Monday, July 16, 2012

Opposing APFO revisions

I am a product of public schools. From my time at Chesapeake Terrace Elementary to my undergraduate study at St. Mary’s College, I was enrolled in public educational institutions. So I was pleased, but not surprised, to see on this week’s Record-Observer front page a headline that read: “County Schools Still Among Top In State.”

I do not believe that bigger education budgets automatically mean better education. Several counties in Maryland spend far more per pupil than Queen Anne’s and yet do not get the results we achieve. One can also look to the expense of public colleges versus that of private institutions; the difference in costs is a wide one, but after real world experience with colleagues from both sides of the public/private divide, I can see no obvious differences in the quality of education one receives, and certainly not a big enough difference to justify the price gap.

While there is no quid pro quo between funding and quality public education, municipalities have to spend something on schools and education, the trick is finding the balance. If articles like the one referenced above are any indication, perhaps Queen Anne’s County has found that balance, as we educate our children better, and for less money, than just about any other jurisdiction in the state. In Queen Anne’s County, from the standpoint of a price/earnings ratio, education spending appears to be a good investment.

Yet cash-strapped localities full of politicians loathe to raise taxes are often longing to wring more savings from the school system. But there is certainly a hazard in attempting to be too cheap, and the risk inherent in attempting to find the place where the teeter may totter is to court disaster. To try and put an educational system back on track after it has suffered severe financial, morale and performance setbacks would likely cost far more, both from financial and educational perspectives, than any reductions in spending ever saved. 

Currently Queen Anne’s County has a robust provision, known as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) that requires every proposed new development above a certain size to assess its impact on schools, roads, and emergency services. The APFO covers several public sectors, but for the sake of this blog, let’s focus on the schools provision of the ordinance. 

If local schools are at one hundred percent capacity, then the APFO requires the developer in question to add the capacity necessary to accommodate the proposed growth. If the developer is unable or unwilling to mitigate the burden of his/her development on the county’s school system, rather than passing that burden along to the county, the development cannot progress.

The fact that the APFO exists at all serves as an official nod that residential growth would not otherwise cover the costs of educating the children it brings to the county.   

The APFO is the essence of good government. It serves as an insurance policy for those who already call the county home, seeking as it does to protect them from degradations in the quality of the government services they currently receive, as well as from costly increases in tax bills brought on by growth that does not pay for itself. 

Three of the five current county commissioners have suggested eviscerating the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, in order to pave the way for more growth. This short-sighted notion is the opposite of good government. Instead it is amateurish financial management, the same type of Wild West, ‘if it feels good do it’ mismanagement that has gotten Wall Street fat cats into so much trouble lately. Reducing the effectiveness of the APFO is a Ponzi scheme that promises big returns on behalf of county taxpayers, but in the end leaves them holding the bill. 

The changes that the three commissioners are seeking to make to the APFO would raise the capacity threshold on schools from 100% to 130%. That means that if Queen Anne’s County High School were over-crowded, at let’s say, 110% capacity, a development could be proposed that would add significantly to the already over-extended school system and it would be given the APFO green-light. The suggested changes to the APFO are recipe for school over-crowding and a reduction in the quality of education our kids can expect to receive.

Remember the delicate balance we seek to achieve with our education funding? Well, obliterating the APFO would throw the scales way off kilter. Because as it would add to the school’s rolls without increasing the ability of the schools to educate these new kids, changing the APFO is in fact no different than a further cut in school funding. Think of the impacts of reduced education dollars: larger classes, fewer teachers teaching more children, teachers teaching outside of their areas of expertise, more stress placed on physical facilities, more classes held in trailers. These are precisely the same impacts that an alteration in the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance would have on the school system.

In November the tax-paying citizens of Queen Anne’s County can take a stand in support of good government. New development has costs to the county, and the APFO as it’s currently written seeks in some small measure to account for those costs. Burying our collective heads in the sand, and pretending that new growth has no meaningful costs, and is always good for the county and her citizens is financial irresponsibility run amok. In November, support lower taxes and better schools, support the current APFO and oppose any attempts to weaken this protection for taxpayers and students.        

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Big Box Bamboozle

On Tuesday morning, July 10, 2012 the citizens of Queen Anne’s County are going to be hoodwinked by three of their very own elected representatives. 

Last summer the commissioners passed ordinance 11-06 which eliminated the 65,000 square foot limitation on retail establishments built in the ‘suburban commercial’ zone. This amendment was aimed, none too subtly, at opening the county’s door to ‘big box’ development, or, less euphemistically, Wal-Mart and Home Depot style retail. Some applauded the decision, others decried the decision. One half of that equation, a group composed of concerned small business owners, farmland conservationists, community activists and just plain folks started a petition to put the ordinance on the November ballot. 

That ordinance 11-06 only eliminated the square footage limitation on suburban commercial sites, and that it was assumed there were only a handful of these sites in the entire county suitable for large retail development, didn’t slow the effort. Dozens of people set aside other priorities, and set out to gather signatures. There is nothing pleasant about going door to door, or standing out in front of a grocery store, but important issues always seem to motivate people. Thousands of signatures came in, a series of strict Board of Elections deadlines were met, and the issue of the 65,000 square foot building limitation in the suburban commercial zone is going to be on the ballot this November.

But this issue has never been about a change in the zoning regulations. It has never been about whether those few specific locations might be suitable for big box development or whether the county commissioners should even be considering what amounts to a personal and largely speculative appeal from a single landowner who stands to profit handsomely from the ordinance. No, this issue, this successful ballot initiative drive has only ever been about what the people of Queen Anne’s County want their future to look like.

In hindsight, it looks peculiarly like the targeted effort to remove the square foot limitation in suburban commercial was a move aimed at deception, a strategic diversion meant to occupy the opposition while the weapon of choice was prepared. That weapon, ordinance 12-11 is scheduled to be launched tomorrow morning from the second floor of the Liberty Building in Centreville.

12-11 would remove the 65,000 square foot limitation from town center and urban commercial sites; a far more sweeping change to the county’s zoning codes. Whereas the suburban commercial amendment would not have impacted Kent Island at all, 12-11 would open a wide swath of the island to big box development, essentially the entire route 50/18 corridor and the towns of Stevensville, Chester, and Grasonville.

It has become clear that the suburban commercial amendment was a Trojan horse, aimed at snaring those various opponents of large, Western Shore and Easton style development in a long, arduous, and time-consuming battle. The hope of Business Queen Anne’s, and Commissioners Arentz, Dumenil and Olds was that the effort required for an undertaking such as a ballot initiative would exhaust those “pesky no-growthers” that the special interest commissioners have come to abhor. The strategy was simply, lose the battle on suburban commercial, and win the war on 12-11. But the commissioners have probably underestimated the vigor with which the concerned citizens of the county will fight to protect their neighborhoods from Wal-Mart. And they are clearly up to the task.  

But it should not come to that, because the issue will settle itself this November. That vote, when it happens, will not be about zoning code minutiae, but rather will be on the much broader implications of adding more development to a Kent Island and Queen Anne’s County that many already consider overdeveloped. The county commissioners should not play this game of semantics on Tuesday by approving ordinance 12-11. They should not perform this end around on the comprehensive plan and on the people of Queen Anne’s County. The commissioners should not vote on 12-11 tomorrow, but instead dare to let the vote on November 6 stand as the people’s voice on this matter.         

Monday, July 02, 2012

Unequal Protection

Like a white-haired volcano, Dave Olds sits in his plush chair behind the commissioner's dais ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. His reputation as a hot-headed bombast of little substance precedes him and many, friend and foe alike, openly consider him to be the least cerebral, and least effective, member of the Queen Anne's County Board of Commissioners. For the most part, Olds is able to hide his temper from the public, but not always. Last Tuesday's commissioner's meeting was the latest example of his always tenuous filter failing him: his smug rudeness was on display for all to see.

On the docket for the commissioners and the public to consider on June 25, 2012 was county ordinance 12-11, another attempt by the self-anointed business community of Queen Anne's County, and the three commissioners they hold dear, to open the county to Wal-Mart or Home Depot style 'big box' retail. You can find my opinions on bringing big box retail to our county here, but that is not what this post is about. This post is about the treatment the citizens of Queen Anne's County might expect if they ever come to disagree with Commissioner Dave Olds.     

For the better part of an hour, Olds was obligated to listen to public input on the 'big box' issue, on which he had already made up his mind. As such, he views the public hearing on 12-11 as a waste of his time, a friviolous exercise in delaying the inevitable, when he and the two colleagues he aligns himself with on every issue vote to support the ordinance.

Many people expressed an opinion about the amendment, several supportive, several more opposed. As you watch the video, you can clearly see that Olds' is not interested in the opinons of those he disagrees with. As Merle Rockwell of Queenstown stepped to the microphone, she being the first person to oppose the ordinance, Olds can be seen with his face in his hands, perhaps attempting to hide a brief snooze, but certainly not attempting to hide his brash disinterest. Over the course of the next eleven citizens, ten of whom opposed 12-11, you can see that Olds' patience was wearing thin: he began spinning in his chair, looking for all the world like a petulant child made to sit through a trip to the DMV. A tantrum seemed inevitable, and indeed it was. 

The unfortunate Pompeii to Olds' Vesuvius was Jay Falstad of Millington, also of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association. Falstad is a familiar face on many issues before the commissioners, but this night's testimony was not to be like the others. Soon after Falstad started in on comments opposing the ordinance, he was interrupted by Olds, who asked derisively if Falstad "was a paid lobbyist?" Olds followed up with "Do you get paid by Queen Anne's Conservation?" and "Is you lobbying for the anti-growth groups in this county? [all grammatical errors are the speaker's own]" Olds went on to imply that, by saying he was testifying on his own behalf, and not the Conservation Association's behalf, Falstad was lying about who he was representing before the board that night. 

Falstad is a citizen of Queen Anne's County, so whether he was lobbying on his own behalf, or the behalf of a membership organization which he represents, is largely irrelevant. The idea that he has no opinions as an individual, because of his organizational affiliations, is spurious and easily rejected. He, like everyone else who spoke that night, had the irrevocable right to share their thoughts with the Board of Commissioners.

The fact that the citizens supporting the amendment, many of whom represented organized interests, were not subjected to the same type of spur-of-the-moment disclosure proves that Olds in fact has no problem with paid lobbyists, so long as they agree with his positions. Nearly all of those testifying in support of 12-11, including Business Queen Anne's head Camille O'Donnell and Business Queen Anne's attorney Joe Stevens had a vested commercial interest in seeing the amendment passed, indeed Business Queen Anne's wrote the amendment. Yet they were not accosted by Dave Olds. None of those testifying in opposition, including Falstad, were so driven by dollar bills.   

At the end of his remarks, Falstad received moderate applause, for which Commission President Steve Arentz rapped his gavel to restore order, saying that applause "wouldn't be tolerated." Arentz made no similar attempt to rein in Olds during his highly uncalled for outburst, making it clear that while Commissioners would be permitted to disrespect public citizens, no such permission would be extended to the citizens. If you listen to the video of the meeting (linked below) at the 2:02:06 mark, you can clearly hear Arentz mutter a single word under his breath: "stupid." I will let the reader determine for him or herself just what Mr. Arentz thought was so stupid.

Is this the venom which with citizens of Queen Anne's County can expect to be exposed when they find themselves with a differing viewpoint than Dave Olds and this Board of Commissioners? Later in the meeting, during the Commissioner's Roundtable, Commissioner David Dunmyer disregarded his prepared remarks in order to express his displeasure with the way Olds had carried himself, saying he was "stunned" at Olds' behavior. Like a satiated playground bully, Olds responded to Dunmyer by saying "That is your opinion. Next." 

I question the seriousness with which Olds approaches his job, the time and effort he puts into the very serious task of running a county that is home to 50,000 people and where his vote, on an otherwise split board, will have lasting impacts. His election to the Board of Commissioners should serve as a cautionary tale, proof of the overused cliche that elections have consequences, and no elections are more acutely consequential than the ones closest to home. Yet these are often the ones we pay the least attention to.  

I encourage you to come to your own conclusions by viewing Tuesday's commission meeting in its entirety by clicking here. I also encourage you to attend a meeting of the Queen Anne's County Board of Commissionsers, to witness for yourself the way in which Mr. Olds carries himself.