The Howard County Council unanimously approved a resolution in February increasing to three the number of acres to be conveyed to the Housing Commission to enable construction of a Day Resource Center and supportive housing facility for the homeless on Route 1 in Jessup.
“I look at the vote as simply adding the amount of acreage in order to be able to move something we decided on a while ago,” said Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4).
Addressing community concerns, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) said the new site provides a better alternative than the original Beechcrest Mobile Home Site, near Whiskey Bottom Road.
“Other concerns include safety and transportation, and I will continue to work on those issues,” Terrasa said.
She added that Volunteers of America, the nonprofit organization that will develop and manage the supportive housing component, has agreed to hold meetings and continue to communicate with the community to address any concerns related to residents of the facility or its operation.
“I believe this project is a critical piece of an entire spectrum of services that the Committee to End Homelessness identified in the Plan to End Homelessness many years ago,” Terrasa said. “There will be future opportunities to look at … other types of assistance, such as decentralizing housing and a similar facility in a different location. I truly believe this project will make a big difference in homelessness in Howard County.”
Also in February, the council approved the transfer of $4.036 million between capital projects in the Board of Education’s capital budget for fiscal 2015.
Approval was granted for a transfer of $32,530 from the Grants Fund Contingency Reserve to the Department of Corrections for a Safe Streets grant, providing re-entry services for inmates returning to the community. A transfer of $400,000 to the Department of Public Works was also approved for grants to assist with improving enhanced nutrient removal performance levels at the county’s water treatment facility in Savage.
A Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement for the Riverwatch multi-family rental housing development in Elkridge passed.
“This is a private developer that looked for a solution to bring affordability to an area of Elkridge and a very attractive project,” Sigaty said.
Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5), while supportive of the project, cast the lone vote against the resolution. “Based off the fact that they appear to be doing it within the zoning that’s allowed with the exception of a commercial space where they had to get a waiver … I just don’t think that we need to provide the PILOT there,” he said.
At the council’s February public hearing, John Powell, administrator for the Office of Transportation, asked the council to approve the transfer of $50,000 from the Grants Fund Contingency Reserve for an electric bus grant.
“We’ll be getting three electric buses and an inductive charging system,” Powell said, acknowledging that his office is in the process of completing the procurement process. A federal grant of $3.7 million will cover that expenditure, he said, explaining that the request before the council will fund the efforts of a nonprofit organization that is providing technical skills tied to reviewing the bids and initiating the project.
County Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins requested that the council support the administration’s proposal to expand the scope and mission of the Office of Environmental Sustainability under the new name of Office of Community Sustainability. “This administration believes … that creating a truly sustainable society requires more than an environmental perspective; it requires an economic and agricultural perspective as well,” he said.
Gerrit Knapp, of Silver Spring, a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the Partnership for Action Learning and Sustainability under the Center for Smart Growth he directs has begun discussions with the county to determine how it can assist with the mission of the new office.
“We’re now working with the City of Frederick to create a new sustainability plan,” Knapp said. “We look forward to bringing the resources and ingenuity of the University of Maryland to assist that office in achieving its mission.”
Another proposed reorganization of the Office of Human Rights received support from the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Columbia and the LGBT support group Equality Maryland.
However, African American Coalition of Howard County President Sherman Howell said his organization believes the proposed changes would negatively impact the county’s Human Rights Commission and Office of Human Rights.
Considerations recommended by the coalition include retention of a strong infrastructure that will enable the county to investigate, promote and effectively protect human rights in the county.
“The Human Rights Commission, rather than a proposed hearing examiner … should retain a role in managing and processing human rights cases,” Howell said, adding that effective initiatives and programs to educate citizens about discriminatory practices and patterns of conduct already exist and should not be duplicated.
Budget Shortfall Plan
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) approved budget reductions needed to close a $15.8 million shortfall in the current year’s operating budget.
“We’ve worked closely with all department heads to do this in a way that has the least amount of negative impact on residents,” Kittleman said. “Taking these steps now will head off more serious consequences later this year and in subsequent fiscal years.”
In December, Kittleman requested recommendations from county departments to reduce their current budgets by 5% to close the shortfall, caused by less than expected income tax revenue and lower than expected revenue from recordation taxes on real estate transactions.
According to the savings plan created by Kittleman and the county budget staff, significant savings will be achieved by postponing the filling of as many as 100 vacant positions, across all departments. Vacant positions in public safety and other critical services are exempt from the hiring freeze.
The savings plan eliminates multiple one-time purchases that would have been funded by previous fiscal year surpluses. Expenditures for a pilot street lighting conversion program, computers, office equipment, non-critical staff training and other non-essential items will be eliminated or delayed.
The plan avoids furloughs and layoffs in the county workforce and does not impact mandated cost-of-living increases and step increases for county employees.
In addressing the shortfall, Kittleman also petitioned Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R), urging him to restore $6.6 million in direct state aid for education in Howard County, including $5.7 million from the county Board of Education, $899,856 from Howard Community College and $44,469 from the library system.
“The fiscal 2015 Howard County Public School System budget already reflects a zero-based budgeting approach for the first time in Howard County,” Kittleman wrote. “In short, we are rather lean for the quality education our students receive.”