Kittleman: Howard Remains Strong, Despite Unprecedented Challenges
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) delivered his third State of the County address at Turf Valley Resort on Feb. 16, deeming the county strong, despite a year of challenges that included the aftermath of a blizzard, widespread tornado destruction and unprecedented flooding that wreaked havoc in Historic Ellicott City.
“After last year, our county has not only shown that we are resilient, but we have redefined the meaning of resilience,” he said.
In the six months following the storm, 75 businesses have reopened, three new businesses set up shop and nine more are committed to coming back to Main Street.
“Residents have returned, traffic has returned, and economic activity has returned,” Kittleman said.
Key successes and initiatives pursued by the county included progress with plans for a public-private partnership to replace the aging courthouse with a modern facility; plans to transform the Columbia Gateway Business Park into an innovation district; and the launch of READY HoCo to help businesses and citizens better prepare for disasters.
The county also committed $10 million for road resurfacing to catch up on a $56 million, 10-year backlog; and introduced TRACKHoward, a performance management system that has already saved $250,000 through a more efficient procurement system.
Strengthening a commitment to education, last month Howard County’s Local Children’s Board launched a strategic planning process to develop a five-year community plan to address disparities in student success by identifying needs and gaps in services, avoiding duplication and ensuring more efficient and effective education spending.
In terms of the economy, the county has added 3,000 new jobs during the past three years, Kittleman said, and the commercial tax base has grown 9.5%. The county’s unemployment rate of 2.7% stands as the lowest since 2008, well below the national and state averages.
Howard County’s Nonprofit Center plans to open in April [see article on page 21], providing space for multiple nonprofit service organizations under the same roof, consolidating assistance and increasing collaboration among the organizations.
Looking ahead to the next year, the administration is working to finalize the purchase of land in Jessup that will be home to a 13th high school. Widening of Route 32 is expected to begin between Route 108 and Linden Church Road, and the Howard County Bike Share Program will launch with seven stations and 70 bicycles.
“We’re moving forward with changes to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which hasn’t been updated since 2002,” Kittleman said.
Progress continues on revitalizing and redeveloping Downtown Columbia and its aging neighborhoods, he added, while the county council is now working through a package of bills to assist farmers in their everyday operations and help preserve their property rights.
“While we weren’t successful at repealing the rain tax, we’ll be able to give some relief to property owners by providing $100 rebates to those who regularly pump out their septic systems,” Kittleman said.
RTA, Courthouse Replacement
In February, the Howard County Office of Transportation asked the council to approve a multi-year lease/purchase agreement with SunTrust Bank for seven heavy-duty transit buses.
“Right now the Regional Transit Agency has about 42 buses in the fleet, and about 20 of those are past their useful [lives] in terms of years or mileage, or both,” said Planning Manager Kathleen Donodeo. “This would be a $2.5 million purchase over 10 years.” Howard County Administrative Judge Lenore Gelfman and Associate Judge William Tucker appeared at the February legislative hearing to seek the support of the council and administration for a project to finance and construct a new county courthouse.
“It’s obsolete; it’s too small,” said Department of Public Works Director Jim Irvin, who proposed a hybrid public-private partnership to partially finance the construction and hire a group responsible for design, construction and operation under a long-term maintenance contract.
According to Gelfman, the problem of cramped and inadequate staff accommodations is compounded by a trend toward more complex cases of longer duration stemming from an increase in new businesses deciding to relocate to the county.
“Security and safety is not at the highest level, [and] another issue is public accessibility,” she said. “We don’t have room for a sixth judge, and we’ve been certified for a sixth judge for years. I can’t hear a number of extra cases that we should be hearing; people have to wait.”
Moreover, said Tucker, the county is unable to comply with a state mandate for electronic filing because the thick granite walls interfere with Wi-Fi signals.
“Our jury assembly room is small, many times potential jurors have had to sit on the stairs,” he said. “They can be in the courthouse for hours waiting for a trial to occur, and there are no accommodations for vending machines, snacks or even Internet access or televisions.”
Lack of pre-trial space to separate witnesses and defenders has led to altercations, Tucker said.
Sheriff Bill McMahon also testified that limited access to the Courthouse forces his staff to load and unload prisoners on a public street that adjoins a neighborhood.
“It’s an unsafe practice,” he said, adding that the lockup areas used for detention and processing poses difficulties in complying with state mandates to separate adult and juvenile prisoners, and to separate male and female prisoners.
Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO Larry Twele advised the council that an Urban Land Institute technical assistance panel has suggested adaptive reuses of the current courthouse as a hotel- or restaurant-use anchor.
Kittleman followed through on his pledge to veto a bill declaring Howard County a sanctuary community for undocumented immigrants that the council passed in January.
Labeling it “a bad solution to a problem that does not exist in Howard County” and “little more than a hollow political statement,” Kittleman said it “unnecessarily divided our foreign-born community and caused rifts in our county. The bill offers a false sense of security to undocumented immigrants, compromises public safety efforts and puts us at risk of losing critical federal funding for community services and law enforcement.”
The council will vote on the returned bill on March 6 (too late to be included in this issue of The Business Monthly) and can only overturn the county executive’s veto with a 4-1 vote. The bill passed with a vote of 3-2, with Council Chair Jon Weinstein (D-Dist. 1) and Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5) opposing the bill.