Monday, September 29, 2008

The Food Stamp Challenge: Reflections


Well, I made it through the week and survived the Food Stamp Challenge. Interestingly, it was a very busy week and I don't know if that made it harder or easier - I was probably hungrier, but had actually had less time to think about food.

It was a little touch and go on Friday when I had an off-site staff meeting and afterwords everyone wanted to go Panera for lunch. I accompanied them and figured I would use my remaining $1.12 to buy a small soda. When I got to the front of the line during the lunch time rush and told the cashier that I only wanted a small soda, he looked at me quizzicially and just gave me a cup without charging me for it! Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

I finished the week with a handful of spaghetti, some sauce, three eggs and a little bit of lettuce - not much to build on for the next week. The biggest lesson that became even clearer to me is the difficulty of eating well while trying to eat cheaply. It's easy to understand why someone would purchase something like "Sunny-D" to drink rather than real juice: it costs about half as much, but has little nutritional value.

The same is true for bread. You can spend $2.29 for whole wheat, or 99 cents for a larger loaf of white bread with less nutritional value. Fruits and vegetables are a story unto themsleves. Wow! You would be lucky to have one or two pieces of fresh fruit a day -- well below what is suggested to be healthy.

I found the experience to be very rewarding, and eye-opening. It was also a great educational tool for my daughters. I am blessed that I don't have to live this way every week, but right now -- and, unfortunately, even when the economy is good -- there are far too many for whom this is how they live. In a nation as prosperous as ours, we can and must do more make sure no one goes hungry.

On a lighter note, there was great concern at the soccer fields on Saturday that the whole family was undertaking the Food Stamp Challenge, and many of the parents of my daughters teammates were offering to take my girls home so they could have a good meal!

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Food Stamp Challenge, Day 5

As we close in on the end of the seven day challenge, here's my menu from yesterday:

Breakfast -- a bowl of cereal with milk, and a glass of concentrated orange juice.

Lunch -- a turkey sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread with a bit of turkey and gobs of lettuce) and a banana.

Dinner -- spaghetti with sauce, and a glass of milk.

As I mentioned yesterday, my supply of sliced turkey is running dangerously low, so my sandwiches have become thick with lettuce, thin on the meat.

Today I'm on the run, and . . . well, I didn't pack a lunch this morning, so I'm going to have to wing it. Perhaps the $1.12 I had left over from my grocery shopping can be put to use today. I'll let you know.

The final day of the Food Stamp Challenge is tomorrow. On Monday, I'll let you know what I ate, and give you some final thoughts on the challenge.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Food Stamp Challenge, Day 4

Here's the menu for yesterday.

Breakfast -- a bowl of cereal with milk, and a glass of concentrated orange juice.

Lunch -- a turkey sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread with a few slices of turkey and lettuce) and a banana.

Dinner -- scrambled eggs and toast, with a glass of orange juice.

Because of last night's Town Hall meeting, I once again didn't make it home for dinner until after 10:00 p.m. Rather than eat an egg sandwich, as I had planned, I decided instead to have scrambled eggs with toast. Same ingredients, different format, I suppose.

Anyway, here's what's left in my pantry for the remaining three days (that's today, tomorrow, and Saturday): I've got seven eggs left, 2/3 of a box of spaghetti, half a can of sauce, and half a loaf of bread. I made my first can of frozen juice last until yesterday, and opened the second (and last) can for dinner last night.

That's not too bad, I suppose -- but my milk is almost gone, my remaining bananas are going brown, and I've only got a bit of sliced turkey left, which means my lunch sandwiches for the rest of the week will be heavy on the lettuce, light on the meat.

We'll see how I do. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Food Stamp Challenge, Day 3

Here's my menu from yesterday. And I hope you notice it looks quite a bit like my menu from the past two days.

Breakfast -- a bowl of cereal with milk, and a glass of concentrated orange juice.

Lunch -- a turkey sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread with a few slices of turkey and lettuce) and a banana. Water to drink.

Dinner -- A bowl of bean soup and a glass of milk

Once again, given my schedule, I didn't eat dinner until after 10:00 p.m. While breakfast and lunch have been the same, I'm trying to mix things up a bit for dinner, rotating between spaghetti, soup, and egg sandwiches. But my meals have become incredibly utilitarian -- they're all purpose, and no pleasure. As such, you don't necessarily look forward to dinner in the way you might anticipate a pot roast that's been cooking all day, or savor a steaming plate of Mexican food. It's simply A Meal, doing its job.

Oh, and thanks, I did manage to land a larger water cup.

For more stories, vist the Manna Food Stamp Challenge Blog here. There was also a story in the Gazette, which you can read by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Food Stamp Challenge, Day 2

As I noted yesterday, variety is not an option when you're living within a tight budget. My meals yesterday consisted of the following:

Breakfast -- a bowl of cereal with milk, and a glass of concentrated orange juice.

Lunch -- a turkey sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread with a few slices of turkey and some lettuce) and a banana.

Dinner -- a fried egg sandwich on wheat bread, and a banana

The main question I'm getting is: are you hungry? And the answer is: Not yet. That's probably because I've been busy during the day, running from one meeting to another, and I had to work late enough last night that I didn't eat until I got home at 10 p.m. That sort of schedule tends to take your mind off food -- but only until I get home and settle down.

At that point, the mind tends to drift, and temptation starts to tap you on the shoulder. But when you're on a budget, there's really no such thing as leftovers. I can't afford to snack on what I've got left in the fridge, or I might run out before the end of the week, leaving me with an empty fridge and empty stomach by Saturday morning.

To the surprise of my staff, giving up my regular Mountain Dew habit hasn't been difficult. I'm drinking more and more water now, which is probably a good thing. My main quest now is for a bigger cup.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Food Stamp Challenge, Day 1

After a much too long hiatus, I am back in the blogosphere. This week, I'm undertaking an activity that I hope will bring attention to an issue that we're all dealing with during this difficult economy: how to feed yourself and your family while food prices continue to rise and your income doesn't.

Manna Food Center is sponsoring the Food Stamp Challenge and asking people to see what it's like to live on food purchased for no more than $25 a week, which is roughly the equivalent of what an individual who is eligible for food stamps receives each week. I'll try to provide an update each day and let you know how I am doing -- although as you'll see, the menu won't vary much from day to day.

On Sunday morning, my two daughters and I went shopping to see if we could at least accomplish the first part of the challenge -- to get groceries for the week for less than $25. Here's our list:

16oz can of Hunt's Meat Spaghetti Sauce - $1.20
2 cans of Dole frozen orange/pineapple juice -$1.69 each
Malt O' Meal Raisin Bran - $2.50
1 loaf of wheat bread - $2.39
1 dozen eggs - $1.89
1/2 lb. smoked turkey breast - $3.17
1 head of iceberg lettuce - $1.79
1 gallon skim milk - $3.99
7 bananas at .58/lb. - $1.48
1 16oz box thin spaghetti - $1.00
1 can bean with bacon soup - $1.09
Total: $23.88

This leaves me $1.12 in case of an emergency as the week progresses.

Sunday's meals consisted of,

Breakfast - 2 scrambled eggs and 1 piece of toast and juice
Dinner - Spaghetti, two pieces of bread, a small salad of iceberg lettuce, and a glass of milk

By way of just a little background on Food Stamps and Manna Food Center.

Manna Food Center (and many other similar organizations) provide food for the hungry in Montgomery County. Each month Manna feeds 2,400 hungry families in our County and each week provides meals for 600 elementary school children. Manna's website is

Food stamps are a supplemental food program for low-income persons and families. You can find information on the Manna Food Center website, but generally to be eligible an individual's gross monthly income cannot exceed $1,037 or $12,444 per year, and a family of four's gross monthly income cannot exceed $2,097 or $25,164. If you meet this criteria, then a single is eligible for $152 per month, and a family of four can receive $506 per month.

The first observations that I would make are that it is very time consuming to try and figure out what you can purchase for $25 that can provide enough for food for the week, but even harder is trying to do it in a way that is healthy. My youngest daughter is concerned about what happens if I run out of food mid-week, and has offered to sneak me some food if it becomes a desperate situation. It's good to have someone looking out for me - everyone should be so lucky.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Apologies, I haven't had much of a chance to post anything lately as the Council worked to conclude its actions on the FY2009 budget. To make up for it, this will be a little longer than normal. But bear with me, I think you might find it of some interest. As you may have read in The Washington Post or the The Gazette, the County Council hit a few bumps in the road as we came down the homestretch -- so I thought I'd provide you with insights on what worked and what didn't as we worked to wrap things up.

As kind of a quick re-cap, the County Executive sends his budget recommendations to the council on the 15th of March. After that, the council holds public hearings and then starts committee work sessions on the individual departments and agencies in April. In May, we move to full council deliberation on the departments and agencies. This year, we were scheduled to take final action on the budget on May 22. As always, we scheduled a "straw" vote -- or tentative approval -- the week before the final vote, so that council staff can work with the County Executive's staff to make sure all of the numbers add up and that all of the details are correct.

It was during this straw vote process that things started to slowly erode.

As is often the case, individual councilmembers have specific issues that are important to them during the budget process. This year it became clear early on that because a number of our revenue sources had declined (the recordation and transfer taxes, and the income taxes), we would likely need to increase use of property taxes. That, in turn, would likely mean exceeding the Charter limit.

As a result, a number of councilmembers had indicated that they would like to scale back the cost of living allowances (COLAs) for our county employees and have some element of employee participation to balance the increase in property taxes. There were two other important elements that councilmembers identified: (1) reinstating some of our core services that the County Executive had proposed reducing (i.e. community policing, fire and rescue services to name a couple) and (2) reducing the property tax increase proposed by the County Executive.

Interestingly, as the council proceeded through April and May, everyone did a pretty good job of not adding too much back into the budget. And so, as the full council adopted the various elements of the budget there was general agreement . . . until the week of the straw vote.

The tussles began on Wednesday, May 14. On the table was a proposal to reduce employee COLA's by $40 million, which would have resulted in reducing COLAs by about 40-50%. That was voted down by a vote of 6 to 2, in a boisterous work-session with about 300 county employees in attendance. While there was no other motion made, there was a clear split in the council, with some councilmembers seeking some contribution to the budget from county employees, and others not wanting to break the negotiated contracts with our employees.

The next day -- Thursday, May 15 -- the council proceeded to the straw vote. Given the way the votes had fallen so far, there had been no huge disagreements. So, as Council President, I made a motion to approve the overall budget - usually a formality at that point - and it went down on a 4-4 tie.

Houston, we have a problem.

As I indicated a little earlier, this budget would exceed the Charter Limit -- and as such, it required an affirmative vote of seven councilmembers to pass. Remember, because of the passing of the Councilmember Praisner earlier this year, there are only eight councilmembers; therefore, I needed to have seven of eight councilmembers in agreement in order for Montgomery County to have a budget for the next fiscal year which begins on July 1. A 4-4 split is a long way from that endpoint.

So, at about the time we should have been celebrating a successful resolution to a difficult budget season, the council adjourned until 9:00 a.m. Friday morning, May 16, and all of the councilmembers retired to their respective offices with no clear way to achieve resolution. This was about 4:00 p.m. on Thursday.

Eventually, councilmembers began to knock on each other's office doors, making tentative inquiries about what each might need in order to approve a final budget. Before we had adjourned, Council Vice President Phil Andrews had proposed looking at including two furlough days (effectively two days when County government would close down) in the budget, for an estimated savings of about $20 million dollars. This became the starting point for conversation, but by 6:00 p.m., there was no real consensus on what such a proposal might look like.

One councilmember ordered pizza, and people started to emerge from their offices. With no clear end in sight, a few councilmembers went to other events. Soon it was 7:00 p.m., and no progress had yet been made -- but there was one factor out there -- the fact that we would be in session 14 hours later, at 9:00 a.m., to debate these issues in Council session. That likely wouldn't be pretty.

Shortly after 7:00 p.m., then, I started talking with one councilmember about trying to figure out different ways to reduce $20 million in spending that could get some votes. We looked at one furlough day -- to save about $10 million -- and another $10 million in reductions from the current reconciliation list. As we looked at some other variations on that theme, a third councilmember came in, and the three of us continued the brainstorming.

Things were starting to turn. Shortly thereafter, a fourth councilmember came in and said he and a few other councilmembers had reached roughly the same conclusion that we had: a proposal that would reduce property taxes by $20 million and require savings in MCPS and Montgomery County government in the area of employee costs, but would do so without breaking existing contracts with our employees.

All of a sudden we went from a 4-4 split to five members in agreement -- but that was still a long way from the seven we needed. The phone calls started, and by 9:00 p.m., we had general tentative agreement of seven councilmembers. Then we had to put it in writing.

I stayed until about midnight on Thursday, putting the final touches in place and calling the County Executive, members of the Board of Education, the MCPS Superintendent, and the representatives of our employee organizations to discuss our agreement. I was well aware that if anyone had a big problem with what was tentatively proposed, it would be very easy for two councilmembers to stop the budget. But after my round of calls and conversations, I felt certain we were on our way to an agreement.

I got to the office at about 8:00 on Friday morning, and things were still going pretty well -- but as councilmembers drifted in, there were still a number of questions about the specific language, the final numbers, and how the property tax reduction would be shown. As 9:00 a.m. approached -- the time we were to go back into session -- calls continued to come in, and more questions arose. Councilmembers kept talking and the clock kept ticking.

Finally, it appeared that everything was okay, and the council slid into session at 9:45 a.m. After a fair amount of deliberation and discussion, the council tentatively approved the FY09 operating budget for Montgomery County an hour later. We had our budget.

I'll go through the details of what is actually in the budget in my next blog, but I thought this story might be more interesting for starters.

My thanks to all for their hard work on the budget!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Whirlwind

Well. I've been called out by some bloggers for not being informal enough. It would seem that some in the blogsphere want to really know what's really going on behind the scenes -- so far behind the scenes, in fact, that apparently my breakfast choices are of interest to some. So, here goes...

Typically, my day begins at 6:00 a.m. with about an hour of exercise -- weight-lifting or some type aerobic activity, such as running or the elliptical trainer. Afterwards, I either have breakfast at home (cereal with fruit, juice and a vitamin pill), or at a meeting with constituents or community leaders, usually at the Panera Bread at Falls Grove or the Broadway Diner. I generally arrive at the office between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. to attend a morning meeting, or to make some constituent calls.

If it's Monday or Thursday, there’s usually a committee meeting from 9:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. -- and on Mondays I also have a weekly press briefing at 11:30 a.m., which can last 30 minutes to an hour. During the months when the General Assembly is meeting, the County Council attends a State Legislative update from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. This leaves time for another quick meeting, then it’s back to committee meetings from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. or so. If the committee session doesn't go too long, we'll squeeze in a quick staff meeting. Then it’s one more meeting in the office, then home for a quick dinner before heading out for a community meeting by 7:00 p.m. or so. And it’s still only Monday.

Tuesdays have a rhythm of their own, since it’s the day the Council meets as a full body. Once a month we begin at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. with a breakfast meeting with the County Executive so we can swap notes about what's going on. The council then goes into session at 9:30 a.m. and the morning session usually concludes at about 12:30 p.m., at which time I meet with the council scheduler to review the schedule for the remainder of the week, as well as next week's agenda. We're then back in session at 1:30 p.m. for public hearings, and we resume full council session from about 2:00 until 4:30 p.m., depending upon what's on the agenda. This leaves a little time for some quick meetings until about 5:30 p.m., when I leave to take my daughter to swim team practice. I have to get back to the council for evening public hearings which begin at 7:30 p.m., and are usually on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Wednesdays have a high degree of variability, since there is usually nothing formally scheduled for the council on this day except during our budget deliberations. This is the day I try to get in some hours for my biotech consulting practice, but I find that often doesn’t happen because there are many other informal council activities that occur. The council staff meets at 9:00 a.m. and I try to attend those meetings at least a few times each month. The Council of Governments (that I chair this year) and the Transportation Planning Board also meet in DC that day. It can also be a good day to go to Annapolis to check in with our delegates and senators about legislation affecting our county. That makes Wednesday one of the craziest days of the week, but I still make every effort to have a quick dinner with my family, attend an evening meeting, and coach my daughter's third grade basketball team.

As for Thursday . . . well, see my description of Monday, just above. It's pretty much the same.

Friday is the catch all day -- it includes cleaning up what didn't get done earlier in the week, and attempting to get in those hours at my other job that I didn't get done on Wednesday. It’s also another good day to visit Annapolis, and there are usually a number of meetings that didn't fit in earlier in the week that I try to get to on Friday afternoons.

As for my weekends . . . well, they’ve actually been fairly quiet so far this year, with only a couple of events each on Saturdays and Sundays. For the most part, these are the best times for me to attend my daughters' swim meets, soccer games, and basketball games. I even get to do a little yard work.

I don't know if this is the type of peek I'm supposed to be providing, but as a novice blogger, I welcome your feedback and hope that at the end of the day this makes a part of your government and community a little more accessible.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March Madness

I know: given the name of this blog, of course I would take the opportunity to write about the upcoming basketball tournament, right? Well, that is only part of the reason for today’s theme. There are many forms of madness taking place this March and I just wanted to note a few.

This week begins the public discussion of Montgomery County’s budget as we attempt to determine the appropriate balance of services to be provided with revenues required. It won’t be easy, and yet there are many challenges that exist for many during this month.

The General Assembly in Annapolis is in its final thirty days and the same economic challenges confronting us in the County are clearly in play throughout our State and so the final push is on. The elementary and middle school students in our state are all busily preparing for the Maryland State Assessments. We are all working on filing our taxes in April and hoping that rebate that we might be eligible for in May will be more than what we will owe in April. A number of our region’s student athletes are indeed in the midst of the trademarked March Madness – Coppin State, Mt. St. Mary’s, American University, Georgetown and George Mason on the men’s side of the ledger and we know Coppin State has also qualified for the women’s side and we’ll know the rest later this week. Finally, as the economy continues to struggle, many of us are working hard at just getting by.

The point is that the County Council will be working hard during the next couple of months to formulate the best balanced budget we can for the residents of our County and that will be important and time consuming, but there are many other important issues in each of our lives and we need to keep the right perspective.

Friday, February 29, 2008

About Budgets

In 2003, during my first six months after having just been elected to the County Council, the County was facing a budget shortfall not unlike what we are facing this year. I was still learning about all of the departments, and programs that the County administered for its residents and so it was difficult to get a good handle on the magnitude of the problem. Then County Executive, Doug Duncan, submitted his budget as required in March, and the Council went through all of the budget hearings and committee worksessions. As a new councilmember, I was looking for the "rules" and the "right numbers" (revenue projections and actual expenditures) that would clearly identify the problem as well as some of the potential solutions. Well, things came to a head as the "numbers" continued to show a gap that had to be closed in order for the Council to pass a balanced budget.

The Saturday before the budget needed to be passed, everyone was scrambling and I was attending a friend's wedding and talking on the phone in the vestibule of the church with then Council President, Mike Subin, and the leaders of unions as they discussed a four month delay in their employee's COLAs (cost of living increases). This, in addition to a series of program reductions and tax increases, helped bring everything together and a budget was passed that next week. About a month later, the County received the next income tax distribution from the State, which was higher than anticipated, and it turned out that the "right numbers" weren't that right at all -- and a lot of the issues that we were scrambling to fix in the closing minutes of the budget didn't necessarily need to be as contentious as they were.

I write this because there has been a lot of discussion about the budget difficulties that we will face this year. Make no mistake about it -- this will be a difficult budget year. I wanted to share my reflections from 2003 because it very clearly pointed out to me that there are many variables that need to be taken into account and that a search for the "right numbers" may not be as successful as some would hope. There are no "rules" that exist to be followed except broad guidance in the County Charter, and some policy guidelines that have evolved over time. Addressing this year's budget issues will require everyone (taxpayers, employees, stakeholders, elected officials, and many others) talking to each other and working together to get to a sustainable budget outcome. The quest for perfect information is elusive. The best we will ever be able to achieve is a snapshot in time. If we all recognize that we are working together and sharing whatever information is available to achieve the best possible outcome, then I have no doubt we will be successful on behalf of our residents

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Off To The Races

Sorry to everyone for the recent hiatus. As you can probably imagine, the past few weeks have been pretty hectic for the Council, and it’s taken a bit of time to address a number of important issues. As you all surely know by now, Councilmember Marilyn Praisner passed away on February 1st and her Council colleagues (both Councilmembers and staff) have been struggling to deal with this tragic event. My colleagues and I have all made many public statements, and the Council held a tribute with her family and former Councilmembers last week. There’s not much more I can add here that would be new or more fitting, apart to tell you that everyone appreciates the kind words we’re hearing from those who knew or appreciated Marilyn, and everyone is still working to get through a difficult, sad time.

Change is difficult for most people and the Council is certainly no exception—and when you add the spice of politics to the mix, things can become interesting fast. While Councilmembers are coping with the loss of a colleague—and running the gamut of emotions that come with such a loss—there are still a number of administrative things that have to happen—and under county charter, have to happen quickly.

First, we had to figure out how to conduct a special election. That sounds fairly straightforward, and county law lays out some timelines on when such elections are permitted to occur. The problem is, we don’t usually have special elections, and things become even more difficult when one realizes that we as a county don’t actually own or control our voting machines—the State of Maryland does. Further, since we’re already in an election year, we can't really take advantage of other previously scheduled elections! Not only can we not schedule a special election the same day as a previously-scheduled election, but we have to give those same elections a fairly wide berth—as many as 30 days on either side of a previously-scheduled election.

That’s already a fairly inflexible calendar to work with. Now add to it the competing voices of those pushing for an election as quickly as possible—to fill the seat sooner rather than later—and those who would like to go slowly, to give candidates and voters more time to get to know each other. Then there’s the Council’s schedule—much of it defined by law—that requires us to continue working on county budgets and planning board appointments, with little regard to the timing of elections. As is often the case, logistics tend to prevail, and in spite of many of the issues I just identified, we usually end up with a solution that still works pretty well.

In this case, the special primary election will be held Tuesday, April 15, and the special general election will occur a month later, on Tuesday, May 13. More information can be found on the Council’s main page, or by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Staff of Life (and the Life of Staff)

When someone gets elected to the County Council, it becomes very clear to them very quickly that there is no way they can effectively represent the needs of their constituents without a lot of help. Remember, in the County Council there are five district councilmembers who represent specific geographic areas in the County and four at-large councilmembers who are elected County-wide. So, district councilmembers represent about 200,000 people and at-large councilmembers represent nearly 1 million people! As you might imagine, that many people have a lot of important issues that need to be addressed, and we could spend all of our time just going to meetings, and returning phone calls. While individual councilmembers may set the tone for how they address issues, or interact with their constituents, the staff that we have in our offices allow us to really get things done.

There are two categories of staff who work at the County Council. There is the permanent council staff, affectionately referred to as the "Fifth Floor," because most of their offices are on the fifth floor of the Council Office Building (COB). This staff covers analysis of specific issue areas for all Councilmembers, handle the Council's administrative activities (i.e. scheduling, preparation of packets for Councilmembers and the public, etc.) and generally make sure the Council operates on a daily basis. The Fifth Floor staff generally outlast the terms of specific Councilmembers and provide the institutional perspective for County policy.

The second category of staff are the staff members who work in individual Councilmember offices. Each Councilmember has an individual office budget and hires administrative and policy staff as they deem appropriate within the constraints of their budget. While staffing varies from office to office, each councilmember generally has 4 - 5 staff members. One position, the oddly named Confidential Aide position, is mandated in the County Charter and basically serves in the capacity as chief of staff for each Councilmember's office. Other positions can include administrative support, policy analysts, constituent case-workers, and communications. Although in most offices the lines between these specific positions is usually blurred and everyone chips in to get the job done depending upon the issue.

Without the support of the Fifth Floor staff, and the staff in each of our individual council offices there is no way that Councilmembers could ever meet the needs of the residents of our County and we are grateful for their assistance and support. While Councilmembers run for office and generally recognize the changes that will occur in their life if they win, our staff can generally be impacted by many of the same changes although they may not recognize it right away. One of the things that our staff works very hard to do is to maintain some semblance of a life away from their efforts on our behalf at the Council and I continue to be amazed at some of their undertakings.

Currently on the Council staff we have a newly published author (Brian Jay Jones on my staff who has just completed a biography of Washington Irving), an entrepreneur who owns and operates a clothing boutique, a budding Texas Hold'em poker player who is not quite ready for the World Series of Poker, but is close, a Park Ranger, the chair of the Commission for Women, students working on various college degrees, a number of political activists at the state and national level, a number of very proud parents and grandparents and many community volunteers and advocates.

The Councilmembers may actually vote and establish the County's laws and policies, but it is our staff who provide the effort to make us successful representing the residents of our County. It is important to remember all of the other folks on the fifth and sixth floor of the COB who often work behind the scenes on behalf of our County and who are all amazingly accomplished in their own right and excel everyday -- without them none of us get very far.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hit the Ground Running

Our launch last week went well, and I thank you for your positive and constructive comments. Keep on writing! I'm sorry that the county's current template for blogs doesn't yet allow for readers to post comments just below mine -- but if you click on the envelope icon at the bottom of this entry, you'll be able to send an e-mail whizzing directly to my inbox. By all means, e-mail away!

It has been an eye-opening couple of months to be an elected representative. As a public official, I find that there are many hospital visits, memorial services, calling hours, and funerals that I must attend. Each of these events reminds you of the frailty of human life, and the amazing significance that each of us can have in the world.

As most of you know, two of my colleagues had significant accidents that required extended hospitalization and medical care. I am pleased that both Marilyn Praisner and George Leventhal continue to make tremendous improvement and that both will be back with us when the Council reconvenes this week. I am also saddened that our State has lost two legislative leaders during the past two months. Delegate Jane Lawton passed this past November, and many of us have been mourning her loss. And now, just this past weekend, Senator Britt from Prince George's County also passed away. As we begin this New Year, we must remember how important it is for us to do as much as we can with each day and to thank those around us for all they do.

This week the Council goes back into session, and it promises to be an interesting time. We start out our day on Tuesday walking across the street to the County Executive's office where he will provide us with his recommendations for our bi-annual Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The Council is looking forward to seeing the Executive's priorities, and then beginning the process of public hearings and review. There will be many points of interest, but one worthy of note is that Montgomery County will likely spend approximately $265 million next year for the Montgomery County Public Schools capital budget, while the Maryland General Assembly will likely approve just $300 million in capital funding for schools for the entire state! Just something to keep in mind if you have a chance to interact with your state delegate or senator!

Once we receive the capital budget, the Council will go into session with three big issues. First, we will get an update from our public safety officials and Verizon about why calls weren't getting through to our 911 system one day in December. This is a critically important issue since this happened twice in a three month period; clearly we need to get this resolved quickly and effectively.

Second, we will receive a briefing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission recommendations to close Walter Reed and move most of its activities to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Obviously, this shift will have a huge impact on downtown Bethesda, and Navy isn't recommending sufficient funds for us to provide adequate access to a world-class medical for our nation's veterans.

Finally, the Council will review the County Executive's recommended budget reductions for this current fiscal year. A number of councilmembers have real concerns about the recommended reductions impact on public safety and services for some of our most vulnerable populations. And that's just the morning agenda!

Later in afternoon, the Council will hear two zoning cases, and we will conclude the day with an evening public hearing on development districts -- a resolution to eliminate the development district in Clarksburg and legislation that will refine and strengthen the development district law. It's gonna be a busy first day and week, with some very important issues impacting many of our residents. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kicking Off "The Socks"

I’d like to welcome you to my inaugural posting on “Starting with the Socks.” I know the name appears a bit unusual, but it’s really a simple concept. It comes from the great former UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Each year at the first practice of basketball season, he would sit down with his entire team – even if they were all seniors who had played for him before – and would teach them the proper way to put on their socks. His thought was this: it would be very difficult for any of his players to play basketball well, or at all, if something happened to their feet, causing blisters or turned ankles. So, one of the simplest ways to avoid this problem was to ensure that his team knew how to do the simple but often overlooked things well, like putting on their socks. If the simple issues were adequately addressed, then the more complex challenges could be tackled.

In government, business, and our personal lives we tend to forget that if we don’t do the simple things well, it‘s virtually impossible to handle the harder tasks. It is my goal through this blog to focus on the basic things that we in government need to address – and first and foremost is our need to communicate. I hope to share some insights with you about what’s going on in government that may be of interest to you, and I want to listen to the perspectives that you may have to share. We live in a great community and I want to make sure that we’re all working together to continue to make it better. And we can do that by getting the simple things right.

The County Council has been in recess since December 14 and will reconvene on January 15. Most people assume that recess equates to vacation – and sure enough, it does give some of us on the council an opportunity to reconnect with our families and friends. However, it is also a time to focus on items that we may not have time to address throughout the year. For example, this past week three councilmembers were volunteering for Presidential candidates in the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire. Three other councilmembers were attending the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) Winter Meeting in an effort to build better relationships with elected officials in our neighboring jurisdictions, and to better understand the issues that will be coming before the General Assembly when it convenes later this week.

One of the biggest issues that has required our attention is a possible budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1, 2008. According to the assumptions in the County’s current fiscal plan, it appears that we could be facing a shortfall of nearly $400 million, or about 10% of this year’s budget. It is important to remember that the fiscal plan is based on a number of assumptions which can change as the year progresses, but we need to be prudent and prepare ourselves.

As a result, the County Executive has recommended certain budget reductions in our current budget in order to help save some money for next year. Councilmembers have been reviewing the County Executive’s recommendations and we have submitted a series of questions clarifying some of what has been proposed. We will then review, refine, modify and ultimately approve a resolution on these proposed reductions when we return on January 15. While it is important to be prudent, we must also be careful about not damaging programs where we have great need or where significant progress is being made – I am particularly concerned about police, fire and rescue, and some of our programs in health and human services.

We must also be mindful of what is happening in the General Assembly when it convenes on January 9. During the special session of the legislature this past Fall, the Governor was directed to reduce State spending by $550million. The Governor will present his proposed budget—with these reductions—to the General Assembly on January 15. We need to work with our legislators to ensure that Montgomery County isn’t further impacted by significant reductions in funding that we receive from the State.

On a more positive note, difficult fiscal times can really force us to make sure that our programs and services are working as efficiently and effectively as possible. Too often we get caught in the trap of saying that a program is successful because we have provided a lot of funding for it, but we forget to check and see if it is meeting the needs of the people it is serving. This gives us a real opportunity to make sure our programs are really working.
Well, this is probably enough to get us started. I hope that you will take the time to share your perspectives with me, and I'll continue to provide a glimpse into what the County Council is up to, and how we can all make Montgomery County better simply by "starting with the socks."