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Hucker organizes Council letter to State to Limit Toxic Coal Waste from Power Plants

Hucker organizes Council letter to State to Limit Toxic Coal Waste from Power Plants

ROCKVILLE, Md., Oct. 4, 2017 — All nine members of the Montgomery County Council sent a letter asking Benjamin H. Grumbles, Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, to help reduce toxic coal waste from the Dickerson power plant and other coal-fired plants in the State.

In a letter to Grumbles, the Councilmembers asked State officials to abide by current standards adopted by the federal EPA in 2015 when they renew the water pollution permit for NRG Energy Inc.’s Dickerson Generating Station on the Potomac River in northwest Montgomery County.

“Coal plant waste is a toxic stew of pollutants — including arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium — that is toxic to humans, marine life and the whole environment,” said Councilmember Tom Hucker, lead Councilmember for the Environment, who led the initiative. “These poisons, after they’re discharged into the river and ingested by humans, can cause cancer, heart and nervous system disorders; damage the kidneys and liver; and impair the brain development of our children.”

“As stewards of a clean and safe environment for our children and all residents of Montgomery County, I join several of my colleagues in asking the Maryland Department of Environment to reduce toxic coal waste from the Dickerson Generating Station,” said Councilmember Floreen. “It’s imperative the State abide by current standards adopted by the federal EPA in 2015 to protect our water from the pollutants that coal plant waste produces.”

“Requiring coal plants in Maryland to adopt the EPA’s toxic coal waste standards is in line with our County’s commitment to protecting our waterways and our citizens from dangerous pollutants,” said Councilmember Nancy Navarro. “Taking the initiative to reduce the release of these toxins into our environment will go a long way in protecting the viability of our planet for future generations.”

“As we have seen from the Flint Water Crisis, toxins and pollutants entering the water supply can have a devastating and long lasting effects,” said Councilmember Leventhal, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “The Council stands united in urging the State of Maryland abide by the current standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

“The updated guidelines for reducing toxic coal waste adopted by the EPA in 2015 were supported by hundreds of thousands of comments from the public and were to be incorporated into coal plant permits as they are renewed,” said Council President Berliner. “With the nutrients from this pollution already causing dead zones across the Chesapeake Bay, it is past time our state stepped up to require this power plant operate by modern water pollution standards.”

“It is time to require that the updated technology be used at the Dickerson plant,” said Councilmember Elrich. “It is currently available, has been used elsewhere and will eliminate most of the toxic pollutants that seep into the water. The advances in our understanding of health impacts from these toxins has radically changed since the 1980s when the prior regulations were implemented.  Frankly, it would be unconscionable to continue to use an outmoded technology that cannot address known risks, when a viable and proven alternative is available – and the benefits to public health are tangible.”

Coal plants are the number one source of toxic water pollution in the country.  The standards in the federal water pollution permit that the Maryland Department of the Environment proposes to renew at Dickerson and two other coal plants in the state are 35 years old.

After investigating the impact of toxic discharges from power plants into waterways for six years, the EPA in 2015 issued new requirements under the Clean Water Act. President Trump’s EPA put a hold on the improved requirements this year, but the County Council is urging the State to implement the new requirements immediately.

Other coal plants in the country have reduced or eliminated their discharge of these toxins into waterways, and Maryland’s should too, Hucker said.

“Many of these pollutants stay in the environment for years,” Hucker said. “Maryland can — and must — help protect its residents, including our children, and the environment from these poisons.”

Read the full letter to Secretary Grumbles here.

Hucker spearheads crackdown on unmaintained vacant properties

Hucker spearheads crackdown on unmaintained vacant properties

Today, the County Council unanimously passed the second piece of Councilmember Tom Hucker’s effort to crack down on empty, deteriorating houses that drag down a neighborhood’s property values and quality of life.

The bill, which the Council passed on May 2, would require owners of vacant houses to register with the county. It would also require owners of unmaintained homes to pay inspection and other fees. The proposal is a companion to Hucker’s bill requiring owners of foreclosed homes – typically big banks and hedge funds – to register with the county in a timely fashion. The council passed that measure on April 18.

Currently, the county can fine owners of vacant, unmaintained homes up to $500 for code violations that aren’t addressed within two or three months. But these fines can be disputed in court, where judges often extend the deadline and reduce or eliminate the fine, Hucker said.

Hucker’s bill would instead impose fees, similar to those imposed for making false fire alarms. The property owner is charged the fee directly, without any court intervention. And like the fire alarm penalties, the fees would increase with each additional inspection.

Fees for fire alarms start at $25 and climb to $600. Inspection fees under the registry program would likely be higher.

Hucker estimates there are more than 350 known vacant properties in Montgomery County – with hundreds more that are unidentified. Many are inherited or are owned by out-of-state residents or developers “who simply have no short-term incentive to care for the property or put it back on the market,” Hucker said in a memo to the council.

“Vacant properties can not only be an eyesore, they also pose serious threats to the community,” he said. “Research shows they attract squatting, arson and other criminal activity. Vacant properties place a burden on our public safety and housing resources because they are twice as likely to generate a call for fire or police service than a non-vacant property and they have been found to reduce the community’s property values by as much as 9 percent.”

In fact, some such homes in Hucker’s own Silver Spring neighborhood have been the subject of complaints for almost 10 years, he said.

Sometimes, the county will perform basic maintenance on these properties and place a lien on them to cover those costs. But often that’s still not enough incentive for a negligent owner to rent, sell or occupy the house.

Under Hucker’s bill, the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs would actively inspect unmaintained vacant properties and inspect them for code violations. Any subsequent inspections would result in the owner being charged a fee.

Hucker said similar approaches to this problem have been successful in Chicago, Los Angeles and Wilmington, Del. The registry in Wilmington showed a 40 percent drop in vacant properties two years after it was established.

In determining whether a property is vacant, the bill directs the county staff to look for indications such as past due utility notices; disconnected utilities; accumulated mail; no window coverings; no observable furniture; open accessibility; deferred maintenance; and whether the home is boarded up.

Properties that are being renovated or are being sold or rented would not be required to be registered. Also, homeowners who are away for a period of time but plan to return need not register.

The bill has picked up numerous endorsements from homeowner and civic groups, the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, and the Justice and Advocacy Council of Montgomery County for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Foreclosing lenders: Register or pay up

When a bank forecloses on a home, it’s not just a problem for the owner. It can mean bad news for the whole neighborhood.

Councilmember Hucker interviewed by Channel 4
Councilmember Hucker interviewed by Channel 4

Too often, until they resell the house, banks and other lenders can make lousy neighbors. Sometimes they neglect the home, which can fall into disrepair. Rats and other pests may take up residence. Squatters can move in. The home might become a magnet for criminal activity. The lenders might not have the lawn mowed or sidewalks shoveled after snowstorms.

The result can be a dangerous eyesore that drags down the entire neighborhood, as both its quality of life and property values suffer.

Montgomery County is not immune to the problem.

“They’re targets for arsons and fires, utility problems, there’s drug parties that go on in some of these,” Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker told NBC4.

Maryland is typically among the top five states with the nation’s highest foreclosure rates and Montgomery County has among the highest rates in the state. According to RealtyTrac, which compiles foreclosure data, the Burtonsville area has the county’s second-highest rate, following Sandy Spring.

And while about 20 percent of lenders statewide are late or don’t register foreclosed homes at all, the Montgomery County rate was 34 percent in fiscal year 2015.

The Montgomery County Council took action on April 18 to combat these abuses.

Lenders are expected to transfer property titles within 30 days of foreclosing on a home, but many take up to nine months to do so – with some delaying for well over a year. Among the biggest offenders are Wells Fargo, Bank of America and large hedge funds.

State officials say many lenders put off transferring titles until they resell the home or they may simply transfer the title from the previous owner to the new owner.

One result is a loss of county revenue, as the title fees on a median-value home in the county average $6,600. Another result is that the county doesn’t know who owns the home, and can’t hold the owner accountable for its upkeep and tax payments. 

The new county action, spearheaded by Hucker, lets the county take advantage of a state law that allows counties to levy a civil penalty of $1,000 per day against lenders that drag their feet in registering their foreclosed properties.

“These houses are sitting around and rotting in our neighborhoods,” Hucker said before the nine-member council unanimously approved the measure, which is expected to take effect this summer. “It’s an incentive to get the homes back on the market and also get some revenue to help offset the public safety costs.”

Among the groups supporting the bill were several civic associations in the Silver Spring area, the Montgomery Housing Partnership, and the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

Another supporter is Phillip Robinson, whose law firm, the Consumer Law Center in Silver Spring, represents homeowners statewide who have problems with the same hedge funds and other lenders that the new bill targets.  

The new bill is an “important step” in fixing “one piece of a complicated puzzle in dealing with the remnants of the financial crisis,” Robinson said in an interview.

Too often, big banks such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Chase, have been “incompetent” managing large numbers of mortgages, so they sell them off to a “new crop” of hedge funds and mortgage servicers that also don’t know how to manage them well, Robinson said.

When the home is occupied, these mortgage owners might fail to work with the homeowners to modify the loans and make them perform, he said.

But another consequence, which the county bill tackles, is abandoned homes, which can become a neighborhood “nuisance” and drag down nearby property values, Robinson said.

“Tom’s bill addresses some of the same symptoms that I deal with,” he said.


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Lawmakers Weigh Labor Laws for Part-Time Workers

Lawmakers Weigh Labor Laws for Part-Time Workers

Every new parent deserves some time off work with their babies, whether they are newborns, adopted or foster children. But today we heard testimony about new mothers leaving babies in the NICU for a few days while they return to work to pay their bills. I’m Glad WRC-TV is making sure people know about efforts to provide paid leave for parents in Montgomery County and DC. And thanks to Del. Ariana Kelly, Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), Working Matters, Public Justice Center, MomsRising.org, NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, Womens Democratic Club and Jews United for Justice for supporting this common-sense protection for working families!

Abandoned Homes: A Growing Problem in Our Community

Abandoned Homes: A Growing Problem in Our Community

The Great Recession may be over, but the aftermath is still being felt in communities all across the country. Here in Montgomery County, we have more than 400 abandoned properties that continue to drive down nearby home values and attract neighborhood crime.

Abandoned homes are a magnet for dangerous criminal activities, such as squatting, arson and defacement. Unused houses are nearly twice as likely than occupied houses to generate calls for fire or police service, and they lower neighboring property values by as much as 10%. Not only are abandoned houses an eyesore, they pose a serious public safety risk and deter new families from purchasing homes in our county.

I am introducing legislation to reduce the number of abandoned homes and make our community safer. My bill will require unoccupied homeowners to register with the county, and will increase inspections and implement graduated fees for unmaintained homes. Enacting this bill could deter homeowners from leaving properties unused and unkempt for long periods of time, and gives absentee owners incentives to repair and then to sell, rent, or occupy their property.

Here are the basic guidelines of my proposal:

      • Establish a vacant property registration
      • Require an initial inspection within a month of registering.
      • Allow homeowners 30 days to fix any code violations.
      • Charge any subsequent inspections performed by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs(DHCA) to the homeowner using a graduated fee schedule (similar to the False Alarm Response Fee Schedule).

Properties that are no longer in use are more than just a symptom of macroeconomic forces  — their links to crime and sinking property values  make them unique problems in and of themselves.  In order to stave off community decline and disinvestment, we have to act now.

If you know of any abandoned properties in your community, I am asking you to please send your photos and locations to councilmember.hucker@mongtomerycountymd.gov. Together, we will keep our community safe and strong.

Big Victory on Early Voting

Big Victory on Early Voting

We did it. The State Board of Elections approved Montgomery County’s revised early voting plan. The new plan reversed the earlier decision by the GOP majority to eliminate early voting locations in some of our most diverse and vibrant communities and guarantees that all of our residents will have an opportunity to freely exercise their right to vote. Will you please chip in today so I can continue the fight to preserve voting rights for all Montgomery County residents?

I’m proud of everyone in Maryland who joined me and leapt into action to fight the misguided decision to eliminate early voting in East County and Bethesda, potentially disenfranchising thousands of voters. You were not silent when Republicans threatened to make it harder than ever to vote. You wrote letters, you signed petitions, you made phone calls, you attended rallies and you spoke to your neighbors and friends about why this issue is so important to our democracy.

This is your victory.

But I am not satisfied with this win. In Maryland and in Montgomery County, we should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up more roadblocks. That’s why I was an original cosponsor of the early voting legislation in Annapolis, advocated for expanding early voting on Sundays and voted for legislation adding same-day voter registration. And that’s why I’m pushing for state legislation to allow automatic voter registration.

And I will keep fighting to make voting easier. With a population greater than six states and the District of Columbia, I firmly believe that having only nine early voting centers is insufficient and does not serve the voters of our County well. As soon as the General Assembly session begins in January, I will be pushing to increase the number of early voting locations.  Early voting reduces lines and gives more citizens a chance to be heard — especially those with work or family obligations that make it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day. And many of our communities – including Takoma Park – deserve their own early voting location.

We share the same values when it comes to voting: As an American your voice counts. And no matter what you look like, how much money you have or where you come from you have the right to vote. I will never stop fighting to put these values into action.

This was a big win in the effort to make voting easier for all citizens. Please pitch in today so we can continue this fight.

Thanks,

Tom

Human Trafficking Bill 39-15 Enacted

Human Trafficking Bill 39-15 Enacted

Today, Council Bill 39-15 was enacted by the Montgomery County Council by unanimous vote to help combat human trafficking. Councilmember Hucker introduced the legislation with Councilmember Craig Rice.

Councilmember Hucker made this statement after the bill’s passage, “Thanks to co-lead sponsor Craig Rice and all my other Montgomery County MD Council colleagues for their unanimous support of my legislation to establish a strong new disincentive to dry up the market for human trafficking in Montgomery County. We need to send a message to traffickers that they’re not welcome here, and today we did that. Thanks to the Montgomery County Police Department (Official), Archdiocese of Washington, Montgomery County Commission for Women, Safe Silver Spring, The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, Montgomery County NOW and all the other advocates!”

In recent years, Montgomery County has become a thriving location for human sex trafficking due to its location along the I-95 corridor, low crime rate, and high disposable income. Council Bill 39-15 gives Montgomery County Police the authority to issue civil or criminal citations to anyone looking to purchase sex in the county. The U.S. Department of Justice has found this demand-reduction approach to be effective at combating human trafficking.

The office is continuing to work with the Montgomery County Human Trafficking Task Force, advocacy groups, and stakeholders on other solutions to combat this pressing issue.

Early Voting & Student Debt: Bethesda Magazine Coverage

Early Voting & Student Debt: Bethesda Magazine Coverage

Proposed State Laws for Montgomery County Focus on Changes in Alcohol, Election Regulations

One bill would enable the county to set up a student loan authority to help local students finance college educations

By Andrew Metcalf of Bethesda Magazine

Excerpt:

The Maryland General Assembly will return to work in January and Montgomery County’s state representatives are preparing a number of bills pertaining to local issues to introduce in the 2016 session.

2015-11-18 local bills

Among the proposals is the bill already generating a significant amount of controversy—Del. Bill Frick (D-Dist. 16) and five other representatives are sponsoring legislation to enable private distributors to sell alcohol in the county and compete directly with the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC).

A number of other bills have been posted on the county delegation’s website for consideration this year. The public will have an opportunity to comment on all the bills at a 7 p.m. Nov. 30 public hearing at the County Council office building in Rockville.

Here is some of the legislation proposed by the county’s delegation this year:

To increase the number of early voting centers – MC 14-16

This bill would increase the number of early voting centers from eight to 10 in the county. The legislation follows controversy surrounding early voting centers after the Board of Elections voted to relocate centers in Burtonsville and Chevy Chase. The Republican majority board later reinstated the voting centers after Democrats vehemently protested the change. However, after the controversy was settled, County Executive Ike Leggett said in a letter he would support state legislation that would add an early voting site in Potomac.

To enable the county to set up a student loan refinancing authority – MC 27-16

More than a dozen county representatives signed on to support this bill, which would enable the county to set up a student loan refinancing authority. The authority could help local students finance the cost of higher education through loans it would offer, according to the bill. Because this is “enabling legislation,” the bill would not automatically set up the authority upon passage; county officials would have to establish the authority and appoint a five-member board to run it. If established, the authority could then raise funds by issuing bonds in order to provide college loans to students.

Park Wayne Apartment Fire in Silver Spring

Park Wayne Apartment Fire in Silver Spring

We’re still working with A Wider Circle to assist our Silver Spring neighbors displaced by the fire in the Park Wayne Apartment. They are accepting online donations here: https://awidercircle.networkforgood.com/…/7355-a-wider-circ…. Checks can be sent to A Wider Circle, 4808 Moorland Lane, Suite 802, Bethesda, MD 20814. Please write “Park Wayne apartments” in the memo. The point of contact is Erin Fiaschetti, erin@awidercircle.org; 301-608-3504.

“One family is in need of two twin beds and some chairs. Donations of food, water, or other large items can drop them off at A Wider Circle, 9159 Brookville Road, from 9am – 6 pm Monday -Saturday, and 12 to 6 pm on Sunday. Contact Anne Thompson annethompson@awidercircle.org; 301-608-3504.”