If Montgomery County were a state, it would be the 45th-biggest by population, with a larger budget than Delaware. Yet, the million people who call Montgomery County home are represented by nine democratically elected County Council members and one executive. Despite the best efforts of current and former council members, a million people is a lot of residents to represent.
A charter review commission is now looking at the structure of our council. However, instead of changing the County Council, one alternative is to create more locally responsive government in places such as Damascus, Olney, Clarksburg and Bethesda. These cities could incorporate.
Incorporation has strong benefits. For the past six years, I served as an elected council member in one of our county's already incorporated areas: Takoma Park. I represented about 3,000 residents. City council members in places such as Rockville and Gaithersburg represent about 10,000 to 12,000 residents. Proportionally more residents have access to city council members' time. We see each other in the coffee shop, at city government meetings and at community gatherings. By connecting with residents, elected officials in incorporated cities such as mine can tailor and customize services, experiment with innovative ideas and help build a unique brand that brings communities together, contributes to property values and creates a sense of place.
Cities and towns get their own master zoning plan, which a city council (as well as the county) gets to vote on and therefore can better tailor growth and development to their needs. Cities can provide their own services, from police to trash collection, library services, public broadband and recreation programs. Here in Takoma Park, we've been able to use local authority to provide the highest density of low-income housing in the county, contributing to diversity and making us a welcoming place for new immigrants.
Beyond creating new opportunities to customize services that meet local residents' needs, incorporation also creates proxy agents to act on a community's behalf with the county government. So instead of residents having to travel to Rockville to testify on county legislation, a city official could do so. City staff can serve on county task forces or committees that residents with full-time jobs do not have time to join. Effectively, residents of incorporated areas have paid advocates on call to represent them to the county government.
Incorporation also comes with costs, mostly financial ones, for the county and cities. The county government loses a portion of income tax, which, under state law, goes to municipalities. The county also has an obligation — not always fulfilled, as we in Takoma Park know well — to pay cities back for services that the county no longer provides. I've never heard of a city in Maryland where residents don't pay at least a little more in taxes than those in unincorporated areas.
The costs of creating a town or city might not be right for every community, but for communities that want to do so, there is more that the County Council and staff should do to support them. In 2007, the council rejected the petition of the residents of Rollingwood to create their own town government. In the future, the County Council should indicate that it will support any community whose residents vote to incorporate. County planners should help communities walk through the process required under state law, by, for example, helping to draw up appropriate boundaries of the proposed community. County legal staff could play a more active role in helping a community understand and set up its charter.
Why would the County Council want to seemingly shoot itself in the foot by slightly lowering revenue and creating competing political centers? Because it's a better approach to giving more of the county's residents access to the power and tools that allow democratic institutions to be more responsive and effective. Strong cities are not rivals; they are partners to the county and add to our thriving local democracy.
The writer, a Democrat, served on the Takoma Park City Council from 2011 to 2017 and is executive director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
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