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Just Powers

July 12, 2005

by Jack Lynch

As we enter an election transformed by the residency requirement battle, it is time for the citizens to call for another transformation of City Hall prospects.  With the City population increased by thirty percent since 1990, we need to revisit the membership of the Board of Aldermen, and consider increasing the number to seven. 

We should also look forward over the next twenty years to subsequent increases to nine, and then eleven members of what serves as our City Council.  We need to rethink the at-large nature of Aldermanic slots and look at Districts, or Neighborhood appointments.  We need Aldermen who are responsible and responsive to specific citizen needs and interests. 

There is good reason to change.  Frederick would become a better City, with citizens wielding a greater voice in local matters.  We would see the interests of all better served.  Factionalism would decrease, or at least become more fluid.  Voices that are underserved today would be more pronounced, and minority groups better represented.  It would be a fine legacy for the future.

There is a sense of this in the Neighborhood Advisory Councils (NAC’s), but they do not yet have that champion on the Board to pursue their area goals and interests, so the whole concept is too diluted for much effect.  With a Board seat in the area, the ladder from citizen activist to Alderman would be clearer and more attainable to all.  Having served admirably, or challenged an incumbent’s service, would be a launching pad for political careers.

Likewise, the County Commissioner seats are too few and too limited.  Many good candidates fail to reach the critical mass to election, and thereby the public interest is often lost too.  The political influence of money, and the good old boy influence of friendly persuasion, or the art of going along to get along, have a dominant presence in governing our communities.  And like any dying snake, it will reflexively strike long after its head is removed.  We’re a rapidly growing modern community, stuck years back in attitudes and values. 

We’re provincial.  In some ways that is good and endearing, when we enjoy the fruits of falling back on family ties over generations to heighten the connections of people and places, but it is a grave fault when it ties us down to false agrarian sentimentality and debases lives by rumor and innuendo, and engenders a political mob mentality.

County-wise, we need a figurehead of real power leading the entire county and speaking in Annapolis with a single local voice for projects and issues.  We can’t expect any number of Commissioners to take that time away from their daily legislating to go down there and be the spokesperson for our full interests.

And no, this is absolutely the opposite of what some would propose, as Mr. Young has, to merge the county and city governance.  Perhaps he wants to live under his suzerainty, but I want to determine more of my future prospects by increasing public participation and influence, not lessening its overall effect.  We already fall on seemingly deaf ears too often.  This is said to have been much of his fault previously.

There are clearly places that the county could step up with wise leadership and take charge by the force of its resources, such as water, or roads, and economic development, but it has shown varying leadership dependent on personal piques and disputes over personality, not measured and even-handed leadership.  Again, we need broader representation.

I approve and applaud the oppositional power of the municipalities.  Without them we’d have less leverage over issues, less decision making ability over our community lives.  In lockstep with the county, we’d currently all become an Urbana or New Market, with tens of thousands of new homes planned and little regard for the citizen who feels it's just too much, overwhelming and destructive sprawl that erases farms and woods.  Jefferson and Libertytown have differing visions of their towns and how they want to live, as do Thurmont and Brunswick.  Citizens should define their own communities.

Without stronger citizen power within the City, we’ll continue to see Comprehensive Plans to grow to Walkersville, and on to Thurmont eventually.  We’ll see free-wheeling little Napoleons elected as Alderman and continuing to spin webs of intrigue and faction.  They likely won’t face the wrath of their immediate neighbors, or often even the ballot box.  They’ll marginalize the voices they won’t heed.

We need more healthy debate from more quarters, not less.  We need a broader vision.

Fiscal Impact Study

I offer a qualified endorsement of allowing the study of fiscal impacts by home development.  At best, it demonstrates the proper balance of tax and cost benefits, so that impact fees can be adjusted accordingly.  At worst, it becomes a ‘letter from Mom’ for developers, which then will be held up to demonstrate that they’ve met their full responsibility, regardless of any quality of life or environmental damage they inflict in the growth process.

In addition, why not give us a study of the values that reside in our own Planning offices?   Tell us how many homes are in the pipeline.  How many approved to be built?  What percentage of those permits churn and never get developed, or return again for approval.  We can do that math.  Other counties give us this information. 

See Carroll County figures in this regards Here

What is also missing is any sense that a continuum of impacts will be assessed.  Costs and needs vary across areas of the county.  They vary by the total quantity of homes being built.  They are unlikely to take into consideration any uncovered costs passed on to citizens by not meeting infrastructure needs in the past.  And what factor of the public’s quality of life, or environmental and resource costs, will be included?  What is the value of preserved land versus more development?  What is the ultimate build-out of the County?  Other counties report this information. 

No professional economist is going to report that a single cost and benefit accrues to each and every home.  A home built in unincorporated areas of Route 26 may cost us little in infrastructure costs, but another one built in Urbana may add great expense. 

A hundred homes have a different incremental cost than a thousand homes.  The first home built may be the least expensive, and the last built the most expensive for infrastructure costs.  Costs are expressed by a curve. 

We are already starting out at the point on the curve where the costs escalate rapidly because of exponential growth in needs due to overextended infrastructure.  At best, we get a model of growth costs.

It is disingenuous at best to have the business community say that workers cannot afford to live here. Nothing in the study of cost benefits is likely to change the economics of being at the edge of one of the greatest job engines in the country.  The construction jobs that new development brings, ask them how many of those jobs are held by those who live within the county.  Ask them if local companies profit.  Let’s have all the facts about development on the table. 

Even a good valid study that all can agree is actionable, is but a temporary analysis of a shifting target.  It will likely increase impact fees, or at least set the stage for doing so, and I can approve of development paying for itself.  If we believed what the growth community has fed us for so long, we’d all be paying fewer taxes. 

 Let’s just not buy a pig in a poke.

Even with a fair study, this is just one benchmark on growth, that’s what’s wrong…we ignore the county Comprehensive Plan vision and take in no factors except tax value versus the cost of county infrastructure…no environmental costs, no land preservation costs, no consideration of traffic and quality of life impacts.