In the eyes of its elected officials and top government employees, Howard County is the best county in the state.
Last week, some of the county's top officials, including County Executive Ken Ulman, Police Chief Bill McMahon and Budget Administrator Ray Wacks, got to share some of the reasons why with officials from other counties throughout the state. The three all served as panelists during education sessions held Aug. 15-18 at the annual Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City.
Some in the audience were impressed with the Howard leaders' advice. Others still had doubts.
"I think your county executive has a very good mind set on this issue," Wayne Strausburg, Wicomico County's director of administration said after Ulman spoke during the final education session of the conference, a discussion regarding county government collaboration on school board budgets. "I was impressed with his approach and I'd really like to see that approach across the state."
Ulman, one of three panelists that led the discussion, talked about the millions of dollars his administration has saved by collaborating with the Howard County Board of Education to find various cost savings in its operating budget.
He gave several examples of savings: $500,000 a year by eliminating the county cable television station and sharing the school system's cable service provider; $30,000 a year by having the school system fill up its vehicles at the county fleet maintenance facility; $10,000 a year by sharing responsibilities for athletic field maintenance, among others.
Though many of the initiatives Ulman discussed were ones he started early in his first term as county executive, he said he continues to look for ways in which the county government and the school system can find efficiencies. For example, the county has took a lead role in the rollout of the statewide broadband network, which will pull schools across the region onto the same network and allow the county to save at least $1 million from pulling of leased lines.
"I'm a big believer in putting the right incentives in the right places to be effective," Ulman said.
After the panelists spoke, Talbot County Council member Laura Price, a Republican, noted: "I'm struggling with how are we going to be able to convince the Boards of Education. There's no incentive … Ken, I remember watching you testify during the whole maintenance of effort (discussion) in Annapolis and I could sense your frustration.".
Ulman agreed the lack of control can be frustrating, but the changes the General Assembly passed to the maintenance of effort include incentives for county governments and school boards to find savings, namely a credit toward the county's required funding level for the savings it found.
"It would be nice if the state could say you have to sit down," Price said, noting that Talbot County government has had to reduce its work force while school system staff have been given raises.
Ulman responded, somewhat jokingly, that it's hard to legislate cooperation.
Richard Price, a Republican Dorchester County Council member, said Ulman and the other two panel members had "good thoughts but there has to be a practical approach to them ... as to how we can produce the best results together without having to factoring the maintenance of effort, teacher pension and everything else."
Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt, a Democrat, said the relationship between his county government and the Wicomico school board "has been strained in recent years," but he was optimistic it could improve.
"We can't continue to deal in silo mentalities with the economy the way it is ... We really have to get together and take a big picture approach," Pollitt said.
Costs versus benefits
Members of Ulman's administration also were invited to speak during a few of the education sessions. McMahon sat on a panel Aug. 17 that discussed how law enforcement practices change with new technology. At the same time Wacks sat on a panel discussing how Howard County budgets for fluctuations in income tax revenues.
McMahon, and the two other panelists who spoke with him, described the benefits various technologies have reaped for police in solving crimes, as well as the budget challenges the demand for such technology creates.
"We start putting this technology in our hands and it's successful and our cops are locking up bad guys and making communities safe, they come to demand it," McMahon said.
He said Ulman and the Howard County "get public safety" and have budgeted in recent years for additional officers and the various costs that come with increasing patrols.