Monthly Archives: June 2011

Banking on a Better Future

On June 6, 2011, I was honored to join the Mayor in declaring that June 2011 is “Bank on Gaithersburg Month” in the City.   Bank on Gaithersburg is an innovative package of interconnected programs and services designed to help our residents — especially those who are “unbanked” or “underbanked” — attain financial security through accessible banking products, free tax assistance,  and free financial education workshops.  It is one of my signature initiatives, proposed after I attended the National League of Cities conference in 2008 and learned about the first “Bank On” program in San Francisco.  You can read more about Bank on Gaithersburg, how it works, and why it benefits not only the participating consumers but also the local economy, community financial institutions, and the government, by reading this guest blog that I authored last year for Maryland Politics Watch.

The program is one of only eight nationwide to be awarded a grant from the National League of Cities, and it has been featured at the Maryland Municipal League’s conference in October, where I spoke to a packed house of municipal officials from throughout the state.  In a nutshell, Bank on Gaithersburg, established in September 2009, seeks to help residents access mainstream financial services, safeguard their money, and identify opportunities for future asset building. The program focuses on increasing the availability of no-cost starter accounts, raising awareness about the benefits of account ownership, encouraging the opening of accounts, and providing free financial education.  In showcasing the program during the month of June, city staff will focus on promotion, outreach, and events.  Look for information about Bank on Gaithersburg presented via events (flea markets, farmers’ markets, open houses, classes), signs, publications, the City’s website and TV station, bus stops, letters, brochures, and other displays.

Ryan presents Bank on Gaithersburg during the "Big Ideas Forum" at the Maryland Municipal League's fall conference.

On May 24, 2011 the Montgomery County Community Action Board awarded Gaithersburg the Henry L. Dixon, Jr. Award for the work that Bank on Gaithersburg is doing to help low-income residents.  It has the potential to ripple outward to benefit the local housing market, local retail establishments, small businesses, educational institutions, and many other entities that rely on financially secure consumers or on loans from banks and credit unions.  When people are saving more, they can rely on a nest egg that makes them less likely to default on their mortgages, or run out of money for college tuition, or require food assistance from the government.  And with a little extra cash saved up, they can spend some of it at local restaurants and stores.  And the more that people deposit into local banks, the more leverage the banks have to free up credit for small business loans.  In recent months, the county, state, and federal governments have all taken steps toward establishing their own “Bank On”-style programs, but Gaithersburg was among the first!

When we added the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance component to the initiative last year, Gaithersburg instantly became the most successful VITA site in all of Montgomery County in its very first year of operation, providing free income tax assistance to more than 700 people, representing 37% of all VITA clients county-wide — due in no small measure to the excellent outreach from Bank on Gaithersburg.  Thanks to Bank on Gaithersburg, 88% of taxpayers using the Gaithersburg VITA service had their tax refunds direct-deposited in local financial institutions, where their money is insured and can earn interest.  Eighty-nine percent of the VITA clients county-wide received money from the Earned Income Tax Credit, which they might have otherwise forfeited if they hadn’t submitted the paperwork.  The total tax returns for all four VITA sites in Montgomery County amounted to just over $7 million.  That is real money that can go back into people’s savings and back into the local economy, especially when considering that 37% of the VITA clients are located in or near Gaithersburg.

Bank on Gaithersburg may have been my idea, but it took the dedication and hard work of city staff, our partner financial institutions, and our partner nonprofits to make it happen.  So I want to again thank all of them for turning my vision into a reality.  I hope you take the time to learn about this innovative and valuable initiative during “Bank on Gaithersburg Month” in June.  It is the creative exploration of new initiatives like Bank on Gaithersburg that makes our City so cutting-edge in the way we govern, lead, and serve our residents and businesses.  I ask for your vote in November to ensure that we continue this successful philosophy.   If reelected, I will keep exploring new ideas everyday; you can bank on it!

Prioritizing Education

Ryan reading to his 6-month-old son Jack.

As the son of a public school teacher and as a graduate of Maryland public schools, I take education very seriously.  That’s why prior to joining the City Council I served on the City’s Education Committee – advising the Mayor & Council on education policy issues and working with local schools to provide approximately $50,000 in supplemental grants to support after-school programs and other educational initiatives.  (The committee was recently renamed the Educational Enrichment Committee.)  As part of the committee, I also helped recognize best practices and outstanding students and faculty with the City’s G.R.E.A.T. awards (Gaithersburg Recognizing Educational Achievement Today).  Additionally, we ran school supply drives to collect donations of pencils, backpacks, markers, notebooks, and any other items that kids in need could use.  Finally, during my time on the committee, we helped to start the “If I Were Mayor…” essay contest in the City, which led to the annual appointment of a Junior Mayor from a local elementary school.  The essay contest has grown by leaps and bounds.

Of course, the City of Gaithersburg does not have jurisdiction over local schools (with the exception of traditional building codes and permits).  Schools are primarily funded and operated by the County (with a lot of financial help from the State), which is obviously doing a stellar job.  For the third year in a row, Montgomery County Public Schools have the highest graduation rate among all the large school districts in the entire nation.  But that doesn’t mean the City can’t play a key role in supporting our students and teachers with grants, scholarships, and programs to build upon and improve an already strong public school system.  The Mayor & City Council regularly submit letters, give testimony in county and state hearings, and meet with all sorts of officials to ensure that Gaithersburg area schools get their fair share of funding and other resources and remain among the very best.  And our annual Gaithersburg Book Festival incorporates reading and writing contests, workshops, and featured authors of popular children’s books – all with an eye toward inspiring the younger generation to get excited about reading and writing.  This year, in response to the Mayor’s Book Club challenge, in the month of April, Gaithersburg third graders in nine different schools read 9,948 books!

Outside the traditional educational arena, we also provide scores of other youth programs with a large educational component – sports programs and leagues, art classes, musical events, summer camps, swimming classes, theater, cultural programs, and much more.  Our two city-run youth centers are hubs of educational activity for our middle and high school age students, and our other outstanding facilities like the Arts Barn and the Activity Center also house many of these great programs.

Ryan at the GHS groundbreaking with fellow Councilmember Cathy Drzyzgula and City Manager Angel Jones

But in a particularly shining example of the City’s strong support for public education, the Mayor & City Council had a wonderful opportunity on May 26 to attend the groundbreaking of the new Gaithersburg High School building.  I was honored to be there to celebrate this major milestone.  Community activists and local officials, led by the intrepid Steve and Laurie Augustino, have been fighting for many years to obtain the state and county funding for the badly needed modernization of this aged, circuitous, and insufficient facility. I attended many a meeting and hearing to educate people about this project and advocate for making this dream a reality. It was a very proud moment for the City as official after official from the county – County Executive Ike Leggett, Superintendent Jerry Weast, School Board President Chris Barclay – all recognized Gaithersburg as the greatest city in the world!

Construction has already begun on the new school building – located on the site of the current school parking lot.  It will be a LEED-certitified “green” building and will add to the revitalization of the Route 355 streetscape.  But most importantly, it will be the high-quality, modern learning environment that our students deserve.  Certainly others have done much much more, but I am proud to have played a role in advocating for this pivotal project which is one more keystone in the evolution of our bustling city, and I am thrilled to see the new Gaithersburg High School become a reality.  As long as I serve on the City Council, I will continue to make education a top priority.