Montgomery, Howard Get Connected Via Bus Rapid Transit

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman are partnering to get connected via the  U.S. 29 Bus Rapid Transit project. From your4state.com:
The route would connect the two counties with service from Columbia to Silver Spring. Both county executives are hoping this plan would reduce traffic congestion and spur economic growth.
“Montgomery County and Howard County, as you know, are [in] close proximity, and we have an opportunity now to build on that proximity. Something that’s very important to us is the Route 29 Corridor,” said County Executive Leggett.
Leggett said he expects the project to be done by 2020.

Counties Support Increased Control Over Use of Local Roads

MACo Associate Director, Barbara Zektick, provided written testimony in support of Senate Bill 640, “Municipalities and Counties – Local Roads – Regulation of Travel by Heavy-Weight Vehicles,” before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on February 22, 2017.  MACo provided written testimony on cross-filed House Bill 930 to the Environment and Transportation Committee on February 21, 2017.

The bill would authorize certain counties to regulate and permit heavy-weight vehicles on their own roads. It amends existing law (Local Government Article, Section 12-527) which addresses Allegany, Baltimore, Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s and Washington Counties.

From MACo testimony:

As counties continue to suffer the repercussions of devastating cutbacks to their highway user revenues, it becomes increasingly important for local governments to have control over their roads to prevent them from falling into a state of irreversible disrepair. When heavy-weight vehicles continue to repeatedly use local roads instead of state and interstate highways, they compromise the integrity of infrastructure oftentimes not built to accommodate such traffic on a regular basis. When left unregulated, heavy-weight traffic can cause extraordinary damage to local roads and any utilities existing underneath or adjacent to them. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that local governments lack access to any significant portion of transportation revenues to fund maintenance of their roadway networks.

Both House and Senate bill sponsors introduced amendments to make the bill applicable to Garrett County only. 

Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2017 legislative session here.

Revenue Collection Tools Ensure Fairness To All Ratepayers

MACo Associate Director, Barbara Zektick, provided testimony in opposition to House Bill 453, “Tax Sales – Water Liens,” to the House Ways and Means Committee on February 23, 2017.  James DiPietro, Deputy Director, Bureau of Utility Operations, Department of Public Works, Anne Arundel County; and Janice Simmons, Bureau Chief, Revenue Collections, Department of Finance, Baltimore City, joined in opposition to this bill.

MACo ensured the bill sponsor and committee that the Association was happy to help work on addressing any issues which might allow some to profit, perhaps unduly, from the hardship of others. However, this bill deprives counties of the opportunity to use an effective tool for enforcement – tax sale – to enforce liens for unpaid water, sewer, or sanitary system charges. The tax sale process, or more specifically the potential for a property to go to tax sale, presents a much needed tool of last resort to ensure that property owners remit payment for their fair share of taxes and charges connected to public services. Most counties in Maryland go to tax sale solely to enforce utility liens. This bill removes this leverage for all counties, and undoubtedly would create many more deficient accounts for water and sewer bills from lack of enforcement – leading to increased rates on citizens who properly pay.

From MACo testimony:

All property owners deserve full and adequate notice of any collection efforts to collect taxes or charges assessed on the property – and as such, every county has procedures to ensure notice is provided prior to tax sale. Additionally, property owners have the right to redeem property within six months from the date of any tax sale by paying the amount owed. The tax sale process includes multiple checks and balances to ensure that local governments can collect overdue fees without unjustly depriving taxpayers of due process, water, or their homes.

Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2017 legislative session here.

MACo Strongly Endorses Restoring Highway User Revenues

MACo Associate Director, Barbara Zektick, provided written testimony in support of House Bill 552, “Transportation – Motor Fuel Tax and Highway User Revenue – Increased Local Share,” to the House Environment and Transportation Committee on February 23, 2017.

This bill restores highway user revenues to local governments, ensures that new gas tax revenues resulting from Chapter 429 of 2013 are shared equitably with local governments, and amends the Maryland Constitution to prevent depletion of highway user revenues from local governments in the future. This bill will supply desperately needed revenue to repair and maintain local roads and bridges.

From MACo testimony:

It is unquestionable that local governments maintain the lion’s share of the roads and bridges in our state. Unlike most other states, in Maryland, local governments own and maintain 83% of the roads. Even recognizing that state arterials have more lanes than local roads do, local governments still own and maintain 77% of the lane miles in Maryland. Every resident depends on local roadways. Highway user revenues fund roads and bridges throughout our entire state, through an equitable, time-tested formula based on road mileage and vehicle registrations. This touches the roads our kids ride to school, the roads our first responders travel to keep us safe, and the roads where we all live.

Support MACo’s #Lift4MD initiative!

Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2017 legislative session here.

You’re Invited: Join Us for Our Weekly Legislative Update Conference Call

Every Friday during the legislative session MACo will host a conference call that will update you on the Maryland General Assembly hot topics and bills that affect local governments. Join the conversation at 3:00 pm each week as MACo explores different topics and hosts guest speakers.

This week’s topic (February 24): Transportation / “Scorecard Bill”

MACo Policy Associate, Kevin Kinnally will be joined by MACo Executive Director, Michael Sanderson to discuss transportation, with an emphasis on the highly controversial “Scorecard Bill.”

Conference call information: 1.877.850.5007, passcode: 2690043#

We look forward to your participation! Submit your questions in advance by e-mailing Kevin Kinnally.

Miller Offers “Grand Bargain” on Transportation Scorecard Bill

At the high profile hearing for SB 307, Governor Hogan’s proposal to repeal the transportation scorecard legislation enacted last year, Senate President Miller testified in support of a proposed “compromise” that would delay the scoring system’s effect for two years while a select work group would be empaneled to work through the system. The Administration and Department officials testifying in support of the repeal legislation expressed an initial reluctance, but indicated appreciation for the movement on the sticky issue.

From coverage in the Baltimore Sun:

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan‘s administration is refusing to compromise with Democrats on a controversial transportation scoring law, demanding its full repeal before they entertain anything else.

“We can’t salvage this law,” Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Wednesday. Hogan’s chief legislative officer, Christopher Shank, said if the administration discusses a compromise, “that conversation has to begin with repeal.”

MACo Executive Director Michael Sanderson testified in support of Senate Bill 307, indicating that MACo would support either a “repeal” or “replace” path forward. He indicated he was “heartened” by the proposed movement from the Senate President, who had reaffirmed that “we’re not going to pass a repeal,” but distributed amendment language to Committee members.

Sanderson outlined several areas for any workgroup to focus on — including specifying the Department’s ability to score projects differently based on region or mode, to specify the intended analytical responsibilities between the Department and counties, and to clarify the “advisory” nature of the legislation. He also urged local input into any review going forward.

Background

The bill as introduced repeals the 2016 legislation creating a “scorecard” for major transportation projects. That bill, with its many prescriptive elements, and the subsequent implementing regulations, have left counties deeply concerned about the process for selecting major transportation projects. MACo urges the General Assembly to remedy the current two-part scheme of legislative and regulatory interpretation that collectively place projects in jeopardy, and may overwhelm county transportation planning staff.

During the 2016 legislative session, MACo raised concerns with HB 1013, the legislation targeted by this year’s SB 307. In testimony, MACo raised concerns about respecting county input into project selection, overburdening county public works departments, and the potential for unfairness in the legislated scoring system. Many of these points were addressed, in whole or in part, through both House and Senate amendments.

During the interim, MACo was again alarmed by exchanges with the Maryland Department of Transportation, suggesting that a failure of counties to rapidly provide dramatically expanded information to defend proposed projects would result in them being “de-funded.” And finally, after the implementation of last year’s act was delayed pending adoption of regulations, MACo again expressed concern with the proposed Departmental regulations that failed to implement flexibility that we believe the legislation afforded. Taken together, counties fear the law and regulations’ scoring system will prove counterproductive and cumbersome.

From MACo testimony:

Imperfect scores undermine the entire system. An ideal scorecard system could advance the public’s ability to understand the State’s project selection process. Counties fear that the status quo, as a combined result of legislation and regulations, will substantially miss this mark. The Maryland public would not be well served if the Department were obliged to routinely offer a multitude of “rational basis” letters to assert an exception for a wide range of projects in order to retain funding, despite their project scores. Even though this process is spelled out in the law, a system that creates an unreasonable number of exceptions loses its utility.

Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2017 legislative session here.

MACo Defends Against Traffic Signal Mandate

MACo Associate Director, Barbara Zektick, provided testimony in support with amendments of Senate Bill 865, “Vehicle Laws – School Zone Crosswalks – Traffic Control Signals,” before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on February 22, 2017.

This bill requires jurisdictions owning roads in school zones where the speed limit is at least 35 miles per hour to place traffic signals at all marked crosswalks. Further, it prohibits operation of those traffic signals from operating outside of the hours posted on signs designating the school zone.  MACo encouraged the Committee to consider amending this bill to mirror its cross file, House Bill 1199, which authorizes – rather than requires – installation of the subject traffic signals.

From MACo testimony:

Traffic engineers require flexibility in the law to determine the best treatment for any particular location, rather than “one size fits all” mandates which may actually compromise, rather than promote, traffic and pedestrian safety. Furthermore, restricting operation of traffic signals to specific times of day may only cause greater confusion and risk of accidents – particularly in school zones, where traffic may increase after regular school day hours due to after school events.

Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2017 legislative session here.

Who’s Responsible For All These Bridges?

According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA)’s recently released 2017 Bridge Report, 6 percent of Maryland’s bridges are structurally deficient, and 20 percent are functionally obsolete. From the report:

  • Of the 5,321 bridges in the state, 308, or 6%, are classified as structurally deficient. This means one or more of the key bridge elements, such as the deck, superstructure or substructure, is considered to be in “poor” or worse condition.
  • 1,072 bridges, or 20%, are classified as functionally obsolete. This means the bridge does not meet design standards in line with current practice.
  • 268 bridges are posted for load, which may restrict the size and weight of vehicles crossing the structure.

At the State Highway Administration (SHA)’s budget hearing on February 16, upon reviewing the Department of Legislative Services (DLS)’s analysis, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chair Edward Kasemeyer asked Maryland Transportation Deputy Secretary Jim Ports about the report. WJZ-13 had just covered the story. How come ARTBA reported that 6 percent of bridges in Maryland were structurally deficient, when the DLS analysis reported that less than 3 percent of the bridges in the State Highway network met that classification? Deputy Secretary Ports clarified that SHA only maintains a little more than half of the bridges in Maryland: local governments maintain the rest.

In fact, according to the Maryland Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)’s 2011 Report Card for Maryland’s Infrastructure:

In Maryland, approximately 55 percent of bridges are on the state highway system, while the remaining 45 percent are owned by local and other jurisdictions … Only approximately 4.2 percent of the bridges on the state system are structurally deficient, a figure well below the national average of structurally deficient bridges (12.1 percent). Of the 359 structurally deficient bridges in the state, nearly 69 percent of them are owned and maintained by local municipalities.

After the decimation of highway user revenues to local governments in 2010, this percentage could only have gotten worse. It seems clear that local governments, and their bridges, could benefit from a Local Infrastructure Fast Track for Maryland (LIFT 4 MD).

 

Counties and Municipalities Oppose Water Shut-Off Bill

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel, Les Knapp, alongside Bill Jorch representing the Maryland Municipal League; Jim DiPietro, Deputy Director, Bureau of Utility Operations, Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works; and Steve Gerwin, Chief, Bureau of Utilities, Howard County Department of Public Works testified in opposition to House Bill 228, Environment – Water Service – Shutoff Notice Disclosures and Vulnerable Population Protection, before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on February 15, 2017.

This bill requires water and wastewater system providers to follow a strict and rigorous process before shutting off services for nonpayment, rendering that enforcement unusable in many cases. In addition, it explicitly prevents a provider from shutting off service in a wide range of situations.

MACo advocates that by reducing the consequences for nonpayment, those costs simply get reassigned to others. This may be to those who pay their water bills on time (through higher base rates), or to the general taxpayer base (through higher property taxes). In general, local matters should remain in local hands. The county and municipal officials elected by and accountable to their own communities are in the best position to judge these needs, and to balance these issues of fairness. With this bill, MACo urges state policymakers to refrain from statewide intrusion — both out of respect for local autonomy, but also to avoid creating fundamental new unfairness in local revenue systems.

From MACo testimony:

The ability to discontinue a resident’s water or sewer service, or the potential of discontinuing the service, presents a much-needed device to ensure water users remit payment for their fair share of fees and charges connected to public services. HB 228 removes this leverage and undoubtedly would create many more deficient accounts for water and sewer bills from lack of enforcement – leading to increased rates on citizens who properly pay.

Members of the Committee asked a number of questions concerning existing water shut-off processes across the state, whether tenants can or should be held responsible or have access to information concerning bills for their homes, and whether the bill actually accomplishes its proposed intent, which is only to make those users responsible for paying for water if “they can actually pay.”

Useful Links

Bill Text

MACo Testimony

Video of hearing: at 1:13:00

Delegate Washington’s Homepage

MACo Bill Tracking Tool

 

Should “Good Actors” Subsidize Bad Actions?

The General Assembly is considering intriguing issues about how Maryland, and its local governments, assess and collect fees, user charges, and penalties. These bills raise policy questions about cross-subsidies between people who pay on time, and those who don’t.

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Fairness In Revenues, Large and Small

HB 228 and SB 453 would limit governments’ ability to collect late water bills. SB 136 does the same with overdue parking tickets. Local governments always stand up for autonomy — but here, there are broader fairness issues at work, too.

Nearly everyone understands debates over tax policy. Taxes are the main engine behind governmental services, and policymakers have a duty to assess and administer them fairly. MACo and other stakeholders routinely address the legislature in Annapolis to raise concerns with fair application of taxes.

It’s less obvious, but the same debate exists with other government fees, charges, and penalties. These don’t constitute as central a question for governmental revenues as taxes themselves — but two sets of proposals before this year’s General Assembly session show that the policy and equity debates are similarly important.

Parking Tickets – What if they aren’t paid on time?

The first bill is SB 136 – which is currently “on hold” on the Senate floor. The bill deals with parking tickets issues by local governments.

This is a new subject area to most legislators — and for good reason. The state plays virtually no role in parking restrictions and enforcement. This is a purely local function. The elected officials of our state’s counties and towns respond to local needs by setting parking standards, and creating enforcement to back those standards up.

SB 136 adds to the section of state law that (paraphrasing) empowers local governments to manage these programs locally, and creates a new over-arching schema: tickets cannot have an escalation in their fine until at least 30 days.

First – we can acknowledge that nobody likes to receive a parking ticket. But whether the parking rules are driven by pedestrian safety, community concerns, or fair access to congested areas — nearly everyone recognizes that a ticket/fine for violations is the means to ensure compliance. In many places, a parking ticket has a face value due immediately, and then as an incentive for prompt payment, an escalated fine after a certain date. These mechanisms are not unique to parking fines – penalties for late payment are an effective means to keep collections timely and complete.

Under SB 136, local governments would suffer a loss of revenues from the proposed change, in some cases substantial. These revenues are part of what funds the jurisdiction’s costs of staff and technology for the parking enforcement itself. To respond to these community concerns, the county or town will still need to enforce parking — just with less revenue.

So, who pays MORE under SB 136? There’s really only two ways to go here:

  • Other parking violators who pay on time (raise the base ticket fine amount)
  • Local taxpayers who haven’t even violated a thing (raise property taxes)

MACo testified against SB 136 on the central principle that parking is simply a local matter. But Senators considering this bill should also think about the consequence of undermining late fees — higher costs on those who pay on time, or on those who didn’t even break the rules to begin with. That sort of cross-subsidy raises the same policy concerns as an unfair taxation system.

Water Bills – What if they aren’t paid on time?

Beyond fines imposed for violators, governments also impose user fees for specific services. None is more central than providing public water. While in general the charge for delivering water is based on public usage, with community and citizen oversight, there are still policy questions about fairness in their collection. Once again… how should local governments deal with those who don’t pay?

Water is surely different than a parking fine. It’s an essential service, and in many areas water service is considered a precondition for “livability” of a structure. But when a water user fails to pay a utility charge, the government is faced with a fairness conundrum. Just like taxes (and even parking tickets) – the system is best when each user pays his or her fair share.

Basically, public water systems have three main methods to employ to secure payment for their services (in ascending order of seriousness):

  • Finance charges for one or more late payments
  • Water “shutoff” for longer term failure to pay
  • Enforcing the unpaid charges as a property lien, through the possibility of tax sale

To begin, in every public water system the sizable majority of users pay their bill on time. All these enforcement provisions apply to those who fail to do so.

Given the nature of water as a critical public service, legislation has been introduced to limit these enforcement steps:

HB 228/SB 546 would dramatically limit the ability of a government to terminate water service for nonpayment

HB 453 would eliminate a government’s ability to collect a water bill lien through tax sale

In both cases, a well-intentioned idea carries these same cross-subsidy consequences. Water systems are usually set up by governments as “enterprise funds,” meaning they cover their own costs. This “user pays” principle is widely embraced for similar public services.

But if the prospect of losing service… or the potential to see your property face tax sale… is off the table, surely compliance will drop. The state’s largest water system in Baltimore City estimates that without the lien process available they could face some $7 million in reduced payments, as non-payers would no longer be eventually compelled to cover their own share of system costs.

Reduce the consequences for nonpayment, and those costs simply get reassigned to others. This who pay their water bills on time (through higher base rates), or the general taxpayer base (through property taxes). It’s the same fairness issues raised above with parking tickets – though likely on a larger fiscal scale.

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In general, MACo consistently advocates for local matters to remain in local hands. The county and municipal officials elected by and accountable to their own communities are in the best position to judge these needs, and to balance these issues of fairness. With the bills referenced above, MACo urges state policymakers to refrain from statewide intrusion — both out of respect for local autonomy, but also to avoid creating fundamental new unfairness in local revenue systems.