Today, Councilmember David Grosso issued the following statement on the recently announced $19.4 million settlement with the food service contractor for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).
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For Immediate Release
June 9, 2015
Contact: Dionne Johnson Calhoun
Grosso Invests in Urban Farming in FY16 Budget
Washington, D.C.--During the FY16 budget process, Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) worked closely with his colleagues to ensure inclusion of his top priorities in the budget. Among his budget priorities is the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, a bill which became law on April 30, 2015.
The bill enables residents using their property for urban agriculture purposes to take advantage of a 90% tax abatement program. Additionally, the legislation enables those tax exempt entities that allow farmers to grow and sell produce on their property to maintain their tax exempt status. Although not funded to the fullest extent, the allocation in the FY16 budget is $460,000, which includes $60,000 for an FTE at the Department of Parks & Recreation and $400,000 for the tax abatement program.
"I believe a sustainable food system encourages local production and distribution that makes nutritious food accessible to all of our residents," said Grosso. "Getting this bill funded in the FY16 budget signals the District's commitment to environmental sustainability and food security."
The final votes of the Council on the Budget Request Act and the Budget Support Act are scheduled for June 10 and June 16 respectively.
On a field in Brookland just off Fourth Street NE where priests used to play soccer, Gail Taylor harvests an ear of Bear Island Flint corn and peels back a husk to find a worm nibbling at the pomegranate-red kernels. Without hesitating, she executes the pest with the quick slice of a knife and reaches for the next ear.
“We have a bit of a corn worm problem,” she says casually. “Usually I just kill them with my hands.”
The two-acre plot, with its urban soundtrack of cicadas, cars and church bells, is Taylor’s farm, courtesy of the Catholic order housed there, which lets her work the land for free.
Since 2012, the 36-year-old ex-policy activist has been using the skills she learned from five years on an organic farm in Maryland to grow crops such as eggplants and tomatoes. She would like to be able to sell her fresh, locally grown produce to neighborhood residents, but doing so would trigger a dramatic hike in the tax assessment for the property. Likely, the nonprofit Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate would be forced to end the noncommercial contract that allows Taylor to use the land.
Taylor has turned her frustration into action, and with the help of American University’s law clinic and council member David Grosso (I-At Large) has drafted a bill to change the city tax regulations that make it difficult for urban farmers to create economically viable businesses.
“The goal is not to get rich,” says Taylor, who gives away the food she grows and pays her farming expenses with her own money and donations. “I’m pushing so the work that we do will be recognized more officially, so that we won’t have to struggle so much to do something so good.”
The city has a number of vacant lots that urban agriculture proponents say could be put to use growing food. But the District encourages development by taxing vacant and blighted land at higher rates, providing little incentive for private land-owners and aspiring farmers to strike leasing deals. Nonprofit groups, such as religious groups, risk losing tax exemptions if they lease their land for commercial purposes.
Echoing similar initiatives in cities such as San Francisco and Baltimore, the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act would change that. The bill outlines a plan to connect publicly and privately owned vacant land with urban farming ventures in an effort to provide more sustainable and healthy food options for surrounding communities and to transform unused and sometimes unsafe areas into productive green spaces.
Introduced in February, the bill offers private owners a substantial property tax deduction — 50 percent — if they lease the land for farming. Supporters said they hope to see the bill extend tax-exempt status for commercial urban farms on land owned by nonprofit groups and religious entities.
The bill also encourages the farms to donate to District food banks or shelters by creating a “farm to food donations” tax credit.
“We have a ton of room,” said Grosso, who introduced the bill with Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). The bill has gained substantial support in the council with Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) joining as co-sponsors.
“If we could create more food in the city, we could decrease the cost and increase the quality,” Grosso said. “If you pick a tomato in Ecuador and ship it to the States . . . if you pick that tomato in Ward 8, it’s better for you and better for the environment and better for the people eating it.”
At a public hearing in June, the city’s Department of General Services, which is responsible for city land, identified 16 public lots that could be used for urban agriculture. Many vacant lots are located in the same communities that could benefit the most from access to fresh food.
Taylor conceived the idea for the bill after running into obstacles trying to find land for her farm a few years ago. She consulted with the free law clinic at American University to research and help draft the legislation, eventually seeking out Grosso because she knew he had worked on his parents’ organic farm in Loudoun County, Va.
For the Brookland plot, Taylor cannot make any commercial transaction without triggering an estimated $50,000 property tax hike for the owners. She donates nearly all of the harvest to local charities and to volunteers who work on the farm. She funds the seeds, compost, tools and equipment with a combination of donations and her savings.She also works part-time at a yoga studio.
The Urban Farming Act stipulates that the leases must be for a minimum of three years so farmers have enough time to make their investment profitable. The bill doesn’t address what would happen if a developer purchased the lot after a farm becomes established in a community.
A provision also requires applicants for vacant city land to have at least one year of farming experience and to be a District resident for at least one year. The fiscal impact of the bill on the city has not been estimated, Grosso said, but the council has budgeted money to create a new food policy director.
Baltimore piloted a program in 2011 that leased vacant public lots to two farms and has almost completed the process for a third. It is also considering a tax incentive to entice private landholders to follow suit. The new farms have rapidly established themselves, Beth Strommen, the director of Baltimore’s office of sustainability, said in an e-mail.
“The urban agriculture movement is still very new, and best practices are changing and developing,” Strommen said. “Some things, like zoning and tax issues, do need to be matters of law, and so we’ve crafted legislation where necessary.”
The District bill is one of the first municipal acts in the country to be released on an online platform for the public to comment on and annotate legislation. The OpenGov Foundation, a District-based nonprofit group trying to bring public engagement online, worked with Grosso to release the act on its MadisonDC site. Grosso added comments from the site, some suggesting vacant land be made available as community gardens, to the official record at the public hearing.
Lawmakers could also consider making a new tax rate specifically for urban agriculture and support zoning that would allow industrial spaces to be used for hydroponics and vertical farming, said Lillie Rosen, food access director of nonprofit group DC Greens.
“Urban agriculture is already starting to be part of the urban development in D.C. This helps us be able to actualize it,” Rosen said.
As she uproots weeds, wearing old jeans and her less expensive, dark-framed “farming glasses,” Taylor says she remains as driven to produce fresh food for the city she loves as the day she started.
“The first thing we planted were little tomato seedlings, and we didn’t have anything,” Taylor recalls. “There was nothing. We didn’t have a hose, hadn’t hooked up water. So I checked the forecast for a day when it might rain, and we planted and crossed our fingers. As soon as we were done and packed, the clouds opened up and it poured. I’ve never been happier to be absolutely drenched riding my bike home.”
From weeding borage patches to transplanting “dinosaur” kale to tasting the freshest local produce, Councilmember Grosso’s Farm Tour this month was a success.
The Farm Tour was initiated after Grosso introduced the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014. This legislation would establish an urban farming land leasing initiative, a nonrefundable tax credit for food commodity donations made to a District food bank or shelter, and real property tax abatement for unimproved real property.
As part of putting his sweat where his legislation is, David toured the UDC CAUSES Muirkirk Research Farm, the Millennial Farms at J.O. Wilson Elementary School site, and the Washington Youth Garden at the U.S. Arboretum. He and staff also volunteered at the Farm at Walker Jones.
At the Muirkirk Research Farm, run by the UDC College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Science, Councilmember Grosso met with Dean Sabine O’Hara to tour the farming facility located in Beltsville, MD. Vegetables grown hydroponically in mobile greenhouses and intricate aquaponics systems that contribute to raising both tilapia and produce are just two examples of how the site is promoting urban farming, sustainable living and environmental education in the District. It was also exciting to learn about their ethnic and specialty crops that cater to our city’s many immigrant communities.
Millennial Farms uses simple, cost effective, vertical farming methods to promote new jobs based around local farming economies. Claire Newbegin and Niraj Ray met with David to show him their work to de-industrialize the food system and contribute to local urban farming initiatives.
At the Washington Youth Garden, Grosso discussed not only the garden, but food education for D.C. youth as well. The garden teaches students and community members about soil, pollination, food systems and more through hands-on garden visits and installing gardens at local schools.
Mid-week Team Grosso spent all morning volunteering at the Farm at Walker Jones, located at the corner of New Jersey and K NW. The farm, run by local non-profit D.C. Greens, not only serves as a school garden for the Walker Jones Education Campus, but cultivates and sells fresh produce at a reduced price for neighborhood residents, and is as a base of operations for D.C. Greens’ work with school gardens and educational programs throughout the city. Team Grosso helped transplant seedlings, stake tomatoes, weed plant beds, and harvest produce.
As the summer winds down and we enjoy the bounty of locally grown foods, it is a perfect time to consider how we can promote urban farming and sustainable living. To that end, Grosso will keep pushing his legislative agenda, including the Urban Agriculture and Food Security Act of 2014, once the Council reconvenes in September.
To learn about some urban farming efforts taking place across the District, visit the websites below:
Vacant Lots Could Become Urban Farms Under Bill
While parts of D.C.—like the H Street corridor, parts of Petworth, the NoMa area, and others—have rapidly developed in the past few years, there are still District-owned lots throughout the city with no current plans for development.
Under a bill introduced by Councilmembers David Grosso (I-At Large) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), vacant lots and plots of land owned by the District could be turned into urban farms. The amendment to the Food Production and Urban Gardens Program Act of 1986 would "establish an urban farming land leasing initiative," as well as a tax credit for food donations and tax abatement for properties leased for the purpose of becoming small-scale urban farms.
"There's parcels of land in D.C. that, maybe aren't in the right neighborhoods or areas for development yet," Grosso tells DCist. "One of the secrets about development is that it happens when it wants to. It's very hard to create development in a place or location where it's not ready." While Grosso's bill aims to turn these properties into small urban farms, poised to produce locally-grown vegetables and fruits, he says that the vacant lots don't need to remain urban farms forever.
"There's a whole field open near 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE," Grosso says. "Someday, development will happen and it will be good and will hopefully require some affordable housing. But in the meantime, we have a lot of land like that that's owned by the District that's just sitting there."
At last week's hearing on the bill, Mark Chambers, sustainability manager for the D.C. Department of General Services, said it doesn't address or take into consideration certain environmental issues like testing, cleanup, and—D.C.'s favorite problem—rats.
Grosso says that Chambers' concerns are "ill-informed" and that measures to control the rodent population, as well as testing and cleanup, will be addressed once the bill moves forward.
There's also the question of what happens when the city decides to develop the land. Removing an urban farm years in the making in a neighborhood community could create a contentious debate like the one at the farm at Walker-Jones. The proposed redevelopment of the McMillan Park Sand Filtration site, which one group wants to see become a farm, is another example.
"We just have to be conscious and not be afraid of the public debate," Grosso says. "At some point, it may be a good use permanently, or it may just be a good use temporarily, but it's doing something other than what's happening there now, which is nothing. Put a farm there for a while and see what happens."
For Immediate Release
June 11, 2014
Contact: Dionne Johnson Calhoun
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Watch Live & Submit Your Questions to Address Urban Farming in the District
Washington, D.C. – Tomorrow at 11:00 a.m., the D.C. Council will hold a legislative hearing on the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014; a measure to transform vacant District-owned lots into food producing urban farms. During this hearing, residents will have a unique opportunity to participate live by submitting questions, comments and other feedback directly to Councilmember Grosso via the MadisonDC collaborative platform.
This is the first time such direct citizen involvement has been captured by the city government.
“MadisonDC is an exciting platform because it promotes and encourages transparency in the legislative process,” said Grosso. “This tool will spur community engagement and prompt robust dialogue around the issues that matter most to District residents.”
To join the conversation and learn more about the platform, visit MadisonDC. Also, visit the Urban Farming and Food Security Act and submit your questions or comments before, during and after the gavel drops.
MadisonDC is the District of Columbia’s version of the free Madison software that reinvents government for the Internet Age. Madison is custom-built to connect the decision-makers in our democracy to the people they serve.
About The OpenGov Foundation
OpenGov is a small non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)3 working to open government. That means making it easier for people to access and use as much government information as possible via innovative technology.
For Immediate Release:
May 28, 2014
Contact: Dionne Johnson Calhoun
Grosso Reports FY2015 Budget Victories
Success with priorities in education, workforce development, transportation, homelessness, environment, and more
Washington, D.C. – Today, the D.C. Council held a legislative meeting on the first reading of the FY 2015 Budget Request Act of 2014 and the FY2015 Budget Support Act of 2014. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) worked in committee to ensure inclusion of his top priorities in the budget.
“The Committee of the Whole put forward a thoughtful and comprehensive budget that will benefit all District residents in the areas of education, workforce development, human services and transportation. This budget is the result of a lot of hard work and careful considerations and I am pleased to support and vote in favor of it,” said Grosso.
Grosso’s FY2015 Budget Victories
Tax Revision Commission
From the very beginning, Grosso supported the diligent work of the Tax Revision Commission. He advocated for the inclusion of the Commission’s recommendations in the FY15 budget, and was happy to join his colleagues in passing one of the largest tax relief packages for low & middle class individuals and families in the District’s history. In particular, Grosso advocated for the following:
- Adding a new individual middle income bracket of $40,000 to 60,000 at 7% in FY15 and later 6.5% in FY16
- Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to childless workers
- Raising the standard deduction for single and married filers
- Reducing the unincorporated and incorporated business franchise tax to 8.25%
Improving public education has been a priority for Grosso since he first joined the Council. He supported the work of the Committee on Education in the FY15 budget and is especially pleased to support the following enhancements:
- $1 million for the continuation of the Community Schools grant program, which works to integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement in our public schools. Grosso strongly supports school being seen as community centers and this funding is vital to the success of the program.
- A provision requiring D.C. Public Schools to report on its implementation of a restorative justice pilot program next school year. Grosso is committed to pushing our education sector to reexamine school discipline policies in an effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Restorative justice programs implemented with fidelity in schools is one way to advance those efforts.
- Grosso also supports the Committee on Education’s decision to amend the Capital Improvement Plan to align capital funding with those schools that need it most. The additional funding for School Within A School, Logan Elementary, Marie Reed Elementary, Murch Elementary, Orr Elementary, and Watkins Elementary for modernization in FY2015 is important to the continued improvement of these education campuses.
- Expansion of the school-based mental health program administered by the Department of Behavioral Health. Social-emotional support personnel are especially important for students. Our kids do not leave the stress of their home lives at the school house door. Even the best, highly qualified teacher struggles to teach a child who is only physically present but shut down mentally from stress and trauma.
- $100,000 to support teen health educators who provide sexual and reproductive health education to their peers.
It is important for the District of Columbia to not only establish a positive climate for businesses, but also for residents who work here or are seeking meaningful work. Grosso was proud to champion and support initiatives to improve workforce development and support District government employees.
- Grosso worked diligently with the Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, Kenyan McDuffie, to pass a proposal for 8 weeks of paid family leave for District government employees in connection with the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child, or the care of a family member who has a serious medical condition. This is the most expansive family leave provision in the country.
- $5.5 million investment in District Workforce Development at the University of the District of Columbia Community College Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning program to ensure that we are supporting workforce development programs that are successful and supporting our residents so that they can secure life-long, meaningful employment that allows them to take care of themselves and their families.
- $175,000 for a new employee at the Workforce Investment Council and a technical assistance consultant to conduct a cross-agency study that will track how each District agency allocates their adult literacy and workforce development funding.
Food Security & Recreation
Grosso believes we need to bolster our recreation options and efforts toward food security in the District of Columbia and complement the strong, robust health care infrastructure we are establishing. Grosso was pleased that the following initiatives he advocated for and supported were approved:
- $8,000,000 for the renovation and modernization of the District’s only Therapeutic Recreation Center, which services people with disabilities and is located in Ward 7. The funding will create additional changing spaces and showers in the women’s locker room, help to replace a badly patched roof and expand the physical size of the facility, which has not been renovated since it was built in 1971.
- $1.3 million to create a locally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enhancement. With this funding, no resident receiving SNAP benefits will receive less than $30 per month in assistance, greatly increasing food security in the District.
- $75,000 to support the Summer Food Services program administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation for low-income children participating in summer programming; $63,000 to support school food pantries at low-income schools in the District; $500,000 in capital dollars to support the development of urban farming, new community gardens and edible landscapes at sites across the District.
Grosso is committed to improving how the District assists our most vulnerable residents, as well as health outcomes in the city. He advocated for and supported the following:
- $600,000 to hire 10 family case managers for families at D.C. General to assess families, connect them with the appropriate social services, and ultimately assist them in finding permanent housing.
- $1.3 million to fund key provisions of the End Youth Homelessness Act of 2014, including funding for 10 transitional beds and 5 emergency shelter beds for youth aged 24 and younger, and street outreach to identify and assist vulnerable youth.
- $2 million to fund the Homeless Prevention Program Establishment Act to implement prevention efforts that have proven to be successful in other jurisdictions.
- $2.3 million to expand the Permanent Supportive Housing Program at the Department of Human Services.
- $3 million to the tenant-based Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP) for homeless families, and those at risk of becoming homeless.
- New funding for coordinated entry system to connect the homeless population to housing and other wrap around services.
- $200,000 to conduct a feasibility study for the CCNV individual homeless shelter to determine the housing and service needs of the population and facility.
Transportation & the Environment
Having a multi-modal transit friendly city that is the “greenest” in the country is something we should all desire and is a top priority for Grosso. Over the course of this year, he has established quarterly meetings with the District Department of the Environment to discuss his priorities, participated on panel discussions with the DC Environmental Network to address waste management in the District, and just last month joined the Anacostia Watershed Society in a river clean-up targeting 25 sites around the Anacostia watershed. Grosso was pleased that the following initiatives he supported were including in the FY2015 budget:
- Budget Support Act language establishing a statutory deadline of June 30, 2018 for the District Department of the Environment to adopt and publish a Record of Decision selecting the remedy for remediation of the contaminated sediment in the Anacostia River. This commitment ensures that DDOE will work quickly and efficiently so that District residents can swim and fish in the river sooner rather than later.
- $500,000 to conduct a Comprehensive Rail Study to examine the impact of increased population on current commuter rail, the feasibility of expanded commuter and industrial rail, and the impact of privately-owned rail crossing on current and future rail use.
- Grosso is pleased to report that the Council will maintain the planned 6-year, $400 million investment in the streetcar project and dedicate $45-$65 million of operating funds to the project annually. The Council adjusted the proposed streetcar PayGo transfer from a fixed to a floating base year. 25% of the District’s revenues generated over the previous year, rather than a locked-in baseline of FY15, will be dedicated to support the construction of the new streetcar. The provision will be implemented in FY2017. These changes ensure that District residents will reap the benefits of a comprehensive streetcar system.
- $187 million towards the H Street bridge, a critical infrastructure project needed for the completion of the streetcar line. Full replacement of the H Street bridge will be completed before Fiscal Year 2018.
- $5 million for the Washington Humane Society, which provides the District’s animal control services, to secure a new location and building.
Transparency & Open Government
Grosso is fiercely committed to transparency and open government. To advance these ideals, he was successful in getting the following reporting requirements included in the FY2015 Budget Support Act:
- By October 1, 2014, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer shall submit a report on recommendations for improving transparency of the agency’s budget, including a plan for implementing improvements by the submission of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget to the Council.
- With the support of the Chair of the Committee on Health, language was also included in the BSA requiring the Department of Health to begin submitting quarterly reports on all grants administered by the agency. During the performance oversight and budget hearings, we heard testimony from many public witnesses regarding the continuous delays with DOH expending grant money. The quarterly reporting will help improve oversight and hopefully grant funding operations at the agency.
- Grosso also worked with the Chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, to include language requiring the Department of Parks and Recreation to submit reports to the Committee on workforce strategic hiring plan to fill 106 vacancies, the development and implementation of a comprehensive complaint in-take database system to quantify and analyze the number and type of complaints the agency receives and report on the status of a system to produce performance metrics.