Approximately 75 people attended a community forum on the Takoma Park city budget on May 3 20019, organized by Community Vision for Takoma (CVT). The forum began with a presentation by David Navari, a Takoma resident who works in public sector consulting and examined the budget and met with each member of the City Council to discuss financial management best practices. The following are highlights from Mr. Navari’s presentation along with notes on comments from local residents. You can also listen to Mr. Navari’s 25-minute presentation and see his charts and data, in the video at the bottom.
1. The median household income in Takoma Park is about $85,000. That means 50% of households make less than $85K. This large group is “cost burdened” as housing exceeds 30% of their income – an increasing challenge when taxes grow faster than their income. (Note: The median for renters is $51,333 increasing the financial challenges for this group. See charts in video at bottom.) Several people in this “forgotten middle” spoke of needing to relocate out of Takoma Park and/or knowing many people who have had to leave Takoma Park due to the unsustainable tax burden. Others expressed strong concerns about working- and middle-class homeowners who are being squeezed.
2. 80% of the City’s expenses are personnel salaries and benefits and the city staff does not track time-on-task, so we do not know what the services/programs cost, meaning we don’t really have “true transparency”.
3. The City Council isn’t provided critical data to make informed decisions. For example, the tables of FY19 and FY20 budgets did not even show percent change from the previous year.
4. Eight out of nine years the taxes have grown at a rate faster than inflation which is a challenge for elderly on a fixed income and middle-income earners (i.e., middle/working class).
5. Takoma Park’s city manager makes $235,000 compensation (salary + benefits) which is the highest paid city manager per capita in the state of Maryland by a long shot. [See chart in video at bottom]
Community Questions and Comments: A Summary of Key Points
Approximately thirty people testified about our town budget. Here are highlights:
- Federal contractors, non-profit groups and corporations track time to know what projects are absorbing most of staff capacity. Takoma Park should do this too.
- The combined loss of the IRS tax deduction for state taxes and rising local and property taxes is squeezing many households in the middle-income bracket. One woman tearfully told of five friends who had moved out of the community due to rising taxes.
- There is support for public and union employees but concern that the staff is growing and salaries and benefits may be growing at an unsustainable rate. The ratio of employees on salary for the city to number of local residents has increased exponentially over time.
- The budget is driven by staff. It needs to be driven by the community.
- The “I can’t afford to stay here” drumbeat is growing stronger all the time. Children of long-time residents cannot afford to buy here. Retired military personnel and most working-class people are being forced out.
- We need to prioritize a deeper investigation into the budget, looking at the police department as well as our tax and revenue arrangement with Montgomery County.
- Takoma Park needs to do a better job of benchmarking its expenditures to comparable cities in the area. How do we compare to others? Very few towns of our size, for example, have a police department at the scale that we do. What is the most economical and effective approach to public safety?
- The way the budget is presented obfuscates things. We must see how this year’s budget compares to last year’s budget and how changing property assessments affect bottom line taxes.
- There is a lack of trust that needs to be addressed.
- The budget should not grow faster than the rate of inflation.
- Capital projects are worrying many people. Can this small community support all the staff time required for proposed or anticipated development at the Junction, New Hampshire Avenue condos and rec center, Library, Adventist Hospital, Langley Park, and elsewhere? There are concerns about the financing for much of this and how much debt the city may be taking on.
- The city is doing some things very well including developing metrics and outcomes to try to be accountable for positive impacts from various programs and spending flows.
- Some feel we are losing the Takoma Park culture and spirit as it gets “fancy” and “unaffordable”. One person called for an emergency intervention on gentrification.
- Some people feel the recent budget hearings were sufficiently transparent and that there is no problem.
- The overwhelming majority of attendees urged the city to begin tracking personnel time by project (activity-based accounting) as of July 1 and the new fiscal year.