Downtown Bethesda could go without holiday decorations, routine sidewalk repairs and sign maintenance next year if the County Council approves a proposed $113,000 budget cut.
County Executive Isiah Leggett recommended the cut in operating spending for the Bethesda Urban District in his proposed FY 2016 budget.
The contract for the Bethesda Urban District is managed by the Bethesda Urban Partnership or BUP, the quasi-government organization that does street maintenance, landscaping and organizes popular events such as the Taste of Bethesda.
That has some local leaders urging the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee to restore the funding.
“With continued urbanization, there’s no substitute for BUP,” read the budget public hearing testimony of the Bethesda area’s citizens advisory group. “BUP makes downtown Bethesda a vibrant community, aesthetically pleasing and a destination for so many.”
The testimony, given on Wednesday by Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board Vice Chair Scott Goldberg, said BUP serves as “the front line” of managing the impact of new residents from downtown Bethesda’s development.
During Tuesday’s budget public hearing, Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce representative Chris Ruhlen also asked that the cuts be fully restored.
Andy O’Hare, the chair of BUP’s board of directors, wrote in a memo to Councilmember Nancy Floreen that the group doesn’t understand why the Bethesda Urban District is recommended for higher funding cuts than the urban districts in Silver Spring and Wheaton.
“The funding cuts for the Bethesda Urban District are greater than for the other two, for which there was no specific explanation in the budget documents,” O’Hare wrote. “While our first preference is that the proposed cuts for FY 16 be restored, we believe that if cuts are to be made, it would be fairer to have a uniform percent reduction across all urban districts.”
Floreen’s PHED Committee will take up the issue during a Friday morning hearing.
Leggett’s recommended budget would provide $2,945,401 in funding for the Bethesda Urban District, a cut of $772,980 from last year.
The majority of the cut is because Leggett is also recommending moving funding for the Bethesda Circulator shuttle from the Urban District Fund to the county’s Mass Transit Fund. The nearly $730,000 shift would provide for an expansion of the popular service to Battery Lane and Bradley Boulevard starting in January 2016.
It also looks likely the county will adjust funding sources for the Bethesda Parking Lot District, the fund of parking meter payments that has been the primary funding source for BUP. A County Council report found the Parking Lot District fund is on the verge of bankruptcy.
O’Hare identified $135,000 worth of cuts to sign maintenance, sidewalk repair, holiday decorations, printed event calendars and mulching that BUP would have to make:
a) The sign maintenance budget would be reduced from $6,000 to $1,000 leaving little funding to repair signage in the Bethesda Urban District as needed;
b) The sidewalk repair budget would be cut by $25,000 or nearly 25%. This would mean that only emergency repairs could be done.
c) The holiday decorations that brighten the downtown and help attract shoppers and patrons to Bethesda during the holiday season would be eliminated.
d) The printed version of BUP’s events calendar would be eliminated leaving only social media and the BUP website as the means of informing residents and visitors about activities and events within the Urban District. BUP currently prints and distributes over 30,000 hard copies of this calendar six times a year. These hard copies are especially attractive to businesses and hotels who have guests that are looking for information about what to do in and around Bethesda. This budget cut would be $58,000;
e) SUP takes great pride in making sure that the Bethesda Urban District is well maintained and presents a clean appearance. BUP currently mulches tree and flower beds twice a year. Mulching once, rather than twice per year would save $11,000.
f) BUP would be required to make an additional $17,647 in smaller cuts to a large list of individual categories.
Council staff recommended the PHED committee approve the recommendations in Leggett’s budget, while adjusting a set of wage increases for BUP workers.