State of the County Address -- February 16, 2017   

"Setting priorities, reaching goals"

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It is hard to believe that I am here for my third State of the County address.  I appreciate the Howard County Chamber and its leadership for hosting this luncheon. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – being County Executive is a tremendous honor and privilege. I have the best job in the world. 

I grew up here, raised my family here and have seen Howard County go through many transformations - transformations driven by our community’s values – values which in turn drive my priorities as County Executive. I hope you know how much I appreciate your faith in me to help shape the future of our county.   

Of course, this job would be impossible without the unconditional love and support of my wife Robin and our four children, Haley, Mary, Robby and James.  I’m pleased that Robin and James are here today.

Robin often joins me when I travel around the county. This past November, we celebrated 30 years of marriage. Having her beside me gives me the strength and grounding to do this job.

And as much as I love this job, it does mean that I don’t see my family as often as I would like. 

That’s why Robin and I try to schedule date nights as often as we can. On Valentine’s Day, I said, “Robin, how about I take you to a party with lots of people, a nice meal and some sparkling conversation?” She said, “Sounds wonderful.”

So, I handed her the ticket to today’s State of the County.

Let me start by saying that the state of our county is strong. 

Nothing shows this more clearly than the way we have handled the challenges of the past year. We, as a county, have been tried and tested. 

Yet, we’ve weathered those challenges and continued to make progress with our priorities: 

  • Investing in our education system to keep our schools, libraries and community college among the best in the nation;
  • Growing our economy through innovation and economic development;
  • Providing comprehensive, effective services to our community;
  • Making government more responsive, efficient and accessible; 
  • Pressing fast forward on projects that we’ve talked about for many years.

After last year, our county has not only shown that we are resilient, but we have redefined the meaning of resilience. 

During last year’s State of the County, I stood here and talked about how well we handled nearly 30 inches of snow. 

I think Mother Nature took that as a dare. 

After the blizzard, came a tornado that cut a 13-mile path across the county. And then on July 30, six inches of rain in two hours. This unimaginable storm hit at the worst possible place in the state – Historic Ellicott City. 

Ultimately, it took three lives and disrupted hundreds more. 

90 businesses were damaged, residents were displaced and hundreds lost work. 

Buildings were unsafe.

Streets impassable.

Sidewalks destroyed. 

It was heart-wrenching to watch residents and business owners sift through the mud and debris to find pieces of their lives.  

Ellicott City was knocked down. Experts told us it could be years before it got back up. But… we’re Howard County. 

From the first 911 call, the entire county sprang into action.

Within hours, public works crews began repairs.

Within 48 hours, we held a town hall and resource fair. 

Within a week, a job fair. 

And within two weeks, many were able to come back to collect valuables. 

Slowly, even with a state of emergency still in place, residents and businesses returned as conditions became safer. 

And because of our fiscal stewardship, we were able to absorb the response and recovery costs without dipping into our rainy day fund.

Today, Main Street has come back to life. 

  • 75 businesses have reopened.
  • 9 more have committed to reopening and three new business have set up shop here.  
  • Residents have returned, traffic has returned and economic activity has returned.  

One person who was there for Ellicott City was Pete Mangione, who opened his doors here at Turf Valley to give merchants a temporary home during the cleanup. 

Pete, would you please join me here on stage.

Pete was not alone in his support. I know many in this room helped. Companies like Atlantic Data Forensics, BTS Solutions and many others stepped up. Thanks to all of you.

County workers also deserve a lot of credit for their compassion. They worked long hours, not just because it was their job, but because they cared.  

Every single county department was mobilized, taking on different roles from what they normally do simply because it needed to get done. 

But the hard work, the heavy, emotional lifting, was done by the residents, merchants and property owners. 

During those first few weeks, nearly every evening, I got into a gator with Ryan Miller, the county’s director of emergency management, and we travelled through the West End visiting residents. Many were surprised we were coming to check on them. 

We listened to them. We did our best to help them. But most all, we learned from them.

One example is John Shoemaker, who lives in the West End and who also owns a business on Main Street.

I visited Shoemaker Country often in the weeks after the flood, and watched the degree of care that John had for those helping him muck out his store.  He made sure they were dressed properly, had the right protective gear, took water breaks, and yes, he even weighed them regularly to make sure they weren’t getting dehydrated during those triple-digit temperature days. And you know what else he did? He set the scale to kilograms so no one would be embarrassed.

John’s challenges and the way he handled them is just one example of what many faced in the six months since the flood. John, would you please stand so that we may acknowledge you and everyone who worked so hard bring Ellicott City back.

Thanks John. 

I also want to acknowledge Pam Long, who owns a photography business on Main Street. She’s been instrumental in keeping the community informed by documenting our recovery every step of the way.

Now, while that long, tough clean-up is mostly behind us, we have our eyes set on the path ahead. The Ellicott City Community Advisory Group, a team I appointed to keep the residents and businesses involved in the rebuilding process, just wrapped up its work. 

We were fortunate that former County Executive Jim Robey came out of retirement to share his expertise to lead that effort. Thank you, Jim. 

I wish we could keep Jim longer.  And, Janet … I’m sure you wish we could keep him longer, too.  Thanks again, Jim.

We have opened a new business resource center on Main Street and our master planning process for the town is underway. 

Our thanks go out to the Ellicott City Partnership, which took the lead in assisting businesses, residents and property owners.  And now, the One EC Recovery Project is making sure that the continuing needs of residents are being addressed. 

Through a combination of tax credits, permit waivers, expedited processes and unprecedented resource support, we’ve pulled out all the stops and removed roadblocks to help Ellicott City - and neighborhoods such as Valley Mede and Woodstock - rebound. 

This effort required strong partnerships, from Gov. Larry Hogan to our state and federal delegations, and many government agencies. 

We have worked together in a bipartisan, collaborative way, setting the example of how government should work.

I’d like to particularly acknowledge County Council Chair Jon Weinstein who has been a strong ally throughout this recovery.

Our partnership started shortly after we took office. It was through that partnership that we created the Ellicott City flood workgroup long before this flood. We set aside funds for flood mitigation, and we continue to work together today. 

Thank you, Jon. 

You've heard me say on numerous occasions that our response was so quick and effective because we were prepared. And preparation means learning and improving. That’s why today, I am announcing a county-wide campaign called Ready HoCo.

Led by the Office of Emergency Management, it will help residents and businesses better prepare for natural disasters.  You’ll be hearing more about it in the coming months. 

Yes, Ellicott City required a great deal of focus this year, but we have continued to make progress on countywide priorities. 

As always, one of the top priorities is education. 

In our school system, we provided record funding, investing in our teachers, students and programs. Last year, I made sure that increased funding went directly to honoring promised salary increases for teachers, fully funding an increase requested for special education, and creating 54 new teaching positions. 

I always enjoy visiting our schools, and I try to get to every school at least once during the year.  During these visits, I get a chance to hear from students, teachers and administrators. Just like my quarterly town halls, it is a great opportunity to get direct feedback from our stakeholders. 

We all know the importance of higher education. And community colleges have been at the forefront of adapting to industry changes. They’ve created new offerings and certifications critical for entry and advanced level jobs. In Howard Community College, we have one of the best in the nation. Just last year, nearly a quarter of our high school graduates went to HCC. In all, nearly 30,000 students attend classes there every year, and we’re graduating students who are taking jobs in cybersecurity, health care and other fields. 

If you’ve visited the campus recently, you’ve seen a lot of changes. Last month, HCC opened a much-needed 736-space parking garage and later this year, I also look forward to the opening of the Science, Engineering and Technology building. 

But, we all know education doesn’t just start when students enter a school and it doesn’t stop when they leave it. Which is why our top-ranked Howard County Library System continues to innovate to complement the growing demands of our students and families. The Central Branch just completed renovations, the East Columbia branch renovations will be completed in the fall and a new, expanded Elkridge Branch is under construction.

From student reading programs at the County’s Animal Control and Adoption Center to their latest concept of the Human Library where, instead of books of a specific topic, you can have a first-hand conversation with a person who has a unique perspective on a subject. I look forward to participating as a “book” next month. 

When I ran for this office, I stressed that a strong education system requires a 24/7 approach. 

Our 24/7 initiative aims to address obstacles to learning that greatly influence student success every hour of the day. Later this month, our Local Children’s Board will launch a strategic planning process to develop a five-year community plan aimed at addressing disparities in student success.  The plan will identify needs and gaps in community services, avoid duplication and ensure that dollars are efficiently and effectively spent where they are needed most.

We have also improved Recreation and Parks programming to include summer camps to help students and families learn more about the “STEAM” advancements enriching our county.

As we train our youth for the jobs of tomorrow, I have made job growth and economic development a priority.

Just last week, I announced a bold, new vision to transform the Columbia Gateway into an innovation district.  Innovation Districts are an economic development model that have emerged around the world. 

We will make Gateway a place where leading-edge companies work with educational institutions and startups to collaborate on new technologies and services. 

As we work on those plans, I am pleased to report on some of our economic development successes. 

Since I took office, the county has added 3,000 new jobs. Our unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, the lowest in the county since 2008 and well below the national and state average.  And, our commercial tax base has grown 9.5%. 

Last year, we talked about the expansion of Coastal Sunbelt and the jobs it was bringing to the county. Today, I am pleased to announce that Freshly, the gourmet meal delivery service, is investing $8 million in Coastal’s former location in the Rt. 1 corridor, adding 500 jobs over the next several years. 

That’s just the latest example of how, when competing for jobs, Howard County means business. 

Our success is embodied by companies like NextLogik, HMC, Tenable, Iron World, and too many others to name. They chose to move, grow and succeed right here. 

They seek out Howard County for the same reasons we all live and work here – our location between Baltimore and Washington, our schools, our diverse and highly skilled workforce, and the amenities we provide. 

In September, Money Magazine named Columbia as the Best Place to Live in America.   The award confirmed what we already know: that Howard County is the best place to live, learn, work and play. 

I appreciate the work that our Economic Development Authority does every day to make our efforts so successful. At the same time, county government is directly helping our local companies succeed.

The Local Business Initiative that we established has shown significant progress. In the last 15 months, county government has spent more than $1.5 million on routine purchases with 64 certified local businesses. The new Elkridge Library and Senior Center, a $16.2 million project, is being built by Costello Construction, a local company. 

For our residents, we have worked to make county government more accessible, responsive and effective. In our new Department of Community Resources and Services, we have new leadership and the “No Wrong Door” approach. We’ve added services for veterans and enhanced services for seniors. 

This year, we expanded the senior tax credit and created the Aging-in-Place Tax Credit, making it easier for seniors and retired military to stay in their homes.

We also have supported efforts by the Housing Commission to purchase houses and condominiums for low-income families, the developmentally disabled and for youth aging out of foster care. With our new website and initiatives like closed captioning our videos, we’re making government more accessible.  

But, we know that government can’t do it all, so we’ve increased our support of our nonprofit partners with a coordinated approach to service delivery. 

You know, over our lives, we all learn important lessons.  I’ve learned that you should not let your older sister dress you!  And, I’ve also learned that no one looks good in plaid from head to toe!

And I’ve learned that when you face a challenge, you need to tackle it head on.

For 20 years, local nonprofits have dreamed of having a place that could serve as a “one-stop shop” for those needing human services. 

So last year, we signed a 10-year agreement to create the Non-Profit Center where multiple nonprofits will be located under one roof. 

Opening in April, it will consolidate assistance, increase collaboration and make service delivery more efficient.

One of the people critical to making this center a reality was Tom Carbo, a man whose dedication to the nonprofit community, particularly as the main advocate for affordable housing, was unmatched. Tragically, Tom passed away in November. It was a tremendous loss for all of Howard County, particularly the nonprofit community. 

Tom’s wife Jeannie and their children ­­- Daniel, Jamie and Kristen ­­- are here with us today.  Jeannie, I hope you know how much Tom meant to the people here in Howard County. His memory will live on in the hearts of those he helped and those who will walk through the doors of the Non-Profit Center or an affordable housing project. We thank you for sharing Tom with us.

The Non-Profit Center isn’t the only project we’ve hit the fast-forward button on.  I’ve long been frustrated, as I know you have been, that government often takes too long to solve problems we’ve had for many, many years.  

So, this year:

  • We’ll finalize the purchase of land in Jessup to allow for new schools, including a 13th high school;
  • The widening of Route 32 from 108 to Linden Church Road will begin; 
  • In Columbia, Howard County Bike Share will launch with seven stations and 70 bicycles;
  • We will spend $10 million for road resurfacing to catch up on a $56 million, 10-year backlog;
  • We’re moving forward with changes to the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which hasn’t been updated since I was on the County Council back in 2002;
  • We will take ownership of the Harriet Tubman School and hope to celebrate Harriet Tubman Day at the school this fall. This project is near and dear to my heart, and I know that the community has been waiting over 20 years to preserve the building as a cultural and educational center;
  • TRACKHoward, our performance management system, is already improving services and increasing transparency. For example, since September, we’ve saved a quarter of a million dollars through a more efficient, online procurement system; 
  • We have asked the County Council to support a public-private partnership to replace the aging Circuit Court House. We haven’t kept up with technology, federal and state mandates or the needs of our residents and businesses. Due to a lack of space, a sixth judge can’t be appointed, causing cases to move slowly. Security remains a concern, particularly for juries, victims of domestic violence and children involved in domestic cases. I’d like to thank Judge Lenore Gelfman for her leadership on this critical project.  

We’ve also prioritized law enforcement methods that focus on community outreach and innovation.

We’ve increased the number of bike patrol officers and established a safe place for those completing online sales. 

This year, our police department will add a new position to work with our growing Korean community. 

One of the greatest challenges facing the county has been opioid overdoses and deaths. The numbers are staggering. 

Howard County is not alone in this crisis. That is why we hosted an opioid summit in October to discuss how Howard and surrounding counties can work together. We know we need effective solutions … so, locally, we’ve hired a full-time coordinator to work with families struggling with this epidemic.  We’ve trained nearly 800 members of the community – in addition to our first responders ­­- to administer Narcan – a potentially lifesaving drug ­­- in overdose incidents. 

I’ve also asked Dr. Maura Rossman, our health officer, to look at opening a much-needed detox and outpatient treatment center, and I plan to include the project in my capital budget. 

At the same time, we continue our battle against human trafficking. 

Last year, we announced a fund to support victims’ services and police training and added a second full-time officer to investigate human trafficking cases. During 2016, we conducted 25 human trafficking investigations, which resulted in 10 arrests and help for 25 victims. We sought and received state enabling legislation so our police department can better monitor massage parlors suspected of being fronts for prostitution and trafficking. I appreciate the support we received from our state delegation, and we will be filing local legislation this month.

In addition, I will issue an Executive Order to appoint a Human Trafficking Prevention Coordinating Council to build upon the work of the previous task force with a focus on implementation, outreach, education and prevention.  

With substance abuse and mental health challenges, we know that they are best addressed with an integrated approach to treatment. This coming year, I hope to build on our successes and develop an integration model for Howard County government.

Our efforts so far have been successful. We have an innovative partnership with Howard County General Hospital and The Horizon Foundation to create a rapid-access program. So far, we have connected nearly 700 people to emergency mental health services.  We’ve also funded a nurse training program at the hospital for psychological and behavioral treatment needs and hired an ombudsman to serve as a patient advocate to ease access for treatment. 

In addition, last year’s children’s mental health symposium laid out the struggles facing our youth. The county’s Health Department, in partnership with the school system, is developing a model to bring mental health services into our schools.

Our Fire and Rescue Department is constantly looking for innovative solutions to meet our emergency needs. For example, the PulsePoint mobile app, which alerts CPR-trained community members to a nearby cardiac arrest, has been downloaded over 1,500 times.  Another initiative has placed bleeding control kits in 100 public locations, including schools and community centers, throughout the county.

In the Route 1 corridor, new Fire and Rescue stations in Elkridge and Waterloo will help us maintain our high level of emergency services. And we’re looking at two new stations to serve Downtown Columbia as it gets built out.

Speaking of Columbia, the planned community is turning the big 5-0. The Columbia 50th celebration kicks off next month. For more on what’s planned, go to the celebration website.

As I say that, it’s hard to believe that I’m actually older than Columbia. And, like some of us who reach that age, a facelift is sometimes in order.  I’ve tried a few new looks myself over the years. 

Seriously, I’m extremely pleased by the progress we have made to revitalize and redevelop the Town Center and aging neighborhoods. We’ve exemplified a level of bipartisanship and cooperation that is unparalleled. 

With the support of Council person Mary Kay Sigaty and the Council, we are moving forward with the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia. While the original plan was completed in 2010, we needed to make changes to make it work. We put together a TIF for public infrastructure and a partnership to guarantee the building of full spectrum housing.

One of the highlights of this plan is the development of a new arts complex that includes a new Toby’s Theater, artist work spaces and market and affordable housing units. Toby and Hal Orenstein are here today, and I’d like to thank them for their commitment to the arts and our community.

Toby, as you expand, don’t forget that if you need a costume designer, my sister might want to apply. Here’s an example of her work.

In Savage and North Laurel, we’ve improved facilities while preserving history. We worked with Council person Jen Terrasa to complete a much-needed project at the historic Carroll Baldwin Hall to support community events. We’ve also funded a renovation of the Bollman Truss Bridge, the oldest bridge of its type in the country.

In Western Howard County, we’re preserving land values and supporting our farming community.  Working with Council person Greg Fox, I filed a package of bills to assist farmers in their everyday operations and to stand up for their property rights. In addition, 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. 

Council person Calvin Ball and I found common ground to move some key initiatives forward in Oakland Mills and Long Reach. 

One of my first meetings as county executive was with Calvin to discuss our approach to the Long Reach Village Center. After multiple community meetings, we put together a framework for redevelopment and, just recently, our Department of Planning and Zoning held a very successful Industry Day for prospective developers. 

This kind of collaboration and bipartisanship is what makes us a stronger county. By working together, we know we can tackle our challenges more completely and effectively. 

We came together to demand the sheriff’s resignation after extremely disturbing findings from an investigation by our Office of Human Rights. 

Our action was swift, united and condemning.

We moved quickly again in forming #OneHoward.  

We started with a frank community conversation in December and have since formed a committee of local leaders to find ways to reinforce our collective values.

Again, we came together to demonstrate that we are a loving, respectful and accepting community.  We will never allow a few negative voices to change this. 

I know there is a lot of uncertainty right now about what’s happening at the federal level. But there should be no uncertainty here. Our values of inclusion and opportunity, understanding and responsibility, and collaboration and innovation will continue to drive our priorities as a county.  We have a county government that represents our community’s diversity, working every day to make sure our services are comprehensive and accessible.  

I will continue to work hard to maintain our strong education system, to create and retain jobs, to improve health, human and public safety services, and yes, I’ll keep pushing the fast-forward button so that we no longer wait 20 years to address the challenges of today. 

A little over two years ago, Howard County residents put their faith in me and asked me to lead this county. 

They asked me to make sense of government, to work in a bipartisan way and put aside the political rancor they see on the national level. 

I have taken that charge head on.  And, we have made progress. But there is still more work to do.

So together, let us declare at this very moment, the legacy we want to leave for those who will come after us.  Let us never retreat from living our lives by the shared values that define us as an inclusive and welcoming community for all.

Thank you.