When I was new to this whole public development area (only a few short years ago), I presented the Final Report of the official White Flint Advisory Group to the Planning Board. (The Report seems to have disappeared off the Planning Board’s official White Flint page. www.whiteflintplanning.org, but still can be found here.) On P. 5, the Advisory Group’s Report complained that we did not have sufficient information to make a complete recommendation. When I repeated that caveat in testimony to the Planning Board, then-Chair Royce Hanson peered down at me and said “Welcome to our world.” Perfect information, and often even complete information, doesn’t exist in the planning process. Asking for it doesn’t usually get a lot of sympathy from those who have to make a decision.
Still, you gotta feel sorry for Diane Schwartz-Jones, the Executive Assistant to Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. Jones has been delegated the unhappy task of presenting the Executive’s position on White Flint for the last several years, and now she’s being asked to fall on her sword. A splintery, wooden sword, with some of the weakest arguments yet made for why the Executive hasn’t proposed an acceptable financing plan for White Flint infrastructure.
People like Jones. She’s a very intelligent and capable staffer. Both in public and private, Councilmembers call her the “hardest-working person in Montgomery County government.”
But in her testimony before the County Council this morning, she had the unenviable task of saying they could not present a reasonable financing package that everyone would accept because they “don’t know what the costs will be in the future. We know what our costs are now, but they may change in the future.”
Well . . . sure. Things change. That’s the nature of a forty-year plan. But that’s why there are people in the world whose job it is to figure out those costs and the risks of change, and put a dollar figure to them. We call those people “bond counsel,” and they support a huge bond market. Montgomery County is justly proud of its high bond rating (meaning bonds are cheaper because MoCo is considered a good financial risk), so we not only have bond analysts here, but we are comfortable dealing with bond counsel. And the Executive hired an expensive consultant years ago to do just that kind of analysis, and apparently didn’t get anything from it. It’s embarassing.
Not to mention the really painful skewering that Councilmember Roger Berliner put Jones and her fellow staffers though, simply pointing out that some of the big-ticket items added to the White Flint cost list were not really part of the White Flint Plan, such as the Montrose Parkway. And when Berliner read back to her the County Executive’s own projections and asked whether any other project in the County would offer the same kind of return, Jones barked back: “I’m not going to take the words exactly as you wish me to take them!”
After Diane’s tortured appearance this morning, I talked with a respected public financing expert, who courteously suggested that “there are several different parts to this Plan and we have to get those right.” But he agreed that this was essentially a function of bond pricing, and not impossible.
I also talked to a Councilmember who succinctly described the County Executive’s midnight proposal of last night as “B___S___.”