Monthly Archives: May 2013

O’Malley Keeps a Political Promise

newcarrollton-photo

By Barry Rascovar / May 30, 2013

IT WILL BE COSTLY for Maryland taxpayers but never let it be said Gov. Martin O’Malley reneges on a political promise.

This time he rewarded Prince George’s County politicians for their support during his initial run for governor in 2006. They wanted a state agency to relocate to their county and now they’ve got it — at a price to taxpayers of $60 million over the next 15 years.

As for politicians in Anne Arundel County (mainly Republicans), the Democratic governor gave them the political shaft: 380 employees of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, two-thirds commuting from Anne Arundel or the Baltimore area, will be forced to drive to New Carrollton starting in mid-2015.

Even worse, they will vacate a state owned-and-operated building on the grounds of the former Crownsville State Hospital outside Annapolis that is in fine shape.

Instead of paying $1.5 million in current operating costs, the state will fork over to a landlord 60 percent more — nearly $4 million annually. That equates to $40 a square foot — more than what it would take to lease premium water-view offices in Baltimore.

The state also is footing the bill for $357,000 worth of parking spaces for HCD workers for the first five years. Parking is free at Crownsville.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who revels when shams such as this pop up at the Board of Public Works, rightly compared the situation to a home owner with no mortgage suddenly moving out and renting similar space for an outrageous sum. It makes no sense — unless you’re a politician.

The excuse for this move is “Smart Growth.” Prince George’s County holds vast potential for “transit oriented development.”  Yet unlike neighboring Montgomery County, there are no large-scale TODs in Prince George’s. O’Malley wants to jump-start that process with a state-supported building at the New Carrollton Metro-Amrak-MARC hub.

Plans to do the same thing a few years ago fell apart because of the state’s poor choice of a developer. The entire procurement process was re-started.

What has evolved is a wonderful concept for the New Carrollton station in which the state plays the role of catalyst. That guaranteed $4 million a year in rental money will subsidize 40,000 square feet of retail space and 250 apartments, plus a second phase essentially doubling those components.

Whether any of this peripheral activity becomes reality is the big, unanswered question. If a mixed-use project at New Carrollton or at other Prince George’s Metro station were a can’t-miss proposition, there would be no need for the state to play Santa Claus.

Where the state dropped the ball is in Crownsville. The Department of General Services botched this entire episode first with the flimsily vetted initial procurement  and now with its lack of planning for the fate of the Crownsville property and HCD workers who don’t want to make this long commute.

Why hasn’t O’Malley targeted redevelopment of the 400-acre Crownsville campus as an economic priority over the past seven years? Probably because he didn’t want to help Republican officials who dominate the county. Still, the lack of a Crownsville master plan is a black eye for the governor.

Long before this matter reached the Board of Public Works, the state should have laid out an assistance program for HCD workers. And seven years is plenty of time to put together a comprehensive “Smart Growth” plan for Crownsville. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In the end, O’Malley delivered on his long-standing promise to Prince George’s political leaders and left unhappy HCD workers wondering about their future. They became sacrificial lambs. As for the future of the Crownsville building and surrounding land, that’s a problem O’Malley is leaving at the doorstep of the next administration.

Bad Science And The ‘Rain Tax’

By Barry Rascovar / May 24, 2014

Chesapeake Bay   A STORM IS BREWING in the Chesapeake region over ways to go about, and pay for, the bay’s expensive pollution cleanup.

Conservative politicians, especially Republicans, are having a field day deriding the stormwater runoff fee mandated last year by the Maryland General Assembly. Local Baltimore-Washington governments must set fee schedules by July 1. Whoever first attached the derisive moniker “rain tax” to the stormwater levy deserves a gold star from Propaganda Addicts Anonymous.

The phrase stuck like crazy glue. It has come to symbolize — in a gross distortion — the overreach of an oppressive, heavily intrusive government in the Annapolis State House. “Now they’re even taxing the rain!” is the way those in the no-tax crowd describe the situation.

What a great slogan for spinning the story. No tax is a good tax in the eyes of these neo-Republicans, but a tax on rain? How ludicrous.

Never mind that the levy makes eminent sense. Polluted water running off non-absorbing services — like driveways, roofs, roads, and parking lots — contribute mightily to today’s pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s most valuable estuaries.

Truth be told, a tax on impervious surfaces should have been put in place decades ago. It’s so obvious that this dirty runoff, chock full of nitrogen, phosphorus and other harmful chemicals, needs to be treated before reaching the bay.

That’s going to cost a pretty penny, which is compounded by Maryland’s late start. The Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup plan comes in at nearly $15 billion with the states footing a large share of the bill.

As much as opponents mock the “rain tax,” they haven’t proposed an alternative. Ignore the problem? Let the Chesapeake slowly turn into a massive “dead zone”?  Pollution remedies are not cheap. Some taxes are necessary and inevitable.

Unfortunately, too many local leaders are imposing large and sometimes onerous fees on businesses with industrial and commercial property containing lots of impervious surface. That could drive companies to other subdivisions with cheaper fees.

Things could get far worse in the ten Maryland counties implementing stormwater runoff fees. Indeed, these levies could mount in future years due to flawed scientific data affecting another aspect of the Chesapeake cleanup.

It turns out the EPA may have been dead wrong in blaming farmers, especially poultry farmers, for much of the bay’s pollution problems. A study conducted by two University of Delaware professors and a University of Maryland poultry specialist found the EPA’s computer models for determining Chesapeake pollutants decades out of date.

Bad science leads to bad results. In this case, the study showed actual phosphorous pollution from poultry manure in one Delaware county (Sussex) was less than half the EPA figure. Nitrogen pollution was 38 percent of the EPA number and total chicken manure produced turned out to be just one-fifth of the EPA figure.

These are huge differences. The EPA could be wildly overestimating the extent to which poultry farmers pollute bay waters. The professors, led by James Glancey, studied thousands of manure tests and recent shipment logs rather than relying on old EPA data from the 1980s.

Even though the potentially landmark study has not yet been peer reviewed or published, an EPA work group and state environmental officials may move quickly to modernize the bay’s computer models. Glancey’s results are hard to refute because they flow from current data.

This could mean reduced emphasis on new regulations to rein in pollutants from Delmarva farms and far greater emphasis on the obvious major contributor, suburban and urban water pollution sources.

If that, indeed, is the case, the derided “rain tax” may need to be increased consistently in future years.

After a heavy storm, visit Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor and look at what flows into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River from the Jones Falls. It’s not pretty.

Cleaning up this mess, and others like it in the Chesapeake catchment area, will take a long time and a lot more dollars from the “rain tax.”

 

The Race Is On!

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

By Barry Rascovar / May 21, 2013

LT. GOV. ANTHONY BROWN couldn’t even wait till the Preakness had run its course at Pimlico to announce the obvious: he’s running for governor next year.

He did it in an unorthodox fashion that some labeled bizarre. His kick-off took place at one of the worst possible media times of the week – very late on a Friday afternoon – and at an out-of-the-way location for much of the Maryland media (Largo). Then he followed the next day with mundane mini-events in Frederick and Baltimore City.

Except for the lavish praise from his boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Brown’s kick-off was underwhelming.

He cast himself as the uber -liberal in the race (though he’ll have trouble out-liberaling Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, who says she, too, wants to be governor). Just think of him as “O’Malley-plus.” He wants more, more, more of every social welfare program that’s good for Maryland, and more, more, more of what O’Malley did as governor.

As far-left Congresswoman Donna Edwards told Brown’s kick-off crowd, “He cares about the things we care about.”

That pretty much boxes in Brown in this campaign. He’s running after the left-of-center votes within the Democratic Party, building on a foundation of African-American support and labor unions.
That’s not a bad strategy given the liberal leanings of Democrats in Maryland.

The problem is that this leaves his main opponent, Attorney General Dough Gansler, a huge opening to sweep up the rest of the Democratic vote on June 24 next year. Thanks to the departure of Comptroller Peter Franchot from the governor’s race, Gansler can slide to the center, or even slightly right of center on some issues.

He’s already done that in opposing O’Malley’s gasoline tax increase and he’ll do it on other issues, too. He wasn’t involved in crafting and pushing through controversial legislation over the past seven years. But Brown was.

Gansler now can portray himself as a populist critic of the big-spending, tax-raising O’Malley-Brown administration, just like Franchot would have done. At the same time Gansler has assiduously developed an enviable record as attorney general on social issues that plays well with liberal Democratic groups.

He also has a huge fund-raising lead that could grow now that Brown has a campaign staff to support for the next 13 months. Plus, Gansler won’t be tied down in Annapolis from January through mid-April while the legislature is in session. That could be a big advantage for a high-energy campaigner like Gansler.

Lurking on the horizon is another contender who could throw both Brown’s and Gansler’s plans into disarray: Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County.

In many ways, a Ruppersberger candidacy re-shuffles the political deck. He’s far better known than Brown or Gansler. Ruppersberger’s familiarity among voters is such that most of them refer to him simply as “Dutch.” That’s a big advantage.

Ruppersberger would immediately become the Baltimore-area candidate, but also the top vote-getter in rural parts of the state. He’s a “blue-dog Democrat” in Congress, a fiscal moderate slightly to the right of center but with a sparkling social record both on Capitol Hill and as Baltimore County Executive.

That could be a tough combination to beat, especially since Gansler and Brown (and Mizeur) are likely to split the Washington area vote. Meanwhile, Ruppersberger will pick up a good chunk of Baltimore City votes, thus denying Brown a Prince George’s County – Baltimore City axis.

The congressman’s real strength comes from the Baltimore suburbs, which he has represented for years – Harford County, Anne Arundel County and particularly heavy-voting Baltimore County.
He could become the immediate favorite – if he runs.

Giving up a seat in Congress is no small sacrifice, especially when you’re been a Big Wheel on the prestigious House Intelligence Committee. But Ruppersberger is term-limited on that panel next year, meaning a return to his status as a run-of-the-mill member of the minority party.

Besides, Ruppersberger loved running Baltimore County where he displayed solid skills as a manager and chief executive. He also would enter the race unencumbered by the controversies that now dog O’Malley and Brown – especially the tax issue.

That’s only one reason next year’s gubernatorial election is so hard to predict. Gansler has hordes of campaign cash. Brown has O’Malley’s and party establishment backing. Ruppersberger has the broadest potential voter base.

Will Dutch ditch the race? Will Mizeur steal votes from both Brown and Gansler? Will Democrats support an O’Malley clone or is voter fatigue setting in after two terms?

And how will Democratic turnout affect the outcome?

Legislators unwisely pushed the 2014 primary back to late June rather than in the fall. That’s a big change for voters. History shows early Maryland primaries attract small turnouts. History also shows the lowest turnouts are usually in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.

That does not bode well for Brown, who also is fighting the curse of Maryland lieutenant governors. Not one has succeeded his or her boss in the state’s top job.

So take your pick. Next year’s race for governor will be just as tough to handicap as Oxbow’s unexpected 15-1 triumph in this year’s Preakness classic.

Look to Shock Trauma’s success

By Barry Rascovar / The Community Times / May 15, 2013

After a response team dragged unconscious firefighter Gene Kirchner from an intense three-alarm house fire on Hanover Road in the early hours of April 24, he wound up in the only place equipped to deal with his life-threatening injuries, the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Unfortunately, even the renowned doctors at Shock Trauma could not save Kirchner, an eight-year veteran of the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company.

He died last Thursday, only the second firefighter to die in the line of duty in the 100 years of the RVFC.

It is not often that Shock Trauma loses its battle to preserve life. Fully 96 percent of those admitted survive.

Trauma doctors there believe that if badly injured patients arrive at Shock Trauma within that “golden hour” following an accident they can be saved.

Using unconventional methods such as simultaneously treating multiple aspects of a patient’s critical injuries immediately upon arrival, the Maryland Shock Trauma Center has revolutionized emergency medicine.

But sometimes there is little doctors can do to help someone as critically injured as Gene Kirchner.

Ironically when the center’s staff and guests gathered for their annual gala recently, the evening centered on another fatality that had been turned into a remarkable “gift of life.”

Physician-in-chief Dr. Tom Scalia described how he and his team fought to revive a pedestrian who had been struck by a car, 21-year-old Joshua Aversano of White Hall. Sadly, Joshua’s brain injury was too severe.

At that point Joshua’s family made the decision to contribute Joshua’s body parts to help others. What followed was a true miracle.

Over a three-day period, six people were given life-saving organs, Joshua’s heart, liver, pancreas, kidneys and lung. It was a mighty tribute to Joshua and his family, and to the enormous skills of the Shock Trauma team at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

But the truly amazing part of the story was yet to come: using Joshua’s facial bones, skin, tongue, teeth and underlying muscle and tissue to perform the world’s most extensive full-face transplant.

Over 150 doctors, nurses and other professionals participated in this 36-hour marathon. The Virginia patient, who had lived as a recluse since a 1997 gun accident shattered his face, received a new lease on life.

When 37-year-old Richard Norris walked on stage, he was a man reborn with nary a wrinkle.

An incredible amount of research preceded the surgery, much of it funded by the Office of Naval Research. The hope is that similar facial transplants will aid servicemen maimed by explosives.

Each year, 8,600 gravely injured people arrive at Shock Trauma, most of them via State Police Medevac helicopter, part of Maryland’s integrated emergency medical network.

It is a remarkable organization, heavily supported by taxpayer dollars. They did their best to save Gene Kirchner. He would have been the first to recognize their heroic efforts.

Barry Rascovar of Reisterstown is a writer and communications consultant. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.

Towson University leaves teams abandoned

By Barry Rascovar/ The Community Times/ May 1, 2013

If your son excels at baseball or soccer and is looking to play that sport in college, you can forget about sending him to Towson University.

In a comedy of errors, Baltimore County’s largest higher education institution disbanded the two men’s teams, despite the popularity of each sport.

President Maravene Loeschke wielded the ax. She bought the logic of her athletic director that Towson must divert sports revenue to turn its basketball and football programs into regional powers.

Unfortunately, her public explanation also involved the need to bring equity to women’s sports at Towson. She picked an odd way to make that happen.

Especially cruel was the university president’s delivery of the bad news. On short notice she summoned the two teams, showed up with security guards, made her announcement and left without answering questions from the stunned audience.

It was a heartless display of authority. The students were treated more like discarded furniture than confused, emotionally upset individuals. Loeschke shattered their college dreams yet couldn’t take time to show any empathy.

No wonder she ended up in hot water with both the governor and state comptroller. No wonder her actions precipitated vocal protests from some alumni.

Baseball won a two-year reprieve when the governor found $300,000 to rescue the program while supporters try to raise funds to make the reprieve permanent. Soccer, the world’s biggest sport, got no such relief.

Critics have pointed out that shifting resources to the football and basketball programs won’t turn Towson into the UCLA of the East.

Even if every seat in Towson’s new arena and Unitas Stadium is filled, the crowds will be puny next to the College Park teams that join the Big Ten athletic conference next year.

Towson will never be — nor should it be — a training ground for athletes who turn pro after a few years in college. Loeschke is throwing money at a vision that isn’t realistic.

At the same time, complying with federal equal opportunity regulations need not come at the expense of existing sports programs. Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland, College Park, roiled that suburban Washington campus when he disbanded eight men and women sports teams last year for lack of funds. But he did so with a great deal of compassion, calling his decision “heart-wrenching.”

In both cases the affected students felt betrayed. Their college lives had been ruined by administrators who couldn’t balance their budgets.

Many are transferring to other schools. But that will be traumatic and expensive.

It is a sad story, which will reverberate for years at Towson University. These student-athletes deserved a better fate.

Barry Rascovar is a Reisterstown writer and communications consultant. He can be reached at brascovar@outlook.com.