Despite the pandemic and likely decreasing revenues, County Executive Calvin Ball declared Howard County “strong and resilient” in his annual State of the County address in November.
“We are still grappling with the effects of COVID-19 and bracing ourselves to withstand future impacts,” Ball said, noting that the pandemic has claimed more than 130 Howard County residents.
Building upon the Howard County RISE business relief program launched by his administration in May, Ball announced that former County Executive Ken Ulman would spearhead the next step in the county’s recovery efforts as chair of the Howard County RISE Collaborative.
Supported by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the new Collaborative will develop and provide recommendations on the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. It is comprised of five independent workgroups focusing on Jobs and the Economy, Education and Workforce Development, Public Health, Family Opportunities and Government Response.
“A lot of citizens are going to be engaged in this effort and we will be focused on how we use this opportunity to create a stronger and more resilient Howard County,” Ball said.
Ball also announced a partnership with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel to conduct a government-wide serology effort aimed at determining if members of the government workforce have COVID antibodies.
Taking a Toll
The pandemic has taken a toll on the county’s economy.
“At its peak, our unemployment rate reached 8.1 percent in April, up from 2.7 percent in February,” Ball said. “Since March, more than 55,000 Howard County residents have filed for unemployment.”
Howard County received $57 million in federal CARES Act funding to support pandemic-related government expenses and community relief programs. Of that money, more than $28 million went to the county’s Health Department to support critical efforts to combat the virus.
The county designated $5.7 million to support its struggling industries and awarded 650 grants totaling $1.6 million to locally-owned small retailers who were forced to shut down to maintain public safety.
An additional $365,000 was distributed to 146 restaurants through the county’s Restaurant Assistance Program and another $750,000 was set aside to support the arts community and live venues.
“We distributed $52,500 in grants to 20 local hotels, and we supported 247 local childcare establishments with $617,000 to improve safety protocols and provide support for smaller class sizes,” Ball said.
Additionally, the county provided $1.5 million to 40 nonprofits providing critical services and support to residents and the Department of Housing and Community Development distributed $3.5 million to provide rental assistance for up to three months.
“Despite some federal relief, there are still significant financial gaps in our ability to respond to this crisis and keep our nation, state and county on track,” Ball said. “The county has fared better than anticipated … due in part to cost saving measures taken as early as April.”
The county’s fiscal outlook remains challenging, he acknowledged, and is largely dependent on factors such as the pandemic’s duration, the pace of economic recovery, and whether additional federal aid can be expected.
In October, Ball announced the selection of Troy Park in Elkridge as the site for High School 14 and in November filed legislation to approve an installment purchase for the county’s proposed 45th elementary school in Turf Valley.
Work continues in Ellicott City to mitigate flooding with the construction of key projects anticipated to begin within the next 16 months.
In its ongoing efforts to mitigate potential blockages, the county has also removed more than 28 tons of debris from Ellicott City streams since Ball took office.
“We’ve completed preliminary research and design work on the North Tunnel Project and continue to move forward with design and permitting,” Ball said.
On the opioid front, the county’s intervention efforts have seen positive results, yielding a 37 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths and a 17 percent decrease in nonfatal overdoses in 2019 compared to the previous year.
One solid indication of how seriously the county’s financial situation is threatened by the pandemic can be seen in Ball’s decision to seat the Spending Affordability Advisory Committee (SAAC) for fiscal year 2022 earlier than in previous years to allow more time for the committee to digest, discuss and offer constructive advice.
“We want to ensure we are constantly evaluating our fiscal position and are well prepared for the economic challenges that are inevitable in the current climate,” he said. “We want to ensure we have strategies in place to encourage a steady and strong recovery.”
The SAAC will likely hold 10 to 12 meetings between November and February on operating budget needs, Capital Improvement Plan budget needs, the current economy, revenue, long-term forecast and debt projections.
“Data-informed analysis and constructive advice from this independent resident advisory body will assist us in making sound financial decisions amid all the challenges and uncertainties,” said Holly Sun, Howard County budget administrator.
By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | December 2020 Issue