In his second State of the County address, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman laid out a vision that will guide what he said has been a year of "rethinking, rebuilding, reorganizing and restructuring."
"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," Kittleman said to a 450-member audience at a ticketed event sponsored by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. He delivered his second public address Thursday evening to an audience of less than 100 at the county's headquarters.
Echoing his first address — which laid out a vision to "build a model sustainable community" — Kittleman announced new community and economic projects, including the expansion of MedStar Health's headquarters in Downtown Columbia, the creation of a nonprofit center in collaboration with the Department of Social Services and nonprofit organizations, a pilot program to evaluate body cameras for officers and building a new circuit courthouse.
Kittleman's financial forecast was cautiously optimistic. Although the economy will continue to improve, "the days of substantial revenue increases and large surpluses are over," Kittleman said.
Looking back to the fiscal year 2016 budget — which passed by the first unanimous budget vote in eight years — Kittleman said he will "proceed with caution" this budget season in order to ensure the county is "living within its means."
"We are in an enviable position in Howard County," Kittleman said. "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."
In his speech, Kittleman described a four-pronged plan that would focus on targeting community services; an open and efficient government; revitalization and infrastructure; and education and economic development.
Applauding the Police Department, Kittleman said the county's push to combat human trafficking is having an impact. The county recently created a dedicated account to fund victims' services and police training and secured a second full-time officer to investigate cases. He also emphasized efforts to improve mental health services, including the addition of a behavioral health specialist to help the Health Department's Community Care Teams.
Turning to a push for greater citizen participation, Kittleman said he will launch a Citizens Planning Institute to better engage the public in the planning and zoning process. The county's revamped site was launched on Tuesday and the county plans to launch a new "performance measurement program," which will use data to improve the delivery of county services.
Strengthening infrastructure and revitalizing aging neighborhoods — including Oakland Mills Village Center and Long Reach Village Center — is also another priority, Kittleman said.
A comprehensive, affordable housing plan for Downtown Columbia, which Kittleman called "an economic engine," is "close to the goal line."
MedStar Health will expand its operations on the corner of Broken Land and Little Patuxent parkways, Kittleman said. The company, which will occupy 97,000 square feet, will become the first tenant in Howard Hughes' Crescent Project.
Kittleman said he looks forward to continuing flood mitigation efforts in historic Ellicott City, a focus of last year's speech.
One of the most critical areas of infrastructure was transportation, Kittleman said.
He detailed recent plans to dualize Route 32 from Route 108 in Clarksville to Linden Church Road in order to address congestion and safety concerns. Kittleman also highlighted BikeHoward, the county's Bicycle Master Plan and a county-wide "Complete Streets" policy that will "serve as a guide for making roads safe and convenient," he said.
Kittleman praised the county's education system, including the "top-ranked" Howard County Library System, Howard Community College's "stellar reputation" and the "important work" of the public school system.
"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," Kittleman said.
Shifting to businesses and technology, Kittleman said his administration has prioritized economic development and made "strides in economic development and infrastructure," calling small businesses the "backbone of our economy."
The county also leveraged the use of the Inter County Broadband Network to provide free WiFi in public areas, including Main Street in Ellicott City, Kittleman said. Last week, the county announced a new public-private partnership that will bring high-speed Internet service to underserved portions of western Howard County, he said.
Kittleman also cited progress in agricultural sustainability. The county held two roundtables with farmers, launched the Farm Academy for residents to learn more about farming traditions and expanded local food purchases for the Roving Radish, former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's food truck pilot.
He said he plans on naming an ombudsman for the agricultural community. "I know how important our farming community is to our economy," he said.
'This has to stop'
His tone and tenor shifted as he announced the county will take ownership of the Harriet Tubman School, a school for African Americans that opened in 1948 and closed in 1965 when the school system became integrated.
The building — a relic of the civil rights era and the long struggle for African Americans' education — is being used as a maintenance facility for the public school system. Kittleman's capital budget will include a new project that will preserve it as a cultural and education center, he said.
Bridging the struggles of the past and the present, Kittleman reminded the audience the job to promote acceptance was far from complete.
"We need this. We need it now. Maybe more than ever," he said. "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."
In late January, a video of a Mount Hebron High School student making racist remarks about African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement prompted a county-wide dialogue about race, civility and acceptance.
Acceptance and civility will not be achieved overnight, Kittleman said. "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."