions to improve their quality of life, whether pressing for more and better transit options, an increase in the minimum wage or making sure, to the extent I can, that our planning processes reflect the views of the communities we say we are planning for. I continue to press for improvements in our planning process, so that residents have meaningful input and we preserve the best of our county while preparing for appropriate and well-thought out growth.  We need to streamline the development process while at the same time finding ways to address congestion, school capacity, a variety of housing needs, and the availability of public services.  I welcome citizen input and understand their desire to be included in discussions about how our communities will evolve in the future.  I am not anti-growth, but growth that does not take into account traffic, schools and services and particularly the cost of providing them is not a good in itself.

I have shown leadership on important issues.  Faced with traffic projections that show future growth creating massive gridlock largely due to our near total dependence on cars, I studied transit projects around the country and the world before I proposed a bus rapid transit network that, after several years of study, was incorporated into the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan.  I proposed the County’s minimum wage law and initiated the ultimately successful regional approach by engaging Prince George’s County and Washington D.C. councils.  I’ve been a leader on environmental issues by initiating changes to our Forest Conservation Law, which led to a new tree canopy law and a roadside tree protection law.  And on the fight to preserve Ten Mile Creek, my involvement in what turned out to be a significant victory for the environment goes back five years.  And when the Planning Board floated its first version of the new zoning code that would have allowed major increases in density in single family neighborhoods, I worked with many county residents and neighborhood associations to get the Planning Board and Council to respect existing neighborhoods.

You’ll find me accessible, ready to listen and ready to help.  What attracts people to this county are our schools and our neighborhoods and I want to be sure that we don’t jeopardize our best assets and that when we’re making decisions that have local impacts, I want to be sure that we hear from you.

15. Please share with us an overview of your campaign (including your key endorsements, major donors, fundraising, and campaign plan) and why you believe you will be a competitive candidate.

I’ve been elected to a countywide position twice now – in 2010 I finished first in the primary despite having the least amount of money. I do not accept donations from developers or their land use attorneys.  Most of my contributions come from donations from individuals and some PACs.  I have over $50,000 on hand and expect to end up close to $120,000 again which is enough for me to do the mailings I’ll need.  I have a strong grass roots base, strong support in the civic and environmental community and typically good labor support.  So I have a broad coalition that should help me win again.  I think people identify me, positively, with the fight to protect Ten Mile Creek and particularly for my work on the minimum wage.  And my BRT proposal which was adopted in November 2013 has civic, environmental, labor and business support.  I reach out and work with people with a broad range of interests. There have been very few announced endorsements to date – so far, I have been endorsed by the Sierra Club, the MCPS Retirees Association, and County Executive Ike Leggett. I am confident that I will receive endorsements from many other organizations in the near future.