With the increasing restrictions on restaurants and social gatherings, Rockville is slowly feels like a ghost town, or that we’re in the midst of a snowstorm without any snow. To document the effects of COVID-19 on the community, I randomly photographed shopping centers from downtown south on Rockville Pike. A few stores and restaurants were open (such as Fresh Market or Buy Buy Baby), but most were closed or had limited access or hours. Many had signs in the windows explaining they had temporarily closed or that they had switched to pick-up only, but a few just locked the doors and turned off the lights. On an otherwise busy Saturday afternoon, the parking lots were nearly empty. I have a terrible feeling that if this closing continues on for another week or two, it will have a devastating impact on many small businesses, which will have a cascading impact on the city.
Here’s what’s happening at the Mayor and Council on this issue:
At its March 18 meeting (a virtual meeting, audio was poor), they received updates on actions taken at the state and federal level, and how the city staff is coordinating with other agencies in the city and county. The City began working on a response in January by starting to examine critical functions in each department and the possibilities of telework. Dr. Earl Stoddard, Montgomery County Emergency Manager, noted that some supplies are becoming hard to obtain (such as hand sanitizer and N-95 masks); they are creating a volunteer center as a clearinghouse for goods, services, and supplies; they created a COVID-19 communications team; are expecting a medical surge if social distancing is ignored and examining how the former Washington Adventist Hospital can accommodate a possible surge); supporting the school district’s efforts to feed students; and announced that four grocery stores in Rockville have dedicated hours for seniors (who are at greater risk) to ensure social distancing. To support take-out only operations of Rockville food service businesses during COVID-19 response, parking meter spaces have been signed as 15-minute curbside pick-up. A subset of the committee working on a strategic plan for the Rockville Goes Purple Initiative will move the meeting planned for the week of March 23 to a later date to accommodate COVID-19 response.
At the March 23 meeting, they’ve reserved 30 minutes to receive an update. Will they consider lowering the property tax rate on commercial properties (Town Center has among the highest rates in the state)? Will they offer grants or loans to small businesses (as they did with Dawson’s Market)? Will they remind us to stay safe and wash our hands?
I’ll leave the health advice to others.
As for what Mayor and Council will do, we’ll start discussing that during the budget process tomorrow. The City Manager has asked staff for suggestions for reducing expenditures. We all know we’re in this for the long haul, and that much of the recommended budget sent to us just a few weeks ago will have to be revised.
As for Town Square, it was struggling mightily even before the pandemic and the shutdowns. That was after 10 years of the Great Recovery. The impact of the pandemic will be severe on all our business locations. As for eliminating the parking district tax, I’m willing to consider that, but I’d have to be convinced that the savings goes directly to the tenants, not to the building owners. In our proposed budget received in February, there was a note that property taxes were reduced in Town Square. This is because FRIT appealed their valuation and won. So property taxes there have already been reduced.
We won’t be increasing any fees this year. We haven’t raised property tax rates in a long time, and the last three actions on this front were to reduce the property tax rate.
Our expenditures are going up because of the pandemic, at the same time our revenues are decreasing. For example, all revenues from memberships or classes or fees, etc. won’t be realized.
Fortunately, Rockville started this budget season in great financial shape. I thank the City Manager and Finance Department for this due to their conservative budgeting over the years. However, we have to be very careful where we target our response to the crisis. We’re only a City. What’s big to us, financially speaking, is small compared to the need. We can do some things, we can’t do everything. Many economic decisions are being taken at the state or county level.
That said, Rockville will shut off its playgrounds, take down the basketball backboards, and take down the tennis and pickleball nets. While most people have gotten the message, many have not. I applaud City Staff for taking that decision.
Mayor Newton and I came on in 2009 at the tail end of the Great Recession. Our first few budgets were difficult. I remember some of the impacts. For example, our retirement fund suffered badly, and we had to almost double our yearly contribution from about $2M to about $4M, a level of contribution that continued through the Great Recovery. Who knows what is happening to our Retirement fund now, but it’s probably not good. I expect to see big changes in our parking fund, i. e., more general fund support for that. Remember the cost of those Town Square Parking garages?
In my opinion, if we’re going to subsidize businesses such as Dawson’s then we should at the same time be working to better their business environment. We have put too many restrictions on transit-oriented development. But which companies are going to invest right now?
Rockville City Councilmember
We asked City Staff to resubmit a proposed budget and are scheduled for a budget-only meeting on April 13.