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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Frederick Co. MD Democratic Buzz

George Wenschhof Bio

Last week on Tuesday, I published a column pertaining to who may be the Democratic candidates in this City of Frederick election year. If you missed that column, you can read it here. I indicated more Democratic candidates may emerge as the deadline for filing is not until July 7, 2009.

One additional Democratic candidate who may file for Alderman is James Racheff. I enjoyed a long conversation with him this past Saturday. He is currently the chair of the City of Frederick Zoning Appeals Board and also sat in on several meetings of the city charter review committee. Mr. Racheff also flew to Boulder, Colorado with county and city elected officials and staff to review their waste disposal methods. He has a sincere interest in the future of the city and would be a competitive candidate for Alderman.

This week, I want to examine what may be some of the issues that come up in the campaign. I do not intend to delve into the intricacies of each issue in this column, but rather will attempt to list what the issues may be. The candidates, of course, will be providing their positions on these issues and others as the campaign unfolds. Again, the primary election will be held on September 15 and the general election will be held on November 3, 2009.

Let's take a look at some of the issues listed below in no particular order of significance:

The Hargett farm condemnation for a city park - current Republican Mayor Jeff Holtzinger campaigned on the need for a municipal Park in this neighborhood and upon winning the election immediately began the process of identifying a location. After the location had been identified, a condemnation process was instituted after the property owner and the city could not reach agreement on the price.

The majority of the Aldermen including Democrat Marcia Hall (who I indicated will run for Mayor) supported this action proposed by Mayor Holtzinger. A local court decision recently ruled the process was allowable and ordered appraisals to be provided by March.

The property is zoned for residential development with some site plan approval granted. Questions that may arise will pertain to loss of tax revenue along with loss of impact fees. Also, expect questions as to why chose an already approved and zoned residential area which will possibly be valued higher than property absent of such zoning.

While other comments will be from residents in the neighborhood who feel this is a much better use than the planned residential use. They feel another residential development was sure to add strain to an already less than satisfactory road transportation grid for the area.

City Employee Pension and Early Retirement Plan - Plenty has been said about this with a final analysis of the effectiveness of the plan change still elusive. Again, this plan was approved with a majority vote of the aldermen. It appears the level of cost savings originally anticipated for the city was higher than what will transpire.

What caught the attention of some local political activists was when certain city staff who took advantage of the early buy-out ended up being hired back. While they were hired back at an entry level salary, the city was still paying twice for 1-2 years of employment.

It appears this action, which was instituted and approved for positive reasons, will require additional scrutiny to determine if modification to the approved plan will need to be made by the Mayor and Board.

Residency - most city voters are tired of hearing about this issue after the brou-hah-hah that occurred under the former Democratic Mayor Jennifer Dougherty administration. Some activists continue to question the residency of Mayor Holtzinger. While he stands by his statement he meets the requirements in the city charter.

As everyone knows, Dougherty challenged Ron Young's eligibility to run against her in the Democratic primary and went on to veto a charter amendment changing the residency requirement which had been approved by the aldermen. The end result of her action resulted in the current Mayor being able to file and eventually winning election to the office of Mayor.

While this issue may receive a loud drumbeat by some candidates, do not expect this to be a major concern of the voter.

Budget - Financial Condition of the City - in this serious economic downturn the entire country is experiencing, a critical review of the Budget and the financial condition of the city is an issue all candidates should address.

The tax rate for homeowners increased during the Dougherty administration and so far has been reduced during the Holtzinger administration. The Budget to be introduced by Mayor Holtzinger for the next fiscal year is sure to receive a thorough examination by the candidates. Keep an eye on the tax rate and if it is kept the same or reduced. Also the size of the budget and the level of services being provided. There is always plenty of areas in a Budget for disagreement among candidates in an election year.

Planning and Zoning - an area that always comes up in an election year. Is growth happening in a manner voters approve? This becomes a moving target in a city like Frederick due to the rapid growth that has taken place. Often, new residents question the process even more than the long time residents.

However, traffic congestion continues to exist at all the major routes into and out of the city and remains a major issue among voters. Needed state and federal funds are just not being brought home by current state and federal elected officials. Hopefully, with the passage of the proposed Stimulus Plan by President Barack Obama, much needed infrastructure funds are received for the City of Frederick.

Regardless, a "pay as you grow" approach should be in effect for future growth. However, the major problem is not how to plan effectively for future growth, but rather, how to catch up in the city infrastructure due to mistakes made over the last few decades. Also expect current approved or proposed annexations to receive attention during the campaign along with candidates describing their vision for the future of the City of Frederick.

Failed effort at Historic District Designation - one alderman candidate Kelly Russell, who resides in the neighborhood, proposed the change. Unfortunately, 46 of the 62 owners of the properties which would have been affected by the change disagreed with the idea. While the three Democratic aldermen voted in favor of the designation, the Mayor vetoed their approval.

It is doubtful this will become a major issue in the campaign, especially when 79% of the families who would have been affected by the change, disagreed with having the historic district designation being attached to their homes.

Speaking of the Historic District, I have a proposal the city should consider which would aid homeowners within the historic district, the historic commission, and the home contractors who perform the renovations in the district.

I suggest city staff provide a training class for home contractors on the allowable materials, etc. that would be approved by the Commission and after successful completion of the course, the contractor would be certified in "historic district" renovations. The contractors would receive valuable information and when a homeowner began the process of renovating their home, they could be provided with a list of approved contractors by city staff.

Police Department - Police Chief Kim Dine has done an outstanding job since his hire during the former city hall administration. He is well liked and respected among the many different segments that make up the community.

As this is a major component of what is provided by city government expect discussion during the campaign on the size of the budget in this area.

One such issue sure to receive attention will be when amendments in a previous budget year introduced by aldermen to increase police officers and police cruisers, they were vetoed by Mayor Holtzinger twice before reaching a compromise.

The big question is what is being done to locate and build a new police station. The current headquarters located in part of the Frederick County Courthouse complex is woefully undersized.

Department of Public Works/ Infrastructure - under the Mayor Holtzinger administration, a water agreement with the County government was reached, a realignment of Monocacy Blvd. was done, an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) was approved, the homes under HOPE have begun construction and the (MPDU) Moderately Priced Dwellings Units provision has moved forward.

Trash collection and snow removal are important issues to voters in a local election and memories are long when a bad event transpires. In one of the early years in his administration, some voters questioned the actions taken by Mayor Holtzinger in a snow event that resulted in snow turning to ice banks along the curbs which screwed up parking for some time in the city.

Speaking of Parking, downtown parking woes continue - this has been an ongoing problem regardless of who has filled the Mayor seat. I wrote a column on this issue which was published on on May 11, 2007. You can read it here. Basically, I believe the mindset of the city should be to make the visit to downtown Frederick enjoyable and to make every effort to minimize parking hassles by residents and visitors. This, as opposed to looking at how to increase a revenue stream for the city. The bad will generated by the latter approach outweighs any monetary short term gain.

Let's not forget Clustered Spires, Keys Stadium, and the Weinberg Center - should the city continue to own and in the case of the golf course, operate these entertainment centers? Expect some discussion in this area, especially due to the economic downturn.

Speaking of the Keys Stadium, here's a beef I have held for some time. The cost for admission is great for families, but once inside the vendor prices are similar to those that exist at Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles. As the City owns the park, how about placing some regulations on the price of a hot dog and soda. I am sure there are plenty of local business owners who could provide the food concessions at Keys Stadium at a much more affordable price. Presently, it's almost like a bait and switch - you get in at an affordable rate but are nailed when you go to buy something to eat or drink.

How about the Weinberg Center? The reason I say that is it's not currently a huge controversy. This is pleasant after the fighting pertaining to funding and privatization that occurred under the Dougherty administration between Mayor Dougherty and a past President of the Weinberg Board of Directors.

The ballpark, golf course and the theater are great attractions and offer benefits for the city. But, expect all to be brought up during the campaign.

Well, that's a start at looking at some of the issues that may come up during the campaign this year. We will be following the election and adding our thoughts on what the candidates say throughout the campaign about the issues facing the voters in the City of Frederick.


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