Town Center TIF

Last night, I wore my Town Center Village Board hat at a PATH meeting that provided useful information on Tax Increment Financing. This PDF explains the basics of TIF, so I’ll leave it at – A development increases the property or sales taxes on a piece of land, so they get to keep the increase, or increment. That reimburses them for some of their costs of the project. Howard County, or at least the County Executive’s administration, is thinking about doing this for the Downtown Columbia development. This proposal is also somewhat tied to the affordable housing that Howard Hughes wants to build…on county land. The article says that’s not true, but I don’t see how one can unlink them.

Usually, TIF is used for “blighted” areas – think unoccupied, dilapidated buildings.

During the recent primary campaign for Board of Education, many people were disturbed by one candidate’s use of “inner-city” Columbia.

These two things are not true. Yes, we have extreme poverty in parts of Howard County and yes, there are some homes that need external fixes. But blight? I live pretty much as close to the area being discussed as possible and I do not see blight. Maybe some run-down homes that need investment, but blight? Yes, we have some crime, but let’s get some perspective. We have a wide range of socioeconomic circumstances that we need to deal with.

But is giving away public dollars to a private corporation the solution? Usually, counties/cities needing renewal offer developers incentives to make a not-so-attractive spot more attractive. They forfeit the increase in tax dollars, hoping that other stars will align that make a good investment.

I wonder how much our County has appropriated for  TIF for FY 2017. Oh, $70 million & more in 2018? That article, however, is outdated. Last night, County Council member Jen Terrasa said it is now $120 million with another $40 million more in future years.That’s not to say that it would all be for Downtown Columbia, but…probably fair to assume most of it would be.

Juxtapose that number with the “shortfall” between the County Council approved HCPSS budget and their request – $48 million. Granted, many of us do not believe that the increase needed to be that much. A bunch of the increase was in health insurance costs, which has been wrong for the last several years.

But…How much would I love to fund an increase in special education? More reading and math specialists? PARAEDUCATORS in Kindergarten? (Sorry, I’m yelling, that one is really irksome to me. “Other counties don’t use paraeducators as much as we do?” “We’re NOT other counties!”)

Politics and negotiations are about trade-offs. But this TIF proposal, regardless of what the number is, seems rather one-sided.

On a positive note, it seemed that 95% (and yes, that’s particularly specific) of the people at the meeting opposed using county money for a TIF incentive. But the way I see it now, I see a 3-2 vote in favor occurring in September.

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My Priority

As a candidate for office, I have long realized that there could be misinformation spread about me. Last night, I found out, to my surprise, that I was running for County Council in 2018.

At the Ellicott City Western HoCo Democratic forum last winter, we were asked a series of Yes/No questions. One of them was whether we would run for another office while on the Board of Education (if elected). I indicated I would not run. Some were surprised by our responses. I know that the Board of Ed is perceived as a stepping stone to other offices. But I am really passionate about education and the state of HCPSS.

Yes, I’m getting involved in county issues as a member of the Town Center Village Board, which I enjoy.

Yes, some people thought I might run in 2018, which was flattering.

But, I’m not running for County Council in 2018.

Eight Days a Week…

Since I worked on another campaign as the Field Director, I knew exactly what Early Voting would entail. Oh, wait, this time I was the candidate.

Let me tell you, it was great! I had so many conversations with people about their concerns and issues. One woman stopped to tell me I was wasting my time, but Board of Education is a down-ballot race. Another candidate and I were stopped by a gentleman who had initially eliminated us. We were able to change his vote to us after a few minutes’ discussion. Many people come to the polls ready for Senate or President, but a personal connection can make a difference in a this race. I don’t have the money for TV adverts and for some reason, CNN is not preempting presidential news coverage for Howard County’s Board of Education race.

But the Baltimore Sun/Hoco Times/Columbia Flier are certainly covering it! That is much appreciated. In addition, they endorsed me and my fellow Educator Apple Ballot candidates – saying that we have “spines”and “charisma.” (When I was five, I think they called me “annoyingly precocious.” 😉 )

I also used my time at the polls to deepen friendships with other candidates and their surrogates, knowing that good relationships with other community leaders will be important as a Board member. I have been friendly with my fellow candidates despite some major differences of opinion with the incumbents. As a Town Center board member, I have some different opinions from my fellow board members, but discussions have always been collegial. I plan to bring that to the Board of Education in December.

If you would like to see the current Board in action, please check out this video (Click on April 21 7:30) from last night’s budget discussion. There was a wee bit of name calling…

Maryland had record voter turnout for Early Voting – Howard County had almost 10% of eligible voters turn out in the past eight days. Check Scott E’s blog for more detail on daily and party turnouts.

Primary day is Tuesday, April 26 from 7 AM to 8 PM. If you’d like to help to hand out my campaign literature, please contact me at kirsten@kirstencoombs.org. An hour or two would be awesome. But if you can’t, please support me by telling your friends & neighbors who might not have tuned into the Board campaigns. The top six candidates will go on to the November General Election. With your help, I will be one of those six.

THANK YOU!!!!

Operating Budgets Aren’t Boring

It’s official – the campaign season has gotten off to a roaring start!

The Ellicott City & Western Howard County Democratic Club kicked off the festivities with their Board of Education candidate forum on Tuesday night. It was Standing Room Only on the hottest day of the year so far. I’m glad I dressed accordingly!

Questions were submitted by attendees and members. They got to the heart of the matter relatively quickly. Dan Medinger, their fearless leader, conducted a lightning round at the beginning. That was great as we had to think quickly and commit ourselves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see everybody at the end of the table, but I generally know what certain responses were.

One of the questions was whether candidates would reinstate the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee. My answer is a resounding YES.

One incumbent mentioned why she answered No – because there are only six people on the committee.

Checking the minutes of a few meetings indicates that there were seven, eight and nine non-Board members in attendance. Board members had a designee that attended and that seems to have been three or four. Another complaint noted by the auditor said the Open Meetings act wasn’t followed.

I’d like to point out that there are seven members of the Board, so the difference of one seems irrelevant.

But isn’t ending the committee throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

When I am campaigning, people appreciate my accounting background as bringing some economic sense to a nearly $1 billion piece of the county budget. I have deep concerns about a few items:

  • The budget is not provided at school level. Take a look at Montgomery County.
  • Supposedly the budget is zero-based. But then it refers to using savings from a previous year.
  • Interim data shows the budget has been exceeded in an area. “Where will the money be taken from?” “Don’t worry, it’ll come from someplace, we’re not going to take it from this program and decrease services.” “So where will it come from?” “Don’t worry.” (This happened at yesterday’s (March 10, 2016) meeting.)
  • Spending on marketing and branding for the school system. On the campaign trail, that raises some eyebrows. “They’re really doing that?” I think we can all agree that social media is really useful for communicating information to people. Checking Twitter for the @hcpss_(specific school) does provide emergency info and updates on school activities. Great tool, but for publicizing awards that we paid for?
  • It’s getting close to $1 billion. Our money. Whether it comes from the county, the state or the federal government, it’s ours. We have the right to know.

Special Education Budgets

I had a frustrating conversation with a paraeducator the other night. She spoke to me about the bruise she had from a special needs student (I believe in 5th grade) and her visit to Concentra. (They handle workers’ compensation issues for HCPSS.)  She said her husband says to her periodically that she could leave her job.

But she won’t. She cares about that kid that hurt her. She is constantly thinking about new approaches to help him. Her principal is supportive and that helps, knowing he’s on her side.

As the school system grows, there will be more students with special needs. One special education advocate has told me that 10% should be assumed to have some need for an Individual Education Plan. (That can range from a speech issue requiring weekly sessions to individually assigning a staff member to work with a student on a daily basis.)

Which leads me to the Superintendent’s proposed FY17 budget. Since they go through the budget page by page during the work sessions, I was doing the same in preparing myself. On p. 29, there’s a Reconciliation of FY 2017 Budget Funding to the FY 2016 Operating Budget.

Under “Investments to maintain high quality organization practices,” there is a line item that says “increase in operational staff and supplies including replacement of laptops for special education teachers and providers, custodial supplies and technology initiatives (4.0 FTE).” Doesn’t that make you think special education is getting a staffing increase?

Oops. No.

School-based special education services are projected to have a >9% increase in students in FY2017 under the proposed budget. That seems reasonable right? But there is NO increase in staff, either professional or support. More context: a Board of Education member told a community member that the District Management report on Special Ed services had bad results and they didn’t want to release the report.

So what ARE those four full-time equivalents in Special Education? The detailed department budgets include increases for the Regional Early Childhood Centers, which is GREAT to hear. This is a wonderful program for inclusion and early intervention with pre-schoolers.

At the heart of a great school, there is partnership between educators and parents. From what I’ve seen and heard, that is doubly important for special needs children. How can the population increase without a staffing increase? With the many hours that our SES educators spend on IEP administration already, how can this be ignored? Why is it ignored? My possible answers to those questions are part of why I’m running.

 

 

 

Chasing Snow (with a Grain of Salt)

As my husband got ready in the dark for work this morning, I considered telling him to pack a change of clothes in case the weather was bad. He works in McLean, VA, a mere 35 miles away that seems 135 miles when it precipitates. But I reconsidered after realizing 1) he grew up north of Scranton, PA and 2) he can walk out his office building and into one of the Tysons malls. And 3) it was only a two-hour delay in Howard County.

So I snoozed only to wake up to learn Howard County had closed the schools while leaving the administration open. Sigh. Day #7. Five-day weekend. And then next Monday being a holiday. Sighhhh….

As a candidate, I hear two questions most often. The first is about whether I would have extended the superintendent’s contract for another four year term. In case you aren’t sure on that answer, it’s a no. Because I’m running and I’m an accountant who oddly enough passed her Government & Tax part of the CPA with an 89*, I went to the Budget work session around lunchtime. So I had a seat!

The second question or comment I hear, especially right now, is “Can you do something about the snow closing?” My answer is – I don’t know. I’ve watched the explanations, spoken to friends formerly in county government, seen my Facebook page blow up, etc. I think we’ve become very nervous, especially in the wake of Anne Arundel’s dust-ups over the past couple of years. There is no winning. Even Justin Berk was off today.

I went out for lunch and grocery shopping and Lil was biking this afternoon. The rain we had actually aided in the snow melt.

One of my friends is a teacher and suggested that the days off are not the only problem. It’s putting the additional days all at the end of year. If you are taking a one-semester class and miss all six days at the end of the first semester class, but add them to the end of the second semester class that had no skipped days, what is the point?

My revised answer to the second question is this: I would like to challenge the Calendar Committee to consider this marking period question. This has been a problem for a few years, so let’s be creative with the ideas. Let’s discuss this with open minds and the knowledge that compromise will not suit everyone.

And if I hear word of anybody doing the inside-out PJs thing to wish for another snow day, well, I’m dropping off my kid and her friends at your house for the snow day!

*I got mocked for that score because all you need is a 75. And I wasn’t doing government or tax accounting. We accountants are an odd bunch.

 

 

Disappointment

This post was originally going to be about my admiration for the two Mount Hebron HS students who testified in front of the Board of Education last night. Two students of color – African-American & Southeast Asian-American – requested that the Board assure the FY2017 budget includes funds for additional classes in non-European studies. They testified that learning about other cultures might prevent incidents like the racist rant from their classmate. (You may remember I wrote about this recently.) This came on the heels of a peaceful protest earlier in the day.

Then I checked my Twitter feed this morning.

The African-American student that spread the video to his/her friends to expose the racism has been suspended. For creating a disruption evidently. I suppose it’s this phrase in the bullying policy – “substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a school.” Punishing the initial “spreader” of the video seems an overreaction or misreading of that particular language.

What do you think? There is a PTSA meeting tonight at Mount Hebron.