Howard County executive candidates Courtney Watson and Allan Kittleman agreed Tuesday night that this year's election is critically important to the county's future.
Where they differed was over whose vision would best serve Howard residents.
"We've talked about a lot of issues tonight, we've talked about differences in opinions," Kittleman, a state senator from West Friendship and the Republican candidate, said. "Some of those issues are going to change, so you need to elect a person you're going to trust."
"I maintain that the only way to judge us is based on our experience, our vision and our results," Watson, a Democratic councilwoman from Ellicott City, responded. "Howard County is on an upward trajectory. This is not the time to go in a different direction."
Throughout the course of the debate, sponsored by the Baltimore Sun Media Group and held at the Miller Branch library in Ellicott City, both candidates strove to hold the other accountable to his or her record.
Watson, a former school board chair, focused on Kittleman's votes against the state budget, which includes education funding, during his time in the General Assembly. She also pointed to a 2003 alternative budget proposal put forth by Kittleman and Republican council colleague Chris Merdon that would have cut then-County Executive Jim Robey's proposed education budget by $5 million and the library system's budget by $550,000.
"What I ask all of you is what would have happened and where would we be if his votes had been successful," Watson said. "It's important to take strong votes, it's important to stand up. My opponent has a spotty record, at best, in voting for funding in education."
Kittleman responded by defending his record, noting there is no separate vote on education funding at the state level. "The six years that I spent on the County Council, I voted for every single education resolution," he said. "It's ludicrous to think that I'm not a supporter of education."
Kittleman pointed to Comptroller Peter Franchot's recent announcement that Maryland faces a $405 million revenue shortfall this year and next. "It sounds like my vote was reasonable," he said.
State issues often trickled into the county debate, as when Kittleman took the offensive against Watson's support of the stormwater fee, derided as a rain tax by critics.
"Howard County unfortunately has a record when the state says, 'Jump,' they say, 'How high?'" he said, arguing that Howard should have followed the lead of Carroll and Frederick counties in refusing to levy a fee or imposing only a minimal one. "We can find the resources in our current budget and pay for stormwater remediation."
Watson said she was "very disappointed with the state government for pushing this fee down on the counties," but that the council and county administration "decided it was better to implement the fee at a reasonable level than it was to take $100 million out of the budget over 5 years," which is the amount she said it would take for Howard to fund federally mandated stormwater improvement targets.
Often, the opponents agreed on basic principles but differed on their execution.
On taxes, both candidates said they didn't anticipate raising rates in the next four years. But while Watson said Howard County citizens "get the highest return on investment" when they pay their current taxes, Kittleman said it was important to consider other sources of revenue collected by the county, including the fire tax and stormwater and trash fees. "If you add the fire tax to our property tax, we have one of the highest taxed areas in the whole state of Maryland," he said.
When asked about economic development and revitalization of the county's aging Route 1 and Route 40 corridors, both candidates agreed that tax credits for improvements to small businesses were helpful tools.
However, Kittleman said he was concerned about commercial properties becoming residential. "If our commercial tax base goes down, the pressure on our property taxes will rise, and we don't want to increase the burden on our taxpayers," he said.
Watson said the county could support local business by encouraging companies to hook up to the Intercounty Broadband Network, a state-built secure Internet system. "By the county extending the broadband network to those buildings, we're able to help them save money," she said.
Watson and Kittleman agreed that expanding affordable housing options and preparing for an increase in senior citizens as Baby Boomers age needed to be a priority for the next administration. And each expressed concern over the adequate public facilities ordinance and referendum law, which they said needed to be revisited.
While they agreed that mental health resources needed to be a focus, the two squabbled over the county's current commitment.
"Howard County has not done a good job with mental health," Kittleman said. "We are still more a reactive county than a proactive county."
He called for a "complete needs assessment" of the county's mental health services and said he would consider creating a mental health court as "more responsible way to handle folks" with mental illness who commit crimes.
Watson said Kittleman's idea for a needs assessment was already in progress, with the establishment earlier this year of a mental health task force by County Executive Ken Ulman. "We're already doing what he's suggesting we do," she said.
The issue has added gravity in Howard, after a January double-murder suicide at the Mall in Columbia by a shooter who police say was struggling with mental illness.
Watson touched on the shooting while responding to a question about gun control, which has become a contentious topic in the race after mailers and a TV ad from the Watson camp took Kittleman to task for a 2013 vote against the Firearm Safety Act.
"It's not just about guns, but guns are an important part of this discussion," she said. The mall shooting "goes to show you that we are not immune from the impacts of strong or weak gun laws."
Kittleman framed Watson's discussion of gun control as an attempt to "scare and mislead" voters.
"You don't have to be worried about me," he said. "I'm not going to be out there trying to change the gun laws to make it unsafe for the people of Howard County."
Both candidates insisted they could work across the aisle if elected.
"You want an independent thinker," Kittleman said. "I stood up to my party and I have the battle scars to show for it."
Watson pointed to her own endorsement from Cecil County Executive Tari Moore, a Republican, and her election for two terms in Howard's only true swing district on the council.
"I have had to work with both sides of the aisle for the past eight years and I've had to be moderate in my decisions to make sure we're passing laws that both sides want," she said.