Ward Three Updates

Upcoming City Council Meetings
This week's Council meeting begins at 7:30. Council will be voting on a resolution adopting a policy for License Place Readers (LPRs). There has been a great deal of discussion on LPRs. As I have noted in prior updates, I am supportive of the proposal to change our current retention policy and have been pushing for a resolution that will establish appropriate oversight, accountability, and evaluation of the LPR policy. For background please see below and you can review more information including background on the state legislation regarding LPRs from State Senator Jamie Raiskin here.
This Council meeting will also include a discussion of a potential vacant and blighted property tax to help address the issue of vacant properties in the city and the impact they have on neighborhoods. This is a new issue we will be taking up and I have pulled together research and a description of what this tax may look like. Please see below for details. Given the research I have done to date, I would like to see the City move in the direction of adopting some form of this tax to provide the City with another tool in addressing vacant and blighted properties. 

Other issues we will be discussing include the City's Opt-In and Opt-Out of Montgomery County Code, as well as a first reading of an Ordinance adopting an FY15 budget amendment. The complete agenda and background materials can be found here.

License Plate Readers
For background:  Takoma Park police use three mobile LPRs that can be placed on the back of police cars to read the license plate of cars that pass the reader.  Connected to a computer and a national database, the reader is able to instantly identify stolen cars, vehicles which are the subject of an alert (for example, an Amber alert), and expired licenses for vehicles.  As part of the Crime Summit held in February, discussion of the City's data retention policies came up.  Based on a 2011 city ordinance, right now the city keeps the data on scanned license plates on file for 30 days and then deletes the information and does not share the data with other jurisdictions (except within 30 days for amber alerts, terrorist alerts, stolen/wanted vehicles and other watch list alerts).   

The police Chief is proposing to change the current policy to allow city license plate reader data to be transferred to the statewide data Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC) where it would be kept one year.  This change would make our data sharing policy match that of the County and Rockville. The city would continue to hold onto data for only 30 days.  

The state database has reasonable protections in place, including requirements that data be deleted after one year, an active case number for release of any data to law enforcement, written records of all requests for license plate data, and reporting to the state legislature, as well as auditing protocols. The oversight on this system and protections for privacy have recently been strengthened through state legislation (SB 699) whose Senate sponsors included Takoma Park's Senator, Jamie Raskin. 


At the Council meeting on May 19th we heard from Maryland ACLU and a representative from MCAC.  Councilmember Male has a terrific blog outlining the issue in more depth. I have been generally supportive of the proposal, and pushed for a resolution to ensure we have accountability and evaluation of the policy. The resolution Council will vote on Monday night contains a reporting and evaluation component and reflects the state legislation. I plan on supporting the resolution and the change in our policy. 


Background on Vacant and Blighted Property Tax


Unfortunately vacant and blighted properties are an issue across our city.  These properties deny the city government needed tax revenues, consume city staff time, erode the value of nearby homes, pose health and safety risks, and negatively impact our neighborhoods.  In 2010, Philadelphia studied the impact of vacant and blighted properties and found that, in addition to the economic toll vacant and abandoned properties imposes on communities, among those most hurt by the damage caused by vacant properties are long-time homeowners, many of them senior citizens-the very people who have helped build a community and help hold it together.


According to the US Fire Administration, an estimated 28,000 vacant residential fires occurred annually between 2006 and 2008, resulting in an estimated total of 45 deaths, 225 injuries, and approximately $900 million in property loss each year. 


Recently, on Westmoreland Avenue, the potential danger of vacant properties became a reality and our community became part of the statistic when a vacant property caught fire. Fifty-five firefighters responded to the blaze and three were injured. Thankfully no one else was injured, but there was property damage to a nearby home. While the city has in place procedures to address code violations, they are not sufficient to address the myriad problems caused by vacant properties.  Dealing with these properties takes a great deal of staff time and it can take years to rectify problems. Years that adversely impact residents and our quality of life in the city. To provide staff with another tool to address this issue the City Council is discussing the pros and cons of a vacant and blighted property tax. Establishing a vacant and blighted property tax to address this housing problem has become popular in many municipalities. 


What is a vacant and blighted property tax?  This tax allows the city to establish a tax incentive program to encourage property owners to remediate or redevelop blighted properties. The property taxes  are increased on blighted properties and can subsequently decrease once the property is remediated or redeveloped.


What is a vacant property? Vacant property is vacant.  Thus, a tax would NOT be levied on properties which are currently being used as a primary residence by the owner or renters. 


What is a vacant and blighted property? Such properties are both vacant and in such a state of disrepair that it affects other properties or safety or otherwise impacts the neighborhood.  


Where are their regional models for such programs? Washington, DC, Philadelphia and a number of other cities provide examples. An example of one such ordinance can be found here.


Advantages: A blight tax could motivate property owners to stabilize and improve the blighted conditions on their properties or sell to others who are willing to do the work. It also allows the city to recover the public service costs associated with blighted properties. If a property is vacant or underutilized, the higher tax may encourage the owner to rent it in order to pay the extra taxes. These actions could subsequently increase the blighted property's value and that of nearby properties.


Additionally, because blighted properties often demand a higher level of government services (e.g., public safety and code enforcement services) than other properties, the higher tax allows the city to recover some of the costs associated with this increased burden.


Disadvantages:  Depending on how a blight tax is put in place it could place a burden on low-income individuals, seniors, individuals with disabilities, and struggling businesses that have been unable to improve the blighted conditions due to economic circumstances or other reasons. 


Programs in place in TP to assist low-income homeowners:  To ensure our policy would not burden low-income or fixed income individuals we need to carefully craft the program as well as explore additional partnerships with organizations that help individuals maintain their homes. One example is the city's partnership with Rebuilding Together Montgomery County, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, which utilizes the skills of community volunteers, works in partnership with the community to address the needs of low-income homeowners by providing home repairs that address safety, accessibility, energy efficiency and basic needs. 


Further reading: 


Vacant Properties The True Costs to Communities




Connecticut OLR Research Report: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2013/rpt/2013-R-0335.htm


Kennessaw: http://mdjonline.com/view/full_story/24893703/article-City-of-Kennesaw-approves-blight-tax--in-unanimous-vote


Savannah: http://savannahnow.com/news/2014-04-30/city-looks-increase-tax-rates-blighted-properties#.U7xJAbEric4


Atlanta: http://saportareport.com/blog/2012/09/atlanta-city-council-moving-forward-on-plan-to-raise-tax-rates-on-blighted-property/


Comings and Goings


Author Kate DiCamillo - the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature - will speak on Friday, August 29 at 7 p.m. at the Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium (7500 Maple Ave. in Takoma Park, Md). DiCamillo won the 2014 Newbery Medal for her book "Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures," and she'll talk about that book, her 2004 Newbery Medal-winning book "The Tale of Despereaux,"  her latest book, "Leroy Ninker Saddles Up," being an ambassador for children's books, and more. 

Kate Stewart
Takoma Park Ward 3 City Councilperson
316 Elm Ave, TKPK MD
kates@takomaparkmd.gov, 240-338-9333