State of the County Address -- February 18, 2016

Introduction --

Thank you for those kind words. It’s great to be here.

I’d like to thank the Chamber for again hosting this important event. Thanks to Chamber President Leonardo McClarty, Chairman Miles Coffman, and the rest of the board and chamber staff.

I want to particularly thank my wife Robin and our four children, for their unconditional love and support.

My daughter Mary is with us today. She was my super-plunge partner this year at the Polar Bear Plunge supporting Special Olympics Maryland. This was my third year as a super plunger and her first. I told her the water’s not really that cold at Sandy Point State Park in January, so she said sure, she’d do it.

We’re excited to have Alyssa Parker with us today, who was just named to the U.S. National Field Hockey team. Alyssa is a Glenelg graduate who will be joining Team USA in its training program. We hope to see her at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Alyssa, we couldn’t be prouder.

The State of the County gives us an opportunity to reflect back on the previous year. This past year, we lost two Howard County leaders – Hugh Nichols, our 3rd county executive, and Chuck Ecker, our 5th.

Hugh, who passed away in December, will be remembered for his wise and steady leadership and dedicated public service.

Chuck, who passed away in October, was known for his easy-going nature and tireless commitment to public education.

This year, I want to start by offering special thanks to the Howard County employees and dozens of others who helped the county recover from the largest snowstorm we’ve ever had.

I spent several days in our Emergency Operations Center – a top-notch facility – and several nights sleeping on a cot in my office – not so top-notch – and I wish every resident had the opportunity to see the EOC in full swing. The coordination between county departments, the Maryland National Guard, the Columbia Association and others – it’s truly impressive.

I’d like to acknowledge our Director of Emergency Management Ryan Miller for his outstanding leadership throughout the storm, and in fact, throughout every storm and crisis we have in the County. I also want to thank Tom Meunier, our Bureau Chief for highways, for his tremendous efforts.

And I’d like to acknowledge someone who represents the many unsung heroes from this storm. Darren Sirk is a snowplow driver, who put in 16 hours a day for 5 days to make sure our residents could get to work, the store and doctors’ appointments. Darren didn’t see his family from Friday morning until Tuesday night. Few people realize just how hard these folks work.

You know, we worked as hard as we could to get roads cleared, but of course, some people get very frustrated waiting to get plowed out. In fact, we got some pretty colorful emails during the storm.

Friends, I am pleased to report to you today that the state of our County continues to be strong. It is strong because of the choices we make as a community.

The first budget MY administration put together had the highest education funding in Howard County’s history, with 59 percent of the operating budget dedicated to K through 12 education. I’d like to thank the County Council for their support during this process and for the first unanimous budget vote in 8 years.

Last year, I stressed the importance of sustainability, and that applies to budgets too. We’re optimistic the economy will continue to improve, but I HAVE to make one point clear – the days of substantial revenue increases and large surpluses are over.

We need to proceed with caution when considering sizable increases for programs, departments or initiatives, because there are many competing needs and only so much new revenue to go around.

As we work to prepare the next budget, we will again prioritize government services that are essential to our quality of life, such as education, public safety and maintenance of roads and infrastructure. And we will be mindful of living within our means.

The past year has brought many challenges and many accomplishments. It was a year of rethinking, rebuilding, reorganizing and restructuring – a process that will continue through the year and beyond.

We’re focusing our efforts in four major areas:
  • Community Services
  • Open and Efficient Government
  • Revitalization and Infrastructure
  • Education and Economic Development

These areas reflect our commitment to making real and discernible progress to directly impact and improve people’s lives in Howard County.

Let’s talk first about Community Services.

Based on feedback from my transition team, community leaders and experts, I am reorganizing the departments of Citizen Services and Housing. I filed legislation in January to make structural changes to both departments. These changes will expand the delivery of human services and make them more efficient and effective.

The Department of Citizen Services will become a more robust Department of Community Resources and Services. And in the interest of transparency, the Housing Commission will move out of the Department of Housing and Community Development, to make it clear that it functions independently from county government.

We also looked at how to strengthen services for our growing aging population. In the next 20 years, residents aged 65 and older will increase from 10 percent to almost 22 percent of our population. We’re committed to implementing the recommendations of our 20-year plan, Creating an Age-Friendly Community, which we released last fall.

And our delivery of human services will follow a philosophy called No Wrong Door, which encourages government agencies to use a comprehensive approach to improve services for people needing support. For example, 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. We can avoid service silos by creating a service delivery system that addresses the full spectrum of issues.

I am pleased to announce today that my next budget will include funding to support the creation of a Non-profit Center. This center will bring together the Department of Social Services and the county’s front-line human service organizations.

The Center will allow us to consolidate services, increase collaboration among agencies, improve the efficiency of space and enhance the visibility of our service providers.

As you know, one of my priorities has been to improve mental health services. Working with the Horizon Foundation and Howard County General Hospital, we added a behavioral health specialist to assist the Health Department’s Community Care Teams. And we piloted a program with Way Station to provide outpatient crisis stabilization. To date, in just five months, we have served 174 people who were in need of urgent care.

We are very fortunate in Howard County to have a police department with caring professionals, who are dedicated to keeping us safe. As recent events in Harford County demonstrate, we should never forget the dangers they face every day.

In September, we announced initiatives to combat human trafficking, and we are already seeing an impact.
  • We created a dedicated account to fund victims’ services and police training.
  • We added a second full-time officer to investigate human trafficking cases.
  • And we requested state legislation to assist law enforcement efforts with monitoring massage parlors, to weed out the few that are fronts for prostitution and human trafficking.

I’d like to thank the Howard County State Delegation for their unanimous, bi-partisan support for this legislation.

As part of our ongoing efforts in community outreach, I have consulted with the police department about moving forward with a pilot program to evaluate body cameras for officers. Following a recommendation from the citizens’ advisory council, Police Chief Gary Gardner is forming a work group to initiate the pilot program.

This group will address many issues that come with this technology, including cost, usefulness and policy matters, as well as transparency, accountability and privacy. While no decision has been made about instituting a permanent program, this pilot will be the next step in evaluating body camera use in Howard County.

We have a Fire and EMS Department in Howard County that is constantly innovating and improving.

In October, we launched Pulse Point, an app designed to help save lives. We were the first county in Maryland to use the app and already have more than 1,000 residents signed up.

Pulse Point contacts people who are trained in CPR and willing to provide assistance when someone nearby is having a cardiac emergency. At the same time, the app reaches out to emergency personnel for response.

Preparing our community is just another way we are making a real difference to improve people’s lives in Howard County.

When I was elected, I pledged an open, responsive and inclusive government. We’ve made strong progress with that.

I pledged to continue my Town Hall meetings beyond the campaign, moving them throughout the county, and I have kept that promise. We had four last year and will do another four this year. In fact, our next town hall is scheduled for Tuesday in Elkridge.

These meetings are open to everyone. I’m committed to this because listening to you makes a difference. I learn of problems and frustrations that need attention. And some of our best ideas and solutions come from you.

One thing I heard about over and over was that residents wanted greater involvement and transparency in the planning and zoning process. Our Department of Planning and Zoning suggested we create a Citizens Planning Institute to better engage residents in the process. We listened, we agreed and we will be launching the Institute this year.

I want to thank Stu Kohn, President of the Howard County Citizens Association, who is one of those advocates for greater engagement and a community leader on many issues.

We learned that American flags were being discarded improperly, understandably upsetting, particularly to our veterans. So, we created a Flag Retirement Program at the Alpha Ridge Landfill to allow flags to be properly retired. I’d like to thank the American Legion – Post 156 for assisting with this program.

Another way to communicate with you is to have a more user-friendly web site.

I think everyone who uses the county’s website will be happy to hear we’ve just completed a redesigned site! The new site, which went live Tuesday with a soft launch, will improve your ability to find information, whether you use a phone, tablet or computer.

And this year, we will be kicking off TRACKHoward – a performance measurement program which will allow us to use data to improve the delivery of county services. For example, the time it takes to get a permit. Using TRACKHoward, the actual time it takes will be measured, available for review and will show areas that need improvement.

Strengthening our infrastructure and revitalizing our aging neighborhoods is another key priority.

We’re using our available resources and collaborating with partners in the public and private sectors. We started with the Long Reach Village Center, purchased by the county before my administration. After five public meetings seeking input from residents, we completed an Urban Renewal Plan. The next step will be finding private developers to bid on the project. I would like to acknowledge and thank Council Chairperson Calvin Ball for his assistance with this process.

We’re also looking at the Oakland Mills Village Center, which, believe me, we do not intend to buy. But through collaboration, we hope to jumpstart redevelopment there.

County Government, the Columbia Association and the Oakland Mills Village Board are working together to complete a feasibility and design study. The study will consider whether the center could support a destination anchor and factor in the future impact of Blandair Regional Park to the east and Downtown Columbia to the west.

The County has also been closely involved with developing a comprehensive, affordable housing plan for Downtown Columbia. It’s a project that has involved many players and we’re close to the goal line. I would particularly like to acknowledge County Councilperson Mary Kay Sigaty for all her work and dedication in helping to bring this plan to fruition.

It’s hard to believe Columbia turns 50 next year. As we turn the half century mark, there are many exciting things happening downtown.

Downtown Columbia is an economic engine which will help drive the County for years to come.

Merriweather’s new stage and other improvements are starting to take shape. Two new office buildings are under construction, the first new commercial buildings built in Downtown Columbia in more than a decade.

I’d like to acknowledge David Costello and Kingdon Gould, who are partners in Little Patuxent Square, a 9-story, $75 million, mixed-use building, going up across from the Columbia Mall.

Many of you have driven past and wondered about the building going up on the corner of Broken Land and Little Patuxent parkways. We’ve gotten lots of questions about what’s happening there. Well, today, I have a major announcement.

Medstar Health has not only agreed to remain in Howard County, but will expand its operation and become the first tenant in Howard Hughes’ Crescent Project, occupying 97,000 square feet. Medstar is a leader in health care and we are pleased that they will retain their headquarters in Columbia.

All this new development hasn’t distracted us from our aging infrastructure. I’d like to particularly mention two projects that I believe are critical:

First, our Circuit Courthouse simply does not meet the needs of county residents or businesses any more. We are moving ahead with plans for a public-private partnership to build a new courthouse. I’d like to thank Administrative Judge Lenore Gelfman for her leadership and assistance with this effort.

Second, following my announcement last year to appropriate funding to begin flood mitigation in Historic Ellicott City, I established the Historic Ellicott City Flood Group, which recently submitted its report to me. I look forward to continuing our flood mitigation efforts and building on the progress we've made this year. I’d like to thank County Councilperson Jon Weinstein for his support and Debbie Slack-Katz for chairing the work group.

One of the most critical areas of infrastructure in the County is our transportation system.

We announced plans last month to dualize Rt. 32 from Rt. 108 in Clarksville to Linden Church Road.

This is one of my top transportation priorities because of the congestion and safety concerns on this roadway. During rush hour, this is the 6th busiest stretch of road in the state – busier than many parts of the DC beltway! I want to recognize County Councilperson Greg Fox who suggested the idea of tapping into the county’s unused excise tax fund, which could only be used for a project like this.

Governor Hogan heard our call and I want to thank him for his willingness to fast track this project, splitting the cost between the state and county.

Strengthening our transportation system is more than just roads. In January, we presented BikeHoward, the county’s Bicycle Master Plan, which included input from over 750 residents. I’d like to recognize Chris Tsien, for his advocacy on this issue.

At the same time we announced Bike Howard, we also announced a county-wide Complete Streets policy that will serve as a guide for making roads safe and convenient for travel by foot, bicycle, car and public transit. Complete Streets is a big step forward in creating a more sustainable community.

I’d like to recognize County Councilperson Jen Terrasa, a dedicated advocate in support of transportation options. I think it’s appropriate that the first complete streets project we’re including in the capital budget – the Savage Area Complete Streets – is in her district.

Of course, our number 1 priority as a community is education.

We continue to support the important work of the Howard County Public School System. This year, we were again ranked as the top school system in the state. I want to thank our teachers, staff, students, parents and school system leadership for their hard work.

Since taking office, I have visited 55 of our 76 public schools and look forward to visiting the rest. I have enjoyed participating in Read Across America, STEAM Day at Thunder Hill Elementary, 50-year anniversaries at Waterloo and Clarksville Elementary schools, National Honor Society inductions and all 12 high school graduations.

And of course, there’s my favorite – the annual Simulated Congressional Hearings, where 5th graders learn about the constitution and their responsibilities as citizens. I want to recognize Kim Eggborn, Coordinator of Elementary Social Studies, who runs the program. As my public service message of the day, please consider participating as a judge. You’d be amazed by the level of research and preparation our students put into this every year.

I’m also impressed by the variety and quality of programs in our top-ranked Howard County Library System. I love attending the annual Battle of the Books and managed to get to all five last year, even though they took place at the same time! I get a special kick out of programs like Down on the Farm. Even though it looks like fun and games, our children are learning a lot while attending these free programs.

This year, I’d like to recognize Cari Gast, who oversees the library’s children and teen curriculum. Cari’s leadership in the design and delivery of this curriculum for young people is one of the reasons our library system has developed a national reputation as a trend setter.

Our community college also enjoys a stellar reputation and continues to develop new programs and initiatives to meet the demands of students and today’s workforce. I’d like to recognize Mark Edelen, Dave Hinton, and Athar Rafiq from Howard Community College, who -- in partnership with the Howard County Economic Development Authority -- will be creating the new 3-D Innovation Hub at the community college. This effort demonstrates the perfect nexus of economic development and education. Stay tuned for more on this.

We are fortunate to have these educational resources in Howard County. But, as lucky as we are, we still have families who struggle every day – to make a living, to pay the rent and to help their children succeed in school.

There are steps we can take to improve outcomes for all students. We understand that to succeed in school, children have to be “school ready.” And much of that is a result of the stability – economically and socially – of their families.

This is where partnerships, collaboration and innovation can make a difference. In September, I met with the Local Children’s Board and asked them to focus their efforts on both the Governor’s priorities for children and my priority of eliminating the achievement gap for all students in Howard County.

I believe there is a need to expand successful programs to improve school readiness for children from birth to age five. For example, through our Office of Children’s Services, we are increasing the capacity of our “Parents as Teachers” home visiting model.

Earlier, I talked about how our economic development is important to sustaining our quality of life. We are in an enviable position in Howard County. Our unemployment rate is the lowest in the state at 3.8 percent. Our median income is among the highest. Our commercial vacancy rates are low and our commercial tax base grew by $180 million last year.

We’ve leveraged the use of the Inter County Broadband Network to provide free Wi-Fi in public areas, such as Main Street Ellicott City, the Columbia lakefront and county parks, and to increase distance learning opportunities for the schools, community college and libraries.

And for all you in Western Howard County who have struggled without high speed internet service – last week we announced a public-private partnership to bring high speed internet service to households and businesses that didn’t have it.

I’d like to recognize David Furman, who lives in Mount Airy. For two years, David tried to get internet service to his neighborhood without success. He worked with his neighbors and the county to help develop this public-private partnership.

Folks, we’re making a real, positive difference, improving people’s lives in Howard County.

Sustaining our future requires a sustainable economy. We’ve prioritized economic development, and I’d like to thank the many companies that have decided to locate or expand here.

I’d like to highlight one.

Tenable, which is headquartered in Columbia, recently announced a $250 million dollar investment in the company. Tenable’s expansion will mean 300 new jobs over the next few years. Joanne Rasch, Vice President of Corporate Communications of Tenable Network Security, is here today. Thank you Joanne and CEO Ron Gula for investing in Howard County.

In addition to our large employers, our locally-owned, small businesses continue to be the backbone of our economy.

In November, I signed an Executive Order to establish the Local Business Initiative which encourages the use of local businesses for government contracts. I’d like to acknowledge Jason Peay, President of Versatech, who is here with us today. Jason’s company, which provides information technology, engineering support and management services, was the first business to self-certify under this new program.

Our Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship continues to spur local, small businesses. Today, we’re excited to have Evan Lutz, CEO of Hungry Harvest, who started his business through the Center. Not only is he running an innovative company that cuts food waste and donates healthy food to people in need, he was recently on the TV show “Shark Tank” and secured a $100,000 deal. Evan is an example of a Howard County innovator who makes a real difference that impacts people’s lives.

We’ve got a lot going on in Howard County, and it is all exciting.

I am committed to fostering a strong business environment in Howard County. I have charged the EDA to work with County Departments to make it easier for companies to expand or relocate here.

I also kept my word to residents and businesses regarding the unfair and unnecessary stormwater fee. Along with Councilman Greg Fox, we have submitted legislation to the County Council to eliminate this fee – by 50 percent in FY 2017 and completely in FY 2018, while ensuring that we will have the resources to meet the federal mandates.

Last year, we talked about the need for sustainability in economic development, infrastructure and agriculture. We’ve made strides in economic development and infrastructure, and this year, we also have made progress on agricultural sustainability.

We held two roundtables – with county farmers and future farmers in our 4H program; launched the Farm Academy for residents to learn about our farming tradition; and expanded the local food purchases for the Roving Radish.

We challenged our staff to utilize local produce and products and they have increased the amount purchased from Howard County farms from 5 percent in 2014 to almost 38 percent in 2015.

I know how important our farming community is to our economy. Soon, I will name an ombudsman for the agricultural community. This individual will develop an Agricultural Subcabinet to help me support our agricultural economy.

It has been an amazing, humbling experience to be County Executive of the place I have called home for over 50 years. As I said, the state of our County is strong. Maintaining that strength will depend on how we manage the challenges we face. I am confident that we are on the right track and by continuing to work together, we can keep Howard County great.

As I close, I’d like to talk about something that is very important to me: The Harriett Tubman School.

A reminder of our county’s segregated past, this school had been closed as an academic institution and is being used as a maintenance facility for the public school system. For more than two decades, many in our community have been fighting to preserve this important landmark with little success.

Well, we’ve taken the first important step. We have agreed to an arrangement with the school system to transfer the ownership to the County so that we can work with our community partners to preserve this building as a cultural and educational center. My capital budget will include a new project that will ensure that this happens on a set schedule.

I’d like to recognize Bessie Bordenave, a graduate of the school and President of the Harriett Tubman Foundation of Howard County, and Rev. Doug Sands, another Tubman graduate. They are two of the many people who worked tirelessly to save this important piece of history.

We need this. We need it now. Maybe more than ever. There’s a resurgence of anger and hostility that we’ve got to address. Openly expressed anti-Muslim sentiment. Openly expressed anti-African American sentiment.

This has to stop.

I was raised by a civil rights leader, who fought for equality in Howard County. It saddens and angers me that so many great leaders fought and sacrificed to stop injustice and discrimination in our County. People such as Silas Craft, Morris Woodson, Elhart Flurry, Leola Dorsey, Rev. John W Holland and Rev. Douglas Sands. But, today, here in Howard County, we are still dealing with racism in our community. This is not acceptable!

As residents of this diverse County, as community leaders, as parents, as role models, we need to work harder to promote acceptance and civility. And just as my father did, I will talk about this whenever and wherever I can.

This won’t be done overnight. But it will be done. Why?

Because I believe in Howard County. I know that we are a caring community, committed to justice and equality. And together, we will demonstrate that Howard County is a place where every person is valued as a part of our family.

Thank you very much for listening and thank you for having me.