Lehman Talks about Budget, School and Ethics Bill at NCP Forum

Mary Lehman at NCPCA, Feb 2011

Mary Lehman, our new county council member for District 1 came over the other day to the NCPCA’s February monthly meeting and spoke about her new job in Upper Marlboro.

In front of some 30 North College Park residents, her speech covered a wide range of topics, such as the county budget, local school system and the much-controversial ethics bill.

She said the county council recently had a hearing on the proposed county budget at the Laurel High School. The hearing was attended by about 20-25 people. Similar to the State’s budget process, the county budget is introduced by the county executive body. She said the the council cannot make a lot of changes to Mr. Baker’s budget and can only move around money and substitute existing proposed programs.

She said the county is facing a projected $77 million budget shortfall in 2012 (the school system has been in worst shape). The PGCPS is facing somewhere between a $85 million to $100 million deficit. The county executive Mr. Baker, after speaking with school superintendent Mr. Hite, said the situation is really grim. The new budget will affect the school system with larger class sizes and eliminating Pre-K classes.

The school system is also looking into possibilities of limiting school transportation to students going to out of local school districts. The county has the highest transportation cost per student in the entire state and this  costs the county a small fortune. “I know a student who lives in my neighborhood which has a blue ribbon school, but takes an empty bus to travel 20 miles to another elementary school,” – she said. ”To me this does not make sense,” – Lehman added.

Among the other budget items, the public hearing also received supports for the proposed Laurel Public Library, which has been in the county’s funding pipeline since 2005.

She said she objected to two ethics bills in the MD House of Delegates, one by Co. Exec Rushern Baker and another by Del. Frush. She said both bills will take away the county council’s ability to review Detailed Site Plans, and will leave up to the citizens to request call-up to district council on any future site plan review. “We need to have a check and balance kind of system. The process of planning approval favors the developer and is not really citizen friendly” – she said. ”The Planning Board often does not follow its own rules in many cases with giving notices, comments and technical staff report issued on time,” – she added.

Though critics say other chartered counties such as Howard, Anne Arundel and MoCo don’t have a similar restrictive site plan review process, Lehman said that PG county is in a unique position because of the Park and Planning’s involvement in the approval process.  “Unlike the PG county where the county executive appoints Park and Planning representatives, the Montgomery county’s council members appoint the park and planning members,” – she explained.

When asked about the Washington Post’s criticism on the council members’ opposition to the bill, Ms. Lehman said “we are interested in some level of reform, but taking away our site plan review is not an ethics reform.

Ms. Lehman said she is committed to working on the traffic lights at the intersection of Rhode Island and Edgewood Rd., as well as the proposed North College Park Community Center.

February Experience and Enjoy College Park Tour

Jerk Pit

What: February Experience and Enjoy College Park Tour

When: Today, Sun, February 27th 2011, 5:00pm-8:00pm

Where: The Jerk Pit (9078 Baltimore Ave)

The Experience and Enjoy College Park Tour is meant to bring those who work, live, and play in College Park together to talk about local issues and patronize a local restaurant once a month. The Experience and Enjoy College Park Tour has been created by residents who believe in shopping and buying locally, who want to improve civic engagement within the City of College Park, and believe that College Park is a city with endless potential.

FEBRUARY GUEST SPEAKER: COUNTY COUNCIL-MEMBER MARY LEHMAN

Neighborhood Cleanup Tomorrow

There will be a neighborhood clean-up, sponsored by Pick Up America, on tomorrow, February 27, at 11:30am.

Volunteers will meet at the REI/MOM’s Shopping Center in North College Park, and will pick up trash in the areas around the shopping center and around Narragansett Run.  Bags and gloves will be provided.

The event will be organized by Pick Up America, a 501(c)3 nonprofit started by University of Maryland alumni Jeff Chen and Rogner, who was given the Green College Park Award upon graduating. The mission of Pick Up America is to walk across the country picking up trash and spreading a message of zero-waste to every community, town and city the Pick Up Artists travel through.

Pickup America will also organize another massive cleanup of the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River tomorrow. Volunteers will meet at the West Hyattsville Metro Station at 11:30 a.m., before walking to the cleanup site. The cleanup should be done by 2 p.m., according to Davey Rogner, campaign coordinator for Pick Up America and organizer of the event. “Basically, whenever we feel satisfied with our efforts,” he said. Rogner expects up to 150 volunteers at the site. Trash grabbers, bags and gloves will be supplied by Pick Up America

Bill to Stop Gun Sales at Pawn Shops

A1 Pawn at Hollywood

The 21st Delegation of Maryland House of Delegates is introducing a bill aimed at stopping area’s pawn shops from selling fire arms in their stores.

The bill, if passed, will affect A1 Pawn shop located at the 4 corner area in Hollywood. The shop is located close to nearby neaighborhood and only a block away from the Hollywood Elementary School.

The Senate and the House versions of the bill (Bill 705) can be found here and here respectively.

The bill says any person violating the proposed law will be guilty of a misdemeanor and will face conviction such as imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or a fine not exceeding $10,000 or both.

If the bill passes, it will take effect from October 1, 2011.

Has NCP Become a Magnet for Commercial Robberies?

Suspect at the College Park Diner

Suspect at the Days Inn

First it happened at the Bamboo Eater, then El Cordoves, and now at the College Park Diner and Days Inn in north College Park

Four commercial robberies have hit our area in just about 10 days, with the latest two in the past 2 days.

The first of the recent two robberies happened on last Monday evenning at the College Park Diner at the 9216 Baltimore Avenue.

The suspect approached the register and demanded money from the victim, who was the sole employee behind the counter. The victim complied and the suspect fled. Tippet said that the total amount stolen was around $40.The suspect is described as as a black male, between 5 feet and 5 feet 2 inches tall, and weighs between 150 and 160 pounds. He was wearing a white ski mask, a black jacket and black pants, and was holding a silver handgun.

On the next day at around 11:45 pm, the second robbery happened. This time it happend at the Days Inn Hotel located at 9137 Baltimore Avenue., not very far from the College Park Diner.

Anyone with information that may assist in this investigation is asked to call CRIME SOLVERS at 1-866-TIPS (8477) or CID-Robbery Unit at 301-772-4905 as soon as possible.  Please refer to case number 11-053-2666. Whenever information is given to the Prince George’s County Crime Solvers Line, you do not have to leave your name. A REWARD of up to $25,000 (in each robbery case) is being offered for the tip that leads to the arrest and indictment of the suspects responsible for this robbery.

Update: The Washington Post later wrote that a suspect in the series of armed robberies has been sought by the county Police. It also reported that another robbery occurred last night, when the man walked into the Pizza Hut in the 9000 block of Baltimore Avenue, displayed a handgun and demanded money from the cash register. After receiving some cash, the man fled on foot. Details on the Post report is here.

ICC to Open Today

The Washington Post is reporting that the first section of ICC that stretches between Interstate 270 and Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring will be open today to public.

When the tolls kick in March 7 after a two-week “free trial” period, passenger vehicles will be charged 60 cents to $1.45, depending on the time of day.

Politicians and other government officials celebrated the completion of the first section of the Intercounty Connector at a ceremony along the new toll highway on Monday morning.

The six-lane, tolled highway, talked about for half a century, will arc across about 19 miles of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Construction is underway along most of the route, but portions on the east end have been delayed. The road will also be known as MD 200.

The construction work of the portion of ICC  that connects to US 1 in Laurel is scheduled to end by the end of this year. (please see the map on the left).

College Park to Screen Gasland

Picture this. You turn your faucet on and set your water on fire with a lighter. 

This is true. This has happened in dozens of communities across the West and Midwest, where a destructive drilling process for natural gas called hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) has poisoned communities, wells, and streams with stews of toxic chemicals?   

If this concerns you, please attend a free screening of GASLAND, a documentary film on the environmental consequences hydrofracking.  This toxic mining process has spread through our country like wildfire since the revision of the US energy policy by the US administration in 2005.

GASLAND will be screened at the City Hall (4500 Knox Road), on Saturday, March 5 from 2:30-5:30pm. City’s Committee for a Better Environment (CBE) will host the screening.

Its mind boggling and terrifying and unless we take action, hydrofracking may soon come to Western Maryland.

Join in the discussion to follow.  Delegate Heather Mizeur (District 20) of Maryland State Assembly, lead sponsor of a bill to regulate drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland, will participate in the discussion.

If you plan to attend the meeting, please send me an email at faz.kabir@gmail.com .

To know more about the movie, please check movie’s home page here.

On Same-Sex Marriage Bill, ‘Heavy Lobbying’ Tips the Balance, WaPo Says

A change in tradition - definition of marriage in MD

For generations, marriage has been known as a legal contract between a man and a woman to Maryland’s millions of residents.

Heavy lobbying by a group of local activists has all but certainly changed that traditional definition of marriage last week, when one single lawmaker, Senator Jim Rosapepe (D) threw his support for a bill in Maryland legislature.

The support of Senator Rosapepe, who also represents College Park, makes the number of State Senators supporting the same-sex marriage bill (SB611) to 24, a much crucial number when it comes to the votes needed to pass the bill in the Senate.

Out of 47 Senators, 21 have publicly opposed the bill. (Click here to see where the Senators stand.)

Senators will vote on the bill as early as this week, after a Senate panel sent the bill to the Senate floor with a 7-4 vote last week. After the bill passes in the Senate, the bill will be voted by the States House of Delegates, where the bill is expected to face a lesser resistance. Governor O’Mally has promised that he will sign the bill to law if it comes to his table.

Local courts could begin performing same-sex ceremonies as early as October in Maryland.

The same-sex mariage bill was introduced early this year after Democratic Party captured two additional Senate seats in the last November election.

Speaking of lobbying, the Washington Post says: ”Shortly after the [Senate] committee vote, Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s)issued a statement endorsing the legislation. Rosapepe, whose district includes College Park, has been heavily lobbied by university students and others who support the bill.”

A group of lobbyists from the University of Maryland handed over some 450 letters of support to Senator Rosapepe, as part of what they call the ”Tell Jim” campaign.

Reflecting on the meeting with  Senator Rosapepe,  College Democrats President Daniel Borman later talked about what he saw firsthand the impact of their lobbying effort. “As I said how many letters I had, [Rosapepe] said ‘Wow,’ and then I handed him the letters,” said Borman. “I do think it made a difference that so many letters were sent by students. It’s hard for him to ignore the 440 letters in his hands.”

College Park’s first openly gay council member (Dist 1) Patrick Wojahn, spoke at UMD’s Student Government Association meeting, advocating their support for the bill. Mr. Wojahn’s collegue in district 4, council member Marcus Afzali was also present at the forum and spoke in support of the proposed bill.

Read more »

House Prices Fall, Sales Double in North College Park

Home sales nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010, the market has come to life again, but prices have fallen in North College Park.

Mark Shorder, former council member and North College Park Civic Association president disclosed these figures in this month’s NCPCA meeting. 

According to the statistics, number of house sales have gone up from 29 in 2009 to 57 in 2010, whereas average prices have per square foot have fallen from $219 to $188 during this period.

Because every house is different from every other, the number the prices in the report are divided by the square feet in the home.  By this measure, house prices in North College Park fell 14 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Please see a detailed breakdown of the sales figures across the different regions here. Most dramatic changes in the statistics can be seen in the Sunnyside are, where sales exploded (from 1 to 8), but prices fell by 32%.

631KW Solar Panels Coming Near North College Park

The University of Maryland has recently announced the installation of  a 631 kW solar panel system, consisting of more than 2,600 modules, this summer.

The solar panels will be installed in the Severn building, formerly the Washington Post printing plant, just south of Greenbelt Road. The new site will become a multi-purpose facility that will house offices and trade shops that support the university’s electric and plumbing works. The offices and shops currently sit on 40 acres of land slated for redevelopment into student housing, retail, entertainment and a hotel.

The solar panel installation will be partly funded with a $630,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration Project Sunburst Initiative , and awarded a grant aimed at promoting the installation of renewable energy systems on public buildings in Maryland.

Rockville-based Standard Solar Inc will install the system. It will be owned by Washington Gas Energy Services, who will finance the remainder of the project cost and UMD will purchase the electricity generated by the solar panels under a 20-year agreement with WGES.

City Tries Bike Sharing, Again

Bike sharing in DC

After at least two failed attempts to roll bikes on city’s street, the City of College Park is trying again, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The City will apply for the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority grant program, which is due on March 4, 2011.

The City staff has proposed requesting grant funds in the amount of $66,000 to initiate a pilot bikeshare program for the City that would build on the existing Capital Bikeshare program existing in Virginia and the District of Columbia. 

The City staff proposed to put bike stations downtown, at the College Park Metro, and in the Hollywood Commercial District. 

Matching funds of $66,000 from developer contributions ($10,000 from the Varsity project and $31,000 from the Domain project) and the City’s FY 11 Operating Budget ($25,000 ), according to City officials. 

Earlier last year, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments(MWCOG) failed to win a $10 million for bikeshare expansion that it had applied through a federal stimulus program called TIGER. The City of College Park and UMd jointly applied for that grant application.

The original TIGER application asked for 2,250 bikes at 225 stations in DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax City, Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, Hyattsville, and National Harbor, in addition to the 1,000 the District is already funding.

A second similar application also failed to secure funding from the USDOT.

The UMD is also looking at bike-sharing opportunities, as part of the University’s Facilities Master Plan.

Despite the lack of an “official” bike sharing program, the UMD’s weBike rolled out its own version of bike sharing between the Mazza apartments and the UMD campus last year.

Advertising Trash Bins Coming to College Park

Advertisement on trash bin

City is considering placing ‘Cost Free’ trash bins across the town. Unlike the existing ones, these bins will sport advertisements on them.

Over the past two months, two different vendors have contacted the City about this cost free public space recycling stations.

One of these companies, Creative Outdoor Advertising is currently negotiating a contract with the City of New Carrollton.

According to the proposal, a recycling station will have two or three container units, a trash / refuse container will be placed adjacent to a recycling container, in order to reduce contamination in the recycling container.

The City will be in complete contrik of all aspects of teh program ranging from site selection to approval of all sponsors and sponsorship content. A City logo / seal will be attached to each recycling station.

The vendor will hire and train local residents to conduct weekly site inspections. Any severely damaged unit will be replaced at no cost to teh City.

Local small business owners will be given the opportunity to sponsor a recycling station and a portion of the advertising revenues will be shared with the City. The vendor will also allocate a portion of the available sponsorship space to the City, at no cost, for its use in promoting issues of public interest.

Second Armed Robbery in Hollywood Shopping Plaza

El Cordoves Reward Poster

Just three days after the tobacco shop Bamboo Eater was robbed, a second store in the Hollywood shopping plaza ‘El Cordoves’ was robbed at gunpoint.

 El Cordoves is a Latino grocery store, located at 9933 Rhode Island Ave in Hollywood shopping Plaza. The store opened its door only about a year ago.

According to the Prince George’s County Police Department, the robbery happened at 8:00 pm. 

The police is working to identify the suspects shown in the surveillance photographs.

Anyone with information that may assist in this investigation is asked to call CRIME SOLVERS at 1-866-TIPS (8477) or CID-Robbery Unit at 301-772-4905 as soon as possible.  Please refer to case number 11-043-2235. Whenever information is given to the Prince George’s County Crime Solvers Line, you do not have to leave your name. A REWARD of up to $1000.00 is being offered for the tip that leads to the arrest and indictment of the suspects responsible for this robbery.       

Johnson Story Brings National Fame(!) to Prince George’s

Jack Johnson featured on CNN

When the Jack Johnson’s indictment story broke out yesterday afternoon, it made a splash across the local media.

But soon the story began to spread like a wild fire, so much so that it started to appear in national media sites, such as CNN.com

Federal prosecutors charged county’s ex-executive at the Greenbelt courtroom yesterday with bribery and extortion in connection with a “pay-to-play” investigation that led to his arrest in November last year.

You can read the entire indictment here on the TBD.com.

The indictment includes recordings of conversation  between Jack Johnson and his wife Leslie Johnson, who was also indicted in the case.

Here is a section of that conversation, where Mr. Johnson asks his wife to hide nearly $80,000 cash in her bra and flush a $100,000 check that Mr. Johnson allegedly asked her to flush in the toilet.

Leslie Johnson: Okay, I gotta move that too. Where do you want me to move it?

Jack Johnson: Put it in … Put it in your urn, put it in your bra and walk out or something with it. I don’t know what to do with it. Urn …

Leslie Johnson: Whatta you want me to do with the check? You hear’ em banging?

Jack Johnson: Tear up the check and … , um… , and , and um… , and … , and um, tear it up. Just. .. , just tear it up.

Leslie Johnson: They’re saying FBI Jack.

Jack Johnson: Yeah, I know … , I know. That’s why I’m telling you. [Developer A] set me up.

Leslie Johnson: You want me to put it down the toilet?

Jack Johnson: Yes.

Leslie Johnson: You want me to flush it?

Jack Johnson: Yeah, flush that.

[The sound of a toilet flushing in background.]

Leslie Johnson: All right. Now whatta you want me to do?

Jack Johnson: Go downstairs and get…

According to news report and court documents, Ms. Johnson did faithfully listen to her husband, went downstairs, opened the door and was arrested by the waiting FBI agents.

City Population Rises to 30K, Nearly 1 in 5 Houses is Vacant, Census Says

College Park Population

The 2010 Census numbers are in.

The Census Bureau released the numbers for the state of Maryland last Wednesday. It also published the data for the counties and towns within the state through its American FactFinder website.

Once every ten years the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a decennial census, which is mandated by the Constitution. Under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the first census was conducted in 1790, shortly after the American Revolution.

According to the Census website, College Park’s population has gone up by about 20% in the past 10 years, from a total of 24,657 in 2000 to 30,413 in 2010.

In terms of population distribution across races, Hispanics / Latinos have added the most to the city’s population in the past 10 years. In terms of percentage, that number is a whopping 58.5%. A similar number for Whites is only 4.25%, Blacks (6.6%) and Asians (5.57%).

Whites, however, remain the dominant race in the city (60%), followed by Blacks (14%), Asian (13%) and Latinos (12%). 

College Park population, between 2000 and 2010

The other striking aspect of the census result is the vacancy figures of housing units inside the city. The city currently has a total of 8,212 housing units. Of that, 1,455 units are unoccupied.

That means, nearly 18% of city’s housings are vacant. In other words, no one lives at 1 in every 5 houses inside our city (almost).

The vacancy number is rather alarming and thus may indicate problems such as recent housing foreclosure may be to blame.

District 2 council member Bob Catlin however has a different explanation for such a huge vacancy rate. Catlin thinks it could be city’s student dwellers who are to blame.

“Many students don’t answer the census and by the time workers are sent to these properties in June, school is out for the summer and the property is vacant.” – Catlin wrote to me in an email.

Catlin thinks the vacancy rates should be around 5%. “I noticed that other cities had vacancy rates of about 5 percent.” – Catlin added.

The theory that absence of UMD’s students is to blame for city’s high vacancy figure, however, fails to explain why 2000 Census saw a very small vacancy rate. The 2000 Census also happened exactly at the same time of the year, yet the vacancy rate was only 3.44%.

For an interactive map of the state’s Census data, please check this report on the Washington Post.

More on the Census statistics of College Park can be seen below.

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