Day: December 31, 2017

Update on Student Loan Refinancing

Update on Student Loan Refinancing

I’ve been working to set up the county’s own student loan finance program. Under this program, county residents could refinance their college loans at lower interest rates, shaving hundreds of dollars off their monthly payments and saving thousands over the term of their loan.

Those who are saddled with college debt – the average borrower in the county owes upward of $31,000 – knows what a drain it can be, crippling their ability to get a home mortgage, start a business or get a graduate degree. The county’s program could really ease that heavy burden.

The County Council has been generally supportive of the plan (a video of the July 20 committee meeting on the proposal is here). The next step will be conducting a market demand study and cost analysis, which will help us tailor the program to the county’s needs.

Here’s an online petition supporting the proposal, which you can sign and share.

Purple Line Update

Purple Line Update

Many of you have noticed that work got underway on constructing the county’s biggest transportation project in decades: the Purple Line.

While I wholeheartedly support the 16.5-mile light rail line that will link Bethesda and New Carrollton and run through downtown Silver Spring, I know the project got off to a rocky start.

With less than a week’s notice to the public, the Georgetown Branch Trail was closed —  and on the first day of school, which inconvenienced parents and students. The state contract called for 30 days’ notice on closing the trail, but unbeknownst to the public — and the council — the state had waived that requirement.

Any infrastructure project of the magnitude of the Purple Line is going to cause some major disruptions, but it’s the state’s job to make sure those disruptions are as minimized as possible.

For example, I have been meeting with downtown Silver Spring merchants, especially on Bonifant St., who are concerned that the Purple Line work — along with ongoing utility repairs — will hurt their business.

Among the actions we’re taking:

  • Working with county officials to increase the number of short-term parking spaces in the Bonifant Street parking lot and Wayne Avenue garage to help these merchants.
  • Looking into other steps to mitigate the impact on businesses and residents, including support for state legislation that would offer financial assistance to affected businesses.
  • Requesting state transit officials to ensure utilities — if they absolutely must be shut down on a weekend day — are shut down on Sundays, not Saturdays. Likewise for the Purple Line construction.

It’s also our job to make sure the state and Purple Line Transit Partners — the private consortium of companies building the project — are as transparent as possible and communicate often and clearly with the public.

Toward that end, the County Council recently questioned state and company officials, impressing on them the vital importance of keeping the public frequently updated on construction activities and their impact on our communities. These include blasting schedules, tree-cutting, road closures and detours, so people can plan their daily lives around this project.

Consortium officials have promised to post these updates and upcoming meetings with the local Community Advisory Teams on its website, purplelinemd.com, where you can also sign up for email or text notifications. Also, a construction hotline has been set up at  240-424-5325.

The County Council plans to have regular meetings with the state and consortium officials, and I plan to hold them accountable as the project proceeds.

My staff and I have also been working on several other important transportation initiatives in our district we will provide a more in-depth update about soon:

  • New, express Ride-On Bus service on U.S. 29, expected to start in January.
  • New protected bike lanes in Silver Spring.
  • Improvements to Georgia Avenue to make the busy stretch between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, safer for motorists, and more welcoming for the Montgomery Hills businesses and residents nearby. It’s all part of the area’s sector plan.
  • Improvements to U.S. 29 to make it more pedestrian-friendly. Last month’s tragic pedestrian fatality only highlighted how dangerous this roadway can be.

 

County Council votes to raise the minimum wage

County Council votes to raise the minimum wage

I’m happy to report, as many of you know, that Montgomery County has become a national leader on this issue last month by raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

Last year, the County Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but the County Executive vetoed the bill, and we didn’t have enough votes to override the veto.

Councilmember Marc Elrich and I wrote amendments to tweak the latest legislation, giving more time for smaller employers, nonprofits and health-care providers that rely on Medicaid payments to begin paying $15/hour.

I introduced these amendments at our Nov. 7 session, and the council unanimously passed my amendments and the amended version of the bill. The following week, it was signed into law.  

There are many humane and practical reasons to raise the county’s minimum wage.

The cost of living in Montgomery County is among the highest in the nation. It’s virtually impossible to live on the current minimum wage of $11.50 an hour here. In fact, according to an MIT study, a living wage in Montgomery County for a single adult is $15.80 an hour. For a single parent with one child, it’s $29.82.

That means that raising the minimum hourly wage to $15 is overdue. This increase will provide at least some measure of relief to thousands of our low-income residents. These are our child care workers, our restaurant staff, our health-care workers, our janitors and maids, our hairdressers and manicurists, our retail sales clerks.

These are people who struggle to live paycheck to paycheck, often on the edge of poverty.  

These are real people with real children and real bills to pay: bills for rent, for food, for medicine, for bus fare, for heat and electricity. Most don’t have savings to fall back on. They need every penny they can get in their weekly paycheck.

Studies have shown that raising the minimum wage raises the standard of living for our poorest residents.

And much of the extra money they’ll get in their paychecks will go right back into the local economy — which means a stronger community for everyone.

The council was also sensitive to the concerns of our county’s employers, especially its smaller businesses. That’s why the bill gives them more time to raise their wages and suspends any scheduled wage increases if there’s a recession.

I want to thank the many community groups and labor unions that supported the $15 minimum wage, including CASA, Jews United for Justice, Progressive Maryland, Maryland Working Families Party, Service Employees International Union 32BJ and Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.  

Cracking down on human trafficking

12-31-2017 human traffickingHuman trafficking – also known as modern slavery – is rapidly on the rise nationally and right here in Montgomery County, in the form of both sex trafficking and forced labor. I’ve been working on this issue for years. And last month, I organized a first-ever 1½-hour presentation for a joint meeting of the council’s Public Safety and Health and Human Services committees.

The county has a responsibility to not only crack down on human traffickers, but do whatever we can to help the survivors, most of whom are girls and young women.

What do these survivors need? Safe housing. Education. Job training and placement. Drug and mental health treatment.

That’s what experts from law enforcement, nonprofits, social service agencies and the medical community told councilmembers during the briefing.                                                    

Among those speaking was Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Girls, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that provides services to female survivors, including a safe house where the girls — some as young as 12 — and young women can live securely while they receive the counseling, job training and other services they need to get their lives back on track.

FAIR Girls — FAIR stands for Free Aware Inspired Restored — has served more than 1,000 young female survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the past decade. Annually, it provides safe shelter and life skills to 50 survivors ages 18 to 24; about half the young women are from or were trafficked into Maryland.  

Other speakers included Heidi Alvarez, from the University of Maryland’s SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors; Jessica Volz, a registered nurse at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center and co-chairwoman of the new county committee’s Victim Services Subcommittee; Sgt. Dave Papalia, head of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Vice and Intelligence Unit; and Assistant County Police Chief Russ Hamill. All are active members of the county’s new Human Trafficking Prevention Committee.

Papalia and Hamill reported on the nearly tenfold rise in human trafficking cases in the past three years in the county, from three to 29 – all of which involved forced sex work. Likewise, the number of arrests and warrants has grown from two to 16. Advocates are confident these numbers are greatly underreported.

Much of the coerced sex trafficking in Montgomery County occurs at its hotels, especially in Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring. Police are working more closely with these hotels to have staff detect and report suspected sex trafficking, Papalia and Hamill said.

Earlier this year, I sponsored successful legislation creating the first civil penalty our police can now assess on men who are creating the market for human trafficking by soliciting prostitution. We are giving police more tools like this to crack down on sex traffickers and “johns” here in the county, but we can – and must – do much more.

Our police force needs more detectives dedicated to fighting this scourge. Our county’s social service agencies and nonprofits need more resources to help its survivors. We can’t sit idly by and let this horrible business flourish in Montgomery Count