In his first-ever State of the County speech, newly installed Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman laid out a set of priorities for the early days of his administration, with a focus on sustainability -- a term he used to encompass much more than its typical connotation as an environmental buzzword.
For Kittleman, "sustainability is balance.
"Balance is what will drive our decisions in county government, particularly as they relate to our economy, agriculture, environment and infrastructure," Kittleman told an audience of more than 500 people who gathered at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City for the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored annual event.
As 2015 begins, Kittleman said Howard County has a strong foothold, despite facing a $15.8 million shortfall for the remainder of the current fiscal year.
"The challenge ahead of us is how we sustain this excellent quality of life for the next generation," he said.
Kittleman's speech drew both parallels to and distinctions from the agenda of former County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat who lost a bid for lieutenant governor last November.
In laying out his vision for a "model sustainable community" -- expanding, he said, on Ulman's idea of a "model green community" -- the new executive, a Republican, praised several of his predecessor's initiatives, while pledging to mold them to his vision for the county.
Howard's Office of Environmental Sustainability, for example, "has made some excellent progress on stormwater management and environmental sustainability," Kittleman said. One of his first moves as county executive has been to submit a bill to the County Council that would broaden the scope of the office to include economic, agricultural and infrastructural sustainability.
Kittleman also called Ulman's food truck pilot, the Roving Radish, a "great success," and said he plans to continue and expand the program.
He made clear, however, that the program fit with the ideology of his administration in a way that some of Ulman's other directives did not: "By offering affordable, nutritious meals that are easy to access within neighborhoods, we encourage people to choose a healthier diet. It's something they want to do, not something imposed on them by the government," he said, referencing Ulman's controversial executive order banning the sale of sugary drinks and some high-calorie snacks on county property and at county-sponsored events. Kittleman repealed the order shortly after taking office.
Turning to commerce, Kittleman highlighted a few "cutting-edge businesses," including a cybersecurity firm and a 3D manufacturer, who are poised to add more than a hundred jobs over the next several years.
Kittleman said he has directed Lonnie Robbins, the county's chief administrative officer, to increase the percentage of locally owned, small and minority businesses chosen for county contracts. "Taxpayer funds spent on critical services should be reinvested right here," he said.
The county executive also took a moment to highlight his good working relationship with newly elected Gov. Larry Hogan, also a Republican.
"While Howard County has always been open for business, I'm excited to have the governor as a partner," Kittleman said. "Now, when a business decides to come to Maryland, I'm confident that we can get them to choose Howard County."
Another area for investment is in the county's aging communities, Kittleman said.
He pledged to include $2.5 million in his upcoming budget for flood mitigation projects in historic Ellicott City, which was ravaged by Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. "I think we've done enough studies and planning," he said. "It is time to start the work."
Kittleman said the funds would be "an ongoing commitment.
"Our business owners and residents on Main Street shouldn't have to panic every time the water starts rising on the Tiber-Hudson or Patapsco River."
Kittleman said he plans to harness the Intercounty Broadband Network, a 4,200-square mile network of high-speed internet cables completed last year and championed by Ulman, to provide free WiFi in downtown Ellicott City. He said the project would encourage economic growth "without requiring any additional appropriation of funds."
Other areas targeted for improvement include the Route 1 corridor and Columbia's aging village centers, including Oakland Mills and Long Reach.
Kittleman said he has "met with stakeholders" from both Long Reach and Oakland Mills "and will continue this dialogue to make sure we craft redevelopment plans that put greater emphasis on what the community wants."
A recent announcement that Long Reach's Celebration Church no longer has the opportunity to purchase the former site of a Safeway in the village center, as the congregation wanted, has shaken up plans there.
Kittleman also rejected the idea of using county funds to flip private property, as is the plan in Long Reach.
"I do not believe county government should be in the business of buying land for economic development and that will not happen in my administration," he said. "However, I also understand that we need to do the best we can with the properties that we currently own." He said he hopes to form public-private partnerships "so that the fiscal impact on taxpayers is kept to a minimum."
In his address, Kittleman called fiscal responsibility "a top priority." He said his office would soon release its suggestions for cutting the budget to close the gap in the county's current budget.
The county executive didn't address the stormwater management fee, also called the rain tax. Kittleman had said over the course of his campaign that he would try to repeal the fee, and in his State of the State address Wednesday, Hogan said he would pursue legislation to do away with it.
After the speech, Kittleman said he had asked the Office of Environmental Sustainability to take another look at the county's rate structures for the fee.
"It's all going to depend on the budget numbers," he said of whether or not the fee might be eliminated. "It's always been my goal to reduce or repeal it if possible, but I'm also pragmatic."
On education, Kittleman reiterated a campaign promise to focus on closing the achievement gap, a process he said "will require varied approaches and initiatives."
Kittleman said he's working with Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat from west Columbia, to create an Early Childhood Education Task Force, which will be charged with developing strategies to improve early childhood education, "particularly among children from low-income and vulnerable families.
"A great system isn't good enough if any of our students fail to achieve their full potential," he said.
Looking forward, Kittleman promised to work across party lines with a council and state delegation dominated by Democrats.
"I believe in collaboration and bipartisan politics. I always have and I always will," he said. "Together, we will keep moving ahead and keep getting better."