Part one can be found here. In the second half of Bethesda Now’s sit-down with County Executive Isiah Leggett, we discussed a potential gas tax, the ongoing battle over police over bargaining rights, attracting millenials and his legacy if he remains out of the 2014 county executive candidate field.
Bethesda Now: What’s your reaction to the FOP’s request for an investigation into whether you and other county officials acted illegally in promoting your view on the effects bargaining referendum?
Leggett: We’ve already looked at that. So I don’t know what it is that needs to be reviewed. We can give them the opinion of the county attorney. I wouldn’t have authorized any kind of effort unless we had some legal opinion that said it was appropriate. That happened.
I’m not sure there’s anything from our perspective to look at this if they’re going to challenge, legally, the position of the county attorney. But there’s nothing for me to look at unless a court gives it a different legal analysis. Based on the county attorney’s opinion, we are doing things that are appropriate.
We are simply defending the county law. We are not going out to create a new law. Under the auspices of that, we are doing what is appropriate. That’s a little bit different than saying you’re going out to do something that you’re fighting for that’s not there. But we’re defending the law that’s already been enacted.
Bethesda Now: Are you surprised by the nature of the fight over this, the back-and-forth?
Leggett: No. I think that signifies part of the problem.
On one hand, if effects bargaining was not so different, not so unusual and away from a typical, mainstream collective bargaining agreement, there would be no need to have it nor a need to fight for it so hard.
The fact that you’re fighting and want to have this particular status to me indicates that it is unusual. That in many ways reaffirms the position that this is an unusual set of circumstances and conditions that are in place for which you have to fight for. If what you’re saying is if this is nothing that has been unusual and most people have adjusted to this, I don’t think this would be a fight.
Bethesda Now: Should the county do more, has it done enough to attract millenials, younger people to the county?
Leggett: We could always do more with it. But I think the things that attract young people are the things that attract most other people as well. They want to have a decent job, a job that is consistent, a job that pays well and a job with some long term prospects for growth and development in terms of career path. I think our employment base here in the county clearly demonstrates that.
The second thing young people want I think, is to know that if they’re starting a family, they’ve got schools and those schools are quality schools and they feel comfortable with the area.
The third thing, the other quality of life thing is making sure that public safety is good. If you look at our crime statistics, we are significantly down in terms of crime now. Those are the kinds of things that young people want.
They also want some other things that are unique to young people. They want quality development that is probably mixed-use development where things are in close proximity. You can go to the movies, you can go dining, you can go to work and you can shop and all of those things are all within walking distance because everything is compacted together. And I think if you look at the county in terms of where we are now and what we are doing for the foreseeable future, all of those things are quite evident.
With the town center in Rockville, the new town center in Gaithersburg and all of those places around the county you see that, and you’re going to see it in North Bethesda with the development of White Flint.
Those are things that attract young people and I think you will continue to see more of that as we move forward. We’ll continue to build that tax base.
Bethesda Now: Are you thinking about another term?
Bethesda Now: This is it?
Leggett: Well, I’ve been under a lot of pressure to reconsider. But I indicated when I was running, I was going to do two terms. That’s the understanding I have with my wife and so unless she changes her mind. She hasn’t indicated any change yet. I haven’t changed mine. But, you know, it’s a long ways away from the next election and clearly things can in fact change. But as I’m sitting here today, I don’t anticipate it.
Bethesda Now: Have you thought about legacy?
Leggett: I think, and that’s not something I do, going around and thinking of building monuments to myself, but if you look, we just two weeks ago received our AAA bond rating. The reason this is important, is it comes at the apex of the all of the major decisions we made in the last year and a half, and those were tough decisions. We eliminated large chunks of our employment, we reduced our budgets, we cut $2.7 billion of expenditures, we enhanced some revenues, for example the ambulance fee and putting in a higher tax on fuel energy. We did an awful lot, much of it very controversial, and the kinds of things people, politically, have been reluctant to do.
I made all of those tough, tough, tough calls and I told people that if we do these things and we stayed with it, it would put us in a much better position. Well guess what, it has. Our budgets now, looking forward are much more sustainable, our reserves are higher. We received a AAA bond rating. We were one of the few in the country to receive a AAA bond rating from all three of the major agencies and I think that stands very well.
It’s a different position from what I found when I got here and experienced while weathering through the major recession. We are now beginning to grow and receive greater opportunities. I just received a report the other day that we doubled the amount of development permitted in 2011 compared to 2010.
You see major development in Crown Farm, the new science city in Germantown, the smart growth initiative in the Shady Grove area, the White Flint major development that is occurring in North Bethesda. We are moving and trying to start the East County gateway projects that are there. We just broke ground the other day in Rockville Town Center, the expansion of Choice Hotels and mixed-use development that’s occurring there.
I think the greatest part of the legacy is to eventually transition us from those unsustainable budgets to put us in a much better position, that now allows us to see the benefits of the things that I just described.
I think if you look at all of those things, it’s a pretty good record. It’s not something we got to easily. There were a lot of bumps in the road, lots of controversies and very difficult things that I fought. I fought for three years on the ambulance fee, but I wouldn’t give it up. And now we’ve got it. That’s potentially $18 million. I fought to eliminate the sunset on the fuel energy tax. That’s $100 million almost. So when you look at things like that, enhanced revenues, making things much more stable, the quality of the schools, the crime has gone down, we’re beginning to double our building capacity, we have these major projects that are coming and we are now sustainable in terms of our budgets, that’s a I think a pretty good stable.
The additional thing that people don’t see that I think is significant is one of the things I said when I was first running six years ago. I said the challenge for the next county executive, meaning myself at that time, would be how do we get our financial house in order and two how do we effectively manage change. Because we were changing as a community, our demographics were changing. We were both growing older and younger. There was more diversity in the county. So the county executive would have to manage effectively all of that change. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. It seems seamless, you don’t see the upheaval that many other communities have experienced. We have had our challenges.
Who knows what the future may bring. I haven’t changed my mind and, you know, you’re talking two years from now. There are some good candidates who all want to run, so let’s see what happens.
Bethesda Now: Well, I think that’s all I have for you.
Leggett: Well, let me, because I gave you all the positive things. You didn’t ask the question: ‘OK, you’ve given me all these positive things, but what things do you see would be a challenge that creates a problem?’
So, I’m asking that question.
It’s going to be transportation. I saw that as a problem many years ago, when I first ran for office seven years ago. I said we needed to replenish the transportation trust fund and I called for a statewide gasoline tax to do that. I did so for two reasons, one we needed the money, the revenues were not there. Secondly, if you look in terms of our development in the county, a lot of it is tied to transportation.
With many of the projects that I just described, you can’t move to the second or third phase of the development without the transportation projects. So when I said seven years ago we need the tax, people said, ‘Oh, you’re kidding. You’re crazy, why would you. What candidate goes out and runs for office and says these kinds of things?’
Well I said it because it was the right thing to say and I wanted to be honest with people. And I said, if you didn’t do it, it would hamper our growth and development in Montgomery County. If you didn’t do it, we would see the state revenues continue to decline. If you didn’t do it, it would cost us more later to build many of these projects than it would to address them now.
So seven years of taking all that criticism, guess what? It’s gonna cost us more than it would have cost us if we had done it before. The revenues at the state level transportation fund are low and it potentially will hamper our development. Everything I said then, which people criticized, is right on the table now. So the failure to adjust earlier to that and looking at the challenge we have in Montgomery County I think is the greatest threat to us in terms of enhancing our tax base and continuing to have the kind of measured growth we want in Montgomery County.
Flickr photo by Steve Unlikely!