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State of Howard Addresses Adjustments: New Community Service Initiatives

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Feb. 18 was a big day for Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. It was on that day that he announced the relocation and expansion of Medstar Health’s headquarters in downtown Columbia during his second State of the County address, as well as announcing numerous initiatives related to community services, open government, economic development and revitalizing infrastructure.

The address was delivered to more than 450 attendees at the Howard County Chamber of Commerce’s February luncheon at Turf Valley Resort and to the general public later that same evening, televised on public access television and streamed on social media.

The underlying theme of Kittleman’s address was that of adjustment and new directions to improve government service and quality of life.

“The past year was a year of rethinking, rebuilding, reorganizing and restructuring,” he said. “These four areas reflect our commitment of making real and discernable progress to directly impact and improve peoples’ lives in Howard County.”

Among the biggest revelations: planning a public-private partnership to move forward with building a new Circuit Courthouse, creation of a Consolidated Human Services Center for local nonprofit organizations and creation of a Citizens Planning Institute in the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) to better engage residents in the planning process.

Government Restructuring

According to Kittleman, MedStar Health not only has agreed to remain in Howard County, but will expand its operation and become the first tenant in Howard Hughes’s Crescent project at the corner of Broken Land Parkway and Little Patuxent Parkway, occupying 97,000 square feet.

“MedStar is a leader in health care, and we are pleased that they will retain their headquarters in Columbia,” he said.

Turning to aging infrastructure, the county executive acknowledged that the Circuit Courthouse no longer meets the needs of county residents or businesses.

“We are moving ahead with plans for a public-private partnership to build a new courthouse,” he said.

As work continues to prepare the county’s next fiscal budget, Kittleman said priorities and efforts will focus on four major areas: community services, open and efficient government, revitalization and infrastructure, and education and economic development.

Kittleman filed legislation in January to make structural changes to the departments of Citizen Services (DCS) and Housing and Community Development (HCD).

“[DCS] will become a more robust Department of Community Resources and Services,” he said, while the independent Housing Commission will move out of HCD.

In terms of support for the county’s growing aging population, “We’re committed to implementing the recommendations of our 20-year plan, ‘Creating an Age-Friendly Community,’ which we released last fall,” Kittleman said.

New Nonprofit Center

The county’s next budget will include funding to support creation of a new Consolidated Human Services Center that will bring together the Department of Social Services and the county’s frontline human service organizations.

“This center will allow us to consolidate service, increase collaboration among agencies, improve the efficiency of space and enhance the visibility of our service providers,” Kittleman said.

An initiative of the Association of Community Services (ACS), the new center is intended to elevate the capacity of Howard County human services organizations to meet the needs of the community. A 2014 feasibility study conducted by ACS found sufficient interest by county human services organizations to move forward with planning a facility with shared space and administrative services.

Additionally, the county will pursue a so-called No Wrong Door policy in the delivery of human services. “A person with a disability and suffering from depression and worried about housing shouldn’t have to contact three agencies to have his or her needs met,” the county executive said. “We can avoid service silos by creating a service delivery system that addresses the full spectrum of issues.”

Numbers

The state of the county remains strong, Kittleman summarized, with top-notch education and library systems and a solid economic footing. “Our unemployment rate is the lowest in the state at 3.8%,” he said.

Median income is among the highest in the state, commercial vacancy rates are low, and the county’s commercial tax base grew by $180 million last year.

In response to recurring requests from citizens advocating for greater involvement and transparency in the planning and zoning process, DPZ has suggested the creation of a Citizens Planning Institute to better engage residents in the process.

Transparency also should be supported through TRACKHoward, a new data-based performance measurement program. “The actual time [for service delivery] will be measured, available for review and will show areas that need improvement,” Kittleman said.

Other incentives include development of a pilot program within the Howard County Police Department to evaluate body cameras for officers; completion of a new county website with improved navigation features; and creation of a new 3-D Innovation Hub at Howard Community College, in partnership with the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Challenges

Based on the progress that has been made on plans to revitalize Long Reach Village Center, the county is now looking at options to jumpstart redevelopment at Oakland Mills Village Center. The county is currently working with Columbia Association and the Oakland Mills Village Board to complete a feasibility and design study that will consider whether the center could support a destination anchor and will factor in the future impact of Blandair Regional Park to the east and Downtown Columbia to the west.

“We’ve got a lot going on in Howard County, and it’s all exciting,” Kittleman said. “I am confident we are on the right track, and by continuing to work together, we can keep Howard County great.”

He did, however, feel moved to comment on examples of anger and hostility aimed toward Muslims and African-Americans.

“We are still dealing with racism in our community, and this is not acceptable,” said Kittleman, son of the late State Sen. Bob Kittleman, an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. “We need to work harder to promote acceptance and civility. Together, we will demonstrate that Howard County is a place where every person is valued as a part of our family.”