Q&A with County Executive Candidate Nancy Floreen
This is the third in a series of interviews with the three contenders
That raises the other major part of the county’s infrastructure problem—an increasingly crowded school system—and how to deal with it.
Absolutely, huge issue—and one [in which] we have to keep a really close eye on Annapolis as we go forward, because that’s going to be part of the Kirwan [Commission] recommendations in terms of how we advance school construction. [Editor’s note: The commission, headed by former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, is preparing recommendations on changes in the state’s school funding formula.]
We have, I believe, the highest school impact fees [paid by developers]—possibly in the nation, but certainly within the region. But, frankly, our community is turning over. It’s aging, Baby Boomers like myself [who] are leaving; homes on my street have mostly turned over to families with a bunch of children. That’s the natural evolution of a community—and that’s one we need to serve, no matter what.
My focus is going to be on ways to fund school construction going forward, because I think that’s the biggest nut we need to crack. We’re going to need to expand our school construction efforts big-time. There’s money; I think it’s doable. Certainly, working with the state is going to be important. But budgets are about priorities, and I do think our education system is our No. 1 priority.
What’s your position on whether the county’s public liquor sales and distribution system should remain in place or be privatized?
I’ve come around to the view—news flash—that Prohibition is over. And it’s time to revisit how we handle that going forward. Certainly, there are employees that we have to worry about. But do we need to be the arbiters of our liquor future—or are there other, better ways to handle it? That warrants some serious attention. I don’t have a solution as of yet; I think whatever we did, we would have to transition in ways that respected that challenge.
We still have bonds associated with liquor revenue … that need to be funded. Actually, that was me—that was a plan I put together along with [Steve] Silverman back when he was on the council to fund infrastructure improvements. We do have a $5.5 billion budget currently, so [the $30 million annually in general revenues now generated by the Department of Liquor Control] is not going to make or break it.
In 2016, you were part of the unanimous council majority that voted to increase property taxes by 8.7 percent. Given that some attribute that vote to passage of the referendum that fall to impose term limits, any second thoughts on your part about the increase?
The bulk of that money was for education. And all of us have heard loud and clear that that’s Montgomery County’s priority.
If elected county executive, could you foresee yourself proposing another property tax increase above the charter limit of the rate of inflation during your first term?
I can’t see it happening. I will tell you that those of us who lived through the Great Recession, when the world came falling down on us, are still shaken by that. But no, that’s not my plan at all.
In 2016, as president of the council you took the lead on a recordation tax increase. A couple of candidates in this year’s Democratic primary said they would work to roll it back, arguing that it was a disincentive to home ownership. Are you concerned about its effects, and would you support rolling it back if a funding source could be found?
Look, these are the cost of home sale and home buying. These are things that can be negotiated. I regret that the Realtors are unhappy about that. Remember that we demand large impact tax fees from new construction. The recordation tax is one way, when there are sales, that we can look at a revenue stream to help with the school construction needs. I believe we also had an affordable housing increment in all of that.
The market is a challenge as we speak. And it’s not because of the recordation tax: It’s the availability of houses, supply and price. So I’m guessing the Realtors are still collecting their percentage arrangements, bless ‘em.
Regarding another controversial tax hike in recent years—the county energy tax was increased in 2010 amid the Great Recession, and the increase was supposed to sunset in 2012. Most of it is still in effect. Would you seek to roll it back?
I lost that argument a number of times with my colleagues about rolling it back. We had committed when we first enacted that to do that. But then [County Executive] Ike [Leggett] said no, and I couldn’t get a majority on it several years in a row. The good thing about the energy tax is that we are able to generate some revenue from largely federal institutions that don’t otherwise pay property taxes. It was also intended sort of as an environmental issue, to remind people that you pay less if you use less. Those sorts of things are not fully appreciated. But I lost that argument so many times that I gave up.
Do you plan to revive that argument if elected?
I don’t have any plans at this point. We’ll see. If everything comes in roses and our revenue balloons to an extraordinary level, maybe we might be able to re-evaluate some of these things.
A recent measure on which Mr. Elrich was the lead sponsor is the $15 minimum wage. You opposed one version that was vetoed by Mr. Leggett, and then supported a subsequent version that phased it in more slowly and that was signed into law. Do you have concerns about the impact on the local economy?
There was an earlier [version of the proposal] which was partial, we didn’t go all the way, and I supported that because it was a regional thing. The second one, I had some concerns about because it wasn’t regional. It would be much better for Montgomery County residents and businesses if it had been a regional proposal. Before, at least it had included Prince George’s [County].
But then the Chambers [of Commerce] came in and said we can live with this. I’m not sure how much it benefits our residents, and it’s not an issue for the big businesses; it’s an issue for the small businesses. But the real issue is the competition across borders, particularly for your small businesses. It would be much better if it had been resolved at the state level.
You spoke earlier of the possibility of a regional BRT to Frederick on I-270. Gov. Hogan has proposed a widening of both I-270 and I-495 to deal with traffic congestion, along with the addition of toll lanes. Is this an approach with which you agree?
I applaud the governor for taking this on. I read that he told someone that we’re not talking about taking any homes. And my view is that, whatever happens, we’re going to protect existing communities.
When I first ran for [council] in 2002, the I-270 multimodal study was going on—that’s one of the first campaign events I ever went to … at Seneca Valley High School. That effort got dropped. The fact of the matter is we have a serious regional problem. What’s the answer? I do not know. I suspect toll lanes will be part of it, maybe electronic solutions. There are new ways of thinking about this. Some of the country already has some of these things in place … . We have an obligation as leaders to worry about this, and not just throw up our hands.
Whatever we do, we have to remember that, regrettably, Montgomery County uses I-270 and the Beltway as local roads when in fact they’re national roads. And we are the victims of national traffic and regional traffic that we cannot control. So the challenge is, “What is the design that protects our community as we work through all of this?” We’re very constrained, particularly in Silver Spring, as to what opportunities are available. We’re not going to [remove Holy Cross Hospital]. And there are design challenges—all those bridges, CSX [Railroad], they preclude a lot of things. We’re not talking about I-95 north of Baltimore where they have this huge swath of land where they’ve been able to do all this magical stuff.