Comptroller Warns About Prepaid Debit Card Tax Scam

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot warned about a new federal tax scam involving the use of prepaid debit cards in a recent news release (2017-06-15). From the news release:

Comptroller Peter Franchot is warning taxpayers about a new scam linked to the Internal Revenue Services’ Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) in which fraudsters call to demand immediate tax payment through a prepaid debit card. The scam is being reported throughout the country.In this latest scheme, a caller claims to be from the IRS and tells the victim about two certified letters purportedly sent to the taxpayer in the mail but returned as undeliverable.

The scam artist then threatens arrest if a payment is not made through a prepaid debit card. The scammer also tells the victim that the card is linked to the EFTPS system when it is actually entirely controlled by the scammer. The victim also is warned not to contact their tax preparer, an attorney or their local IRS office until after the tax payment is made.

“If you get a call like this, the best thing is to simply hang up. Do not share your personal or identifying information and do not send a prepaid debit card,” Comptroller Peter Franchot said. “My agency stands ready to help any Maryland taxpayer who gets a call like this. My agents are united in our goal to protect our citizens from con artists who want to steal your money and your private financial information.”

The EFTPS is an automated system for paying federal taxes electronically using the Internet or via phone and does not require the purchase of a prepaid debit card. Since it is an automated system, taxpayers won’t receive a call from the IRS. Taxpayers also have several options for paying a real tax bill – not just a specific one.

“This is a new twist to an old scam,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Just because tax season is over, scams and schemes do not take the summer off. People should stay vigilant against IRS impersonation scams. People should remember that the first contact they receive from IRS will not be through a random, threatening phone call.”

The Comptroller’s Office advises taxpayers not to reply to phone calls or emails asking for confidential information, most especially Social Security numbers, birth dates, salary information or home addresses. Maryland taxpayers may call 1-800-MD-TAXES or send an email to mdcomptroller@comp.state.md.us to report a problem.

1,000 Jurisdictions Now Committed to Complete Streets

A Sustainable Cities Network article (2017-06-17) reported that more than 1,000 jurisdictions in the United States have committed to the “Complete Streets” initiative at the end of 2016. The Complete Streets program is designed to make streets safe and accessible to everyone regardless of “age, income, race, ethnicity, physical ability, or how they choose to travel.” The findings are based on a report by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition. From the article:

Communities adopted a total of 222 new complete streets policies that year. Nationwide, a total of 1,232 policies are now in place, in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, including 33 state governments, 77 regional planning organizations, and 955 individual municipalities.

These policies are the strongest ever passed. When the National Complete Streets Coalition first evaluated complete streets policies in 2006, the median score was 34 and by 2015 the median score had risen to 68.4. In 2016, the median score leapt to 80.8. Before 2012, no policy had scored higher than 90. And it wasn’t until 2015 that any policy scored a perfect 100. In 2016, 51 policies scored a 90 or higher, including 3 policies that scored a perfect 100. These gains are a testament to communities’ commitment to passing strong, impactful policies.

By passing strong complete streets policies these communities are making a clear commitment to streets that are safe and convenient for everyone. And they do so at a time when our country desperately needs safer options for biking and walking. …

Complete streets is more than a checklist. It’s a frame of mind. A complete streets approach integrates the needs of people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation networks. Complete streets redefines what a transportation network looks like, which goals a transportation agency is going to meet, and how a community prioritizes its transportation spending. It breaks down the traditional separation in planning for different modes of travel, and emphasizes context-sensitive, multimodal project planning, design, and implementation. In doing so, a complete streets approach can make streets safer and more convenient for everyone.

The article also explained the need for programs such as Complete Streets:

As a nation we face an epidemic of obesity and its related illnesses. The U.S. Surgeon General has recommended making biking and walking a routine part of daily life to help address this health crisis, yet in too many communities streets are not built to safely accommodate these activities. Smart Growth America’s recent report Dangerous by Design 2016 outlined the enduring problem of pedestrian fatalities in the United States, and highlighted the 46,149 people who were struck and killed by cars while walking between 2005 and 2014. Over that period Americans were seven times as likely to be killed as a pedestrian than by a natural disaster. During the same period, more than 7,000 people were killed while biking.

Dangerous by Design 2016 also showed that people of color and older adults are over-represented among pedestrian deaths, and that pedestrian risk is correlated with median household income as well as rates of uninsured individuals. That means people of color most likely face disproportionately unsafe conditions for walking, and low-income metro areas are predictably more dangerous than higher-income ones.

Because of this context, for the first time this year the study looked at the income and racial demographics of the communities included in its analysis. The data showed that communities passing or updating a complete streets policy in 2016 were, on average, slightly more white and more wealthy than the United States as a whole. The average racial makeup of these communities was 76.3 percent white, 10.3 percent black or African American, 0.8 percent American Indian, 5.3 percent Asian, 0.1 percent Pacific Islander, 4.1 percent other, and 3.1 percent two or more races. In all, 77 percent of localities that passed policies in 2016 had white populations greater than the national average of 73.6 percent. The median household income of communities who passed or updated a policy in 2016 was $59,347, about 10 percent above the national average of $53,889.

Taken together, it is clear that communities are consistently passing stronger and more effective complete streets policies, a significant accomplishment. It is also clear that the challenge now is to help communities of all income levels and ethnicities benefit from this progress equitably.

The article noted that the top three scoring jurisdictions with perfect scores of 100 were: (1) Brockton, Massachusetts; (2) Missoula, Montana; and (3) Wenatchee, Washington. In Maryland, jurisdictions or agencies with Complete Streets initiatives include: (1) the State; (2) State Highway Administration; (3) Baltimore City; (4) Baltimore County; (5) Montgomery County; (6) Prince George’s County; (7) Annapolis; (8) the City of Frederick; (9) Rockville; and (10) Salisbury.

Useful Links

Best Complete Streets Policies of 2016 Report

Dangerous by Design 2016 Report

Smart Growth America Website

National Complete Streets Coalition Webpage

Baltimore County Council Considers 4 Transparency Bills

A Baltimore Sun article (2017-06-14) reported that the Baltimore County Council is currently considering four pieces of legislation addressing transparency and open government. According to the article, the legislation includes:

  1. requiring the Council to hold evening meetings (sponsored by Council Member Wade Kach);
  2. requiring one additional public hearing on the county’s annual budget (sponsored by Council Member Wade Kach);
  3. requiring ethics training for certain county officials (sponsored by Council Member Vicki Almond); and
  4. prohibiting campaign contributions during the county’s rezoning process (sponsored by Council Member Vicki Almond).

From the article:

Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, lauded the efforts.

“We’re glad to see the county taking ethical concerns in the community seriously and looking to address them,” said Damon Effingham, the group’s legal and policy director. …

One of Kach’s bills would put an end to the council practice of discussing bills and taking public testimony during weekday afternoon work sessions. County residents rarely attend those sessions, and often no one from the public testifies on the bills.

Kach wants those work sessions to be held at 6 p.m. or later, like the council’s voting sessions on Monday nights in Towson.

He has proposed a requirement that the county executive hold at least two public meetings before introducing the budget.

Currently, only the council holds a public hearing on the budget. This year, no one testified at that hearing.

“One of the reasons that the [Baltimore County] council hearing may have received little engagement in the past could be because, at that point, many priorities of the budget are already basically decided on,” Effingham said.

The article also discussed Almond’s rezoning and training bills:

Rezoning, one of the major powers held by council members in Baltimore County, is an area of intense lobbying and community input. Council members already have an unofficial agreement against accepting campaign donations during the yearlong process. Almond’s bill would turn that into a requirement. …

“With the zoning issues, we deal so much with the developers and the attorneys. There’s a perception that if we take money from somebody that we’ll do what they want us to do,” said Almond, of Reisterstown. “It’s totally not true. This bill helps to say we’re not doing anything wrong.” …

Almond’s other bill would require annual training in ethics laws for county elected officials, top aides, top county officials, members of certain boards and commissions and registered lobbyists. The course would be provided by the county’s Ethics Commission.

Almond said county officials get only cursory training in ethics, or pick up their ethics knowledge on the fly.

The article noted that the bills will be discussed during a June 27 work session and possibly voted on July 3.

 

Bay “Dead Zone” Predicted to Be Larger Than Average This Year

After the Chesapeake Bay enjoyed the highest levels of dissolved oxygen in decades last year, a Bay Journal blog article (2017-06-15) reported that the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan are predicting the Bay’s oxygen-starved “dead zone” will be larger than in recent years – growing to 1.9 cubic miles. The article indicated that weather was a key factor in the growth of the dead zone. From the article:

“The forecast is a reminder that the improvements such as we saw last year are subject to reversal depending on weather conditions—two steps forward, one step back,” said UMCES President Donald F. Boesch. …

This spring, scientists say, heavy rains fell in Pennsylvania and New York, which flushed an above-average amount of nitrogen down the Susquehanna River. …

“Although the higher forecasts for this summer seem to buck a recent trend toward lower anoxic volumes in Chesapeake Bay, they are consistent with known links between high river flows and oxygen depletion,” said Jeremy Testa, assistant professor at the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

The article noted that despite the dead zone forecast, overall Bay health has shown signs of long-term improvement based on the restoration and pollution reduction efforts undertaken by the federal government, states, and local governments.

“Despite this year’s forecast, we’ve made great strides in reducing nutrient pollution from various sources entering the Chesapeake Bay, and we are starting to see positive long-term signs,” said Rob Magnien, director of NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research. “However, more work needs to be done to address non-point nutrient pollution from farms and other developed lands, to make the Bay cleaner for its communities and economic interests.”

The article also discussed the importance of continued federal funding for Bay restoration efforts.

 

State Climate Change Commission Moving Ahead With Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plans

The Maryland Commission on Climate Change (MCCC) met on June 21, 2017, and re-committed to the continuation of its climate change goals, including the State’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030.

Maryland’s Position on Climate Change at State and National Levels 

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Benjamin Grumbles reiterated that Governor Larry Hogan and Maryland will be moving forward with the State’s climate change action plan and is encouraging other states to participate in REGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative). Grumbles also noted that the State is reviewing the newly formed United States Climate Alliance but has not yet decided whether it will participate.

Maryland Senator Paul Pinsky stressed the importance of remaining in the Paris Climate Accord and that the Climate Alliance represented a key opportunity to continue United States participation. (Previously President Donald Trump had announced the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Accords but intended to rejoin after renegotiating participation terms.) Grumbles responded that the Governor has stated the importance of the United States participating in the Accord but that Maryland’s participation in the Alliance is still under review and there could be other equally effective methods of encouraging climate change.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network founder and director Mike Tidwell argued that participating in the Alliance sent an important message and that strengthening REGGI (particularly the cap) was also critical. Grumbles agreed that REGGI could be improved and did not rule out Maryland’s ultimate participation in the Alliance.

Discussion on “40 by 30” Goal

The bi-partisan Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2016 (SB 323) requires Maryland to achieve a 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from their 2006 levels by 2030. The legislation also includes some economic and job protections as the State works to achieve the reduction goal. Maryland is on track to meet a prior emission reduction goal of 25% by 2025.

The new 40 by 30 draft plan is due by end of 2018 and a final plan is due by the end of 2019. There is a mid-point review in 2022 and the Act must be reauthorized through legislation in 2023.  The plan must reduce 57 to 61 metric tons of greenhouse gases to account for existing pollution sources and anticipated population and pollution growth.

The current 2025 plan will get the State a good portion of the way, but will leave a gap that must be addressed. Programs for more fuel efficient cars and aircraft and electric vehicles should help. The State is developing better data on carbon sequestration by wetlands and trees.

Pinsky raised concerns about the accuracy of some of the assumed greenhouse gas emission and reduction assumptions and that other policy options, such as a carbon tax, must be at least discussed. Grumbles noted that the assumptions are based on modeled and need further refinement and that the discussed programs were not necessarily the only programs that could be considered.

The MCCC decided to have a further discussion on the issue through its workgroups and at future meetings. It was also noted that the plan needs to consider what will need to be done beyond 2030, even though future goals have not yet been set.

New Climate Change Commission Website

MCCC has just launched a new and more user-friendly website. The website will be further refined over time to ensure ease of use and public accessibility.

2017 MCCC Annual Report

The deadline of the 2017 MCCC Annual Report is November 15, 2017.

Other Actions

MCCC also received an update on the climate change activities of various State agencies, approved a series of one-page climate change handouts for final review, and reviewed the activities of its four work groups.

Useful Links

MCCC Website

USDA Offers Disaster Relief to 6 Eastern Shore Counties

A notice in the Maryland Farm Bureau’s Government Relations Bulletin (Edition #2, 2017-06-15) announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing disaster relief for several Maryland and Delaware Counties for periods of drought and rains during 2016. From the notice:

USDA is providing disaster relief in Delaware and Maryland from the drought of June 1, 2016 – Sept 29, 2016 and excessive rains from Sept 29 – Oct 10, 2016. USDA disaster declaration for Delaware includes the following contiguous counties in Maryland:

o Caroline
o Dorchester
o Kent
o Queen Anne’s
o Wicomico
o Worcester

Qualifying farmers have 8 months from the date of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s disaster declaration (May 16, 2017) to apply to their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) for emergency loans or assistance .

Useful Links

USDA Disaster Declaration Letter

FSA Contact Information (By County)

 

Bernie Fowler Conducts 30th Annual Bay Wade-In, NASA Adopts “Sneaker Index”

A Bay Net article (2017-06-13) reported on the 30th annual Chesapeake Bay wade-in by former Maryland State Senator and MACo President Bernie Fowler. In what is now a tradition, each year Senator Fowler wades into the Chesapeake Bay until the white sneakers that he wears are no longer visible. Fowler and others have used this unofficial “sneaker index” to highlight the overall health of the Bay. The article noted that sneaker visibility in the Bay was less than 10 inches in the early 1980s but reached a high of 44.5 inches in 2015. The 2017 index was 41.5 inches. From the article:

[Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer], who lives on the Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, added that Fowler’s actions and advocacy as first a county commissioner and then a state senator helped significantly reduce the tons of sediment that pollute the river.

Greg Bowen, a former Calvert County Department of Planning and Zoning director and county native, stated that Fowler “has always relied on science” when assessing the state of the region’s waterways. Bowen credited Fowler with stopping “direct discharge” sewerage systems in Calvert when he was a local elected official. …

Maryland Department of Environment Secretary Ben H. Grumbles and Department of Planning Secretary Wendi W. Peters presented Fowler with a proclamation from Hogan. Grumbles drew applause when he told the gathering that the Hogan Administration was committed to pressing the Trump Administration for the full restoration of funds previously earmarked for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. “We are all inspired by your leadership,” Grumbles told Fowler.

A Phys.org article (2017-06-05) reported that NASA is adopting Fowler’s “sneaker index” as an easy-to-understand method to communicate about the health of the Bay and that the index is actually based on sound science. From the article:

Now NASA is adopting Fowler’s sneaker idea to communicate satellite measurements of water clarity, enabling the observations to be shared easily with interested the general public, local governments or anyone who is interested. NASA scientists calling this algorithm “Fowler’s Sneaker Depth”—the depth of water, in meters, at which a person can no longer see their white shoes. The study was published in the April 2017 edition of The Optical Society journal Optics Express. …

“When you talk to people about the chemistry of the river with scientific words like eutrophication, it goes in one ear and out the other,” said Fowler. “If you put on white sneakers and wade out in the river until you can’t see your feet, that gives you pretty good understanding of what’s going on.” …

Although the sneaker depth was primarily designed as a communication outreach tool for the public, the NASA team doesn’t discount its use for science. The sneaker depth concept is actually similar to the Secchi disk depth measurement made monthly by the Chesapeake Bay Program. In oceanography, scientists lower a plain, white disk one foot in diameter – called a Secchi disk—into the water on a rope and record the depth at which it disappears from sight. These measurements are useful for marine scientists who want to know what depth the light is reaching to understand how the phytoplankton and other underwater vegetation are growing.

“Fowler’s Sneaker Depth will come in as a metric to look at long term water clarity trends for scientifically meaningful results and communicate those to the general public,” said Ivona Cetinic, an oceanographer with the Universities Space Research Association at NASA Goddard and one of the study’s authors.

Maryland Matters Picks Hogan’s Top 5 Cabinet Members

In a Maryland Matters article (2017-06-12), political commentator Josh Kurtz unveils the top five cabinet secretaries in the Governor Larry Hogan Administration. Kurtz arrived at the picks by polling two dozen State government watchers and commentators. Here are a quick summary of the picks:

#1 Secretary of the Environment Benjamin Grumbles

If anyone in the Hogan Cabinet helps the governor strike the balance that he needs between being pro-business and a good steward of Maryland’s land, air and water, it’s Grumbles. Environmentalists don’t always agree with him, but they admire him, and he’s careful to keep the lines of communication open.

#2 Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn

There’s nobody more steeped in his agency’s policies – and the corresponding debates at the national level – than this guy….Transit advocates aren’t happy with Hogan administration priorities, but Rahn is accessible to critics and pretty good about explaining why the administration does what it does.

#3 Secretary of Budget and Management David Brinkley

Considering there’s a Republican governor and a legislature with Democratic super-majorities, the budget process since Hogan has taken office has been pretty harmonious – especially this year. Brinkley, a former member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, deserves a good bit of the credit.

#4 Secretary of Labor, Licensing, & Regulation Kelly Shulz

What she lacks in pure policy chops she makes up for in her ability to sell Hogan’s priorities – and her relationships with former colleagues in the legislature, particularly on the House Economic Matters Committee.

# 5 Secretary of Veterans Affairs George Owings III

There is no greater advocate for veterans in the state of Maryland, period, than this Vietnam War veteran and former member of the House of Delegates who previously held the same Cabinet post under GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

Kurtz also offered some insights on Secretary of Commerce Mike Gill, Acting Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Dennis Schrader, and Secretary of General Services Ellington Churchill.

Delmarva Farmer Editorial: No Knockout in BAT Septic Fight

A Delmarva Farmer editorial (2017-06-13) reviewed the 2017 legislative fight over the use of best available nitrogen removal technology (BAT) septic systems outside of the critical areas and argued against efforts over the interim to impose additional requirements on septic systems in rural areas. In 2016, Governor Larry Hogan repealed a regulatory requirement that BAT septic systems had to be used outside of the 1,000 foot critical area buffers for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays. BAT septics remain mandatory within a critical area and counties can require BAT septics outside of the critical area. In response to Hogan’s repeal, several Baltimore-area legislators sponsored legislation (HB 281/SB 266) to codify the prior BAT requirement in statute. A heavily amended version of the bill passed the Senate but was not voted on in the House of Delegates.

From the editorial’s recap of the 2017 Session debate:

The repeal was hailed as a common-sense move by its supporters as wastewater coming from septics often goes through a battery of natural filtering and may never reach a waterway.

Opponents said it would encourage rampant home building increasing pollution from their septic systems. …

“It makes no sense to put an enhanced nutrient removal system in the middle of a farmland 25 miles from any critical area in the state and require (homeowners) to pay any more than necessary,” said Sen. Edward Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, on the Senate floor during debate. “This focuses the efforts and the money on the most important parts of the state.” …

The BAT septic systems can reduce nitrogen by about 60 percent but as the Maryland Association of Counties pointed out in its testimony on the bill, “the nitrogen reduction that will be generated based on the costs required to install (and maintain) BAT systems is neither efficient nor cost-effective.”

The editorial also argued against new requirements on rural septic systems that are being considered by a House Environment and Transportation Committee summer work group:

“We are eager to develop a plan that will reduce pollution from septic systems including better maintenance of the older systems and protect all waters of Maryland from this contamination,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, president of 1000 Friends of Maryland. “Rural development must not be a source of new pollution and everyone must do their fair share to protect Maryland waters.”

Doing their fair and then some are the farmers in rural Maryland employing filter strips, precision agriculture and nutrient management to cut pollution going into tributaries and the Bay.

Requiring an upgraded septic would amount to a “double dip” for farmers. Consider the young farmers that the state and nation yearn for.

Upgrading or building a new house on the farm would tack that much more cost on the debt they take on. Is that a fair share?

Useful Links

HB 281 / SB 266 of 2017

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of BAT Septic Systems

 

Be Prepared for the New Open Meeting Requirements

During the 2017 Session, the Maryland General Assembly passed and Governor Larry Hogan signed into law new Open Meetings Act training requirements for public bodies (HB 880 / SB 450). Public bodies have until October 1, 2017, to comply with the new training requirements. Here are the five things you need to know to be in compliance:

(1) At least one member of each public body must take a training class on the Open Meetings Act. Under current law, each public body must designate at least one individual who is an employee, officer, or member to take the training class. While employees or staff can continue to take the training class, after October 1, 2017, at least one member of the public body must be also designated to take the class. The designated member has 90 days after the designation to take the class.

(2) Training classes can be taken through four different designated sources. The law identifies four designated sources where the training may be taken: (1)  an online class offered by the Office of Attorney General and the University of Maryland’s Institute for Governmental Service and Research; (2) a class offered by MACo at its annual conferences through the Academy for Excellence in Local Governance; (3) a class offered by the Maryland Municipal League (MML) at its annual conferences through the Academy for Excellence in Local Governance; and (4) a class offered by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) through the Boardmanship Academy Program.

(3) Public bodies that have not designated a member to take a class may not meet in closed session after October 1, 2017. If a public body has not designated a member to take the class by October 1, 2017, the public body loses the ability to go into closed session. The member only needs to be designated by October 1 and may take the class at a later date as long as it falls within the 90 days after being designated.

(4) When going into closed session, a public body must either: (1) have a least one member designated to take the training class present; or (2) follow and complete the Compliance Checklist for Meetings Subject to the Open Meetings Act. After October 1, 2017, a public body can only enter closed session if it meets one of two requirements – either at least one member who has been designated to take the training class is present or the public body follows and completes the Compliance Checklist for Meetings Subject to the Open Meetings Act developed by the Office of the Attorney General. If the checklist option is used, the checklist must be included in the public body’s meeting minutes.    

(5) Public bodies under the Maryland Judiciary are exempt from the training and closed session meeting requirements. Due to the unique nature of public bodies under the Maryland Judiciary, the new training requirements do not apply to public bodies that are: (1) under the judicial branch of State government; or (2) subject to governance by rules adopted by the Court of Appeals.

MACo will be offering its next open meetings training class at its 2017 Summer Conference on August 16 from 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM. Further information on the conference and registration is below.

If you have any questions regarding the new Open Meetings Act requirements, please contact MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp at 410.269.0043 or lknapp@mdcounties.org.

Useful Links

HB 880 of 2017

SB 450 of 2017

Online Class for Maryland’s Open Meetings Act

Compliance Checklist for Meetings Subject to the Open Meetings Act

MACo 2017 Summer Conference Attendee Registration Brochure

MACo 2017 Summer Conference Attendee Online Registration