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March 2012:

Howard Council, ACS Discuss Priorities

By George Berkheimer, Senior Writer

March 6, 2012

Posted in: News

Association of Community Services (ACS) agencies met with Howard County Council members on Feb. 7 to discuss issues relating to future service needs. Implications of the report, “Making Ends Meet in Howard County” (compiled by the Policy Analysis Center, a partnership between The Horizon Foundation and the ACS) were also discussed.

According to the report’s executive summary, current work supports are not sufficient to lift many individuals to self-sufficiency levels in Howard County.

The report’s employment analysis reveals that low education attainment equates to lower-pay occupations, but also notes that industries and occupations that employ the largest percentages of working poor within the county and pay self-sufficiency wages are expected to grow within the next few years.

The conclusion of this analysis suggests that low levels of human capital hamper the working poor from taking advantage of the Howard County economy. As a consequence, working poor people need guidance through the available aids to build human capital such as a central, well-publicized electronic source, information specialists and job coaches.

The report recommends that educational, training and employment services be delivered in a more convenient, efficient manner. It also identifies affordable, high-quality child care as the greatest need for both the working poor and the middle class.

Increasing Needs

The meeting’s question-and-answer session was moderated by Grace Davis, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp. and a member of the ACS board and its Public Policy Committee.

Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5) was unable to attend the meeting and did not respond to a request to provide his input on questions put to council members at the event.

As a result of the economy, Davis said, requests for assistance have increased during the past several years.

Council members acknowledged that their offices have also registered an increase in requests for financial assistance.

“The largest number of folks comes in relation to rent relief and housing,” said Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4). “The other big one that I’m hearing is related to Howard Transit, issues around Paratransit, as well as fixed-route buses breaking down.”

In District 2, Councilwoman Courtney Watson (D) said the predominant issues involve grandparents who care for grandchildren, but who don’t quite meet the threshold for assistance. “We hear a lot from our senior citizens when we have power outages [and for] improvements to the houses of seniors.”

Unemployment and workforce development issues have also become major concerns, said Councilman Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 1), while Councilwoman Jen Terrasa (D) said she has noted an increase in traffic and safety concerns in District 3, as well as concerns about enrolling homeless students in schools.

“[Some schools] get out at 2:45 p.m.,” Terrasa said. “That’s a long time before parents get home, and I think that’s a community issue for us to deal with.”

Communication Gap

Part of the problem in addressing community needs is that many constituents don’t know about the services offered by ACS, Ball said.

The biggest challenge, said Watson, lies in finding ways to bridge gaps among federal, state, local and private assistance programs. Two key improvements could make a major difference, she said: “[A] centralized place for people to go to for resources, and program evaluation to figure out where those gaps are among federal, state, local and private assistance.”

Watson cited the Door to Healthcare program, which grew out of the Healthy Howard Initiative, as prime example of this strategy. “It breaks down all the silos for individual programs so a person does not have to go to 10 different [agencies],” she said. “I think that’s the model we need to try to reach with ACS resources as well.”

Ball and Terrasa recommended that agencies continue working with federal elected officials, both to inform them of personal stories experienced by their own constituents and to try to convince them to change federal poverty guidelines.

“Not many near the poverty line and right above it can afford to live here [in Howard County],” Terrasa said.

Budget Concerns

One of the biggest concerns for community services will be the repercussions should Maryland pass on 50% of teacher pension costs to the counties, as is proposed for the 2013 state budget.

According to Sigaty, that means the county’s operating budget — 35% of the budget outside of the education budget — must absorb a $17 million decrease. “It comes out of your pocket, the police pocket, the fire department pocket, the public works pocket,” she said.

As a precaution, County Executive Ken Ulman (D) has asked each county department to prepare a doomsday scenario budget in the event cuts are needed.

“I’m convinced, as a county, we’ll come together and we’ll handle it and figure out the least impact,” Watson said. “In my mind it’s not doomsday, but it is a very serious impact.”

One possible outcome could be a change in the law requiring the maintenance of effort for education. Another could be to grant tax authority to school boards or to have county government assume responsibility for the school system, Watson said, cautioning that similar scenarios have not worked out for the best in other jurisdictions that have adopted them.

“There isn’t an easy answer; just raising taxes will not take care of it,” she said. “It deserves and requires a lot of thoughtful study in the next year to see where we are with pension.”

New Approaches

In terms of housing affordability, the county has changed the way it plans for affordable housing, having dropped the Moderate Income Housing Unit requirement as part of the General Plan Update in favor of a Housing Trust Fund.

Sigaty said the community should remind developers that housing affordability isn’t limited to the programs offered at the government level, and that they can help by being willing to develop a diverse housing stock.

As Terrasa sees it, one of the most critical challenges lies in transitioning the working poor into jobs that pay a living wage. Union jobs with apprenticeship programs that provide training and lead to jobs with living wages could be part of the solution, she said, while Watson and Ball stressed the role that the community college could play in meeting workforce development needs.

“Success breeds success,” Ball said. “If we help folks make living wages, they’ll be able to pay their fair share. If we stop foreclosure rates and help property values go up, then they’ll be able to pay their fair share in property tax.

“Each time we have this budgetary conversation, we talk about how the assessment value has continued to go down and revenues have dropped off,” he said. “If we can address some of these other community service issues, I think we’ll also see some revenue benefits, and that will be a win-win for everybody.”

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