The Howard County Council is the first county legislative body in the state to request the Maryland Public Service Commission to investigate electric power reliability in certain areas of the county and the first to institute a tax credit to encourage property owners to make their homes more accessible to seniors and persons with disabilities.
Both proposals passed unanimously on Monday, Oct. 1.
In addition, the council voted to increase the maximum parking meter fees that can be charged in downtown Ellicott City to $1 per hour along Main Street and Maryland Avenue and 50 cents per hour in the four off-street lots.
Fulton Republican Greg Fox was the only council member to vote against the parking meter fee increase.
"I have a lot of concerns," Fox said, noting there are several issues still unresolved, such as how to accommodate parking for residents and loading/unloading for businesses.
Fox moved to table the legislation until some of those questions could be answered, but his motion did not get a second from any of the four Democratic council members.
The fee increase is a part of a larger effort by County Executive Ken Ulman to improve the parking situation in downtown Ellicott City.
A part of the plan is to meter Main Street and Maryland Avenue, where parking is currently free but limited to two hours during enforcement hours. Ulman's administration anticipates the meters, which will cost more than the metered spaces in the side lots, will help better promote turnaround of the 102 prime spots near various shops and restaurants. Parking in those spots will still be limited to two hours.
The metered spaces in the parking lots at the northern end of Main Street, one behind the old post office and one off Ellicott Mills Drive, will increase from 25 cents per hour to 50 cents per hour. The metered spaces in the two lots on the southern end of Main Street are already 50 cents per hour.
The 351 free spaces in the various lots will remain free.
Along with the new rates, the county is planning to replace the single-space meters with 13 multi-space meters to cover the parking lots and Main Street and Maryland Avenue. Each paid parking space will have a number for the parker to enter into the multi-space meter when he/she pays for the allotted time he/she plans to spend downtown.
The new meters are expected to be installed this month, but a date for the new fees to take effect has not been set.
In addition, Ulman is planning to have sensors installed in all 594 parking spaces downtown, both free and metered, to go with a smart phone and Web application called Parker that will show a live feed of what parking spaces are full and what parking spaces are empty.
The application, run by a San Francisco-based company called Streetline, will cost the county $148,000 for installation and initial hardware/software and then another $170,000 annually for Streetline to maintain the system.
Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat whose district includes the historic district, said she's had several conversations with Main Street residents and business owners about the parking proposals.
"They do not agree on this," she said. "There are some that are in favor and there are some that are not in favor. And that's OK."
She said she talked to Ulman to ensure he includes their input as he moves forward with plans to address parking in Ellicott City.
"He did agree to certain provisions that he would pursue for downtown," she said.
Watson said Ulman promised his administration would meet with Main Street residents to discuss options for free residential parking, look at the possibility of a shuttle service for downtown Ellicott City during peak hours and create a parking oversight committee so residents and businesses can participate in the decisions being made going forward.
PSC to investigate BGE reliability
The resolution the council passed to request the Public Service Commission to investigate the electric power reliability of BGE, the public utility serving Howard, in certain areas of the county was prompted by several neighborhoods experiencing multiple outages throughout the year unrelated to weather events.
"We have a good relationship with BGE," said Watson, the resolution's sponsor. "We appreciate all that they do. However, we also recognize that we have some areas of the county that we have to improve reliability."
The PSC, the state agency responsible for regulating public utilities, is already investigating several Ellicott City and Columbia neighborhoods. The current investigation started after Reliability4HOCO, a group of county residents frustrated with the multiple power outages they have experienced in recent years, filed a complaint with the PSC in February.
The council amended the resolution to direct the county solicitor "to take all reasonable and appropriate steps to intervene as a party in Case No. 9291 (the Reliability4HOCO case) to promote efficient resolution of the complaint of the County Council without undue duplication."
The resolution, which was cosponsored by Columbia Democrats Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, requests the PSC to add 193 streets to the investigation: 127 in Ellicott City; 39 in Columbia; 9 in North Laurel; six in Clarksville; six in Jessup; two in Elkridge; two in Marriottsville; one in Woodstock; and one in West Friendship.
In addition to investigating the chronic outages, the resolution asks that the PSC require BGE to provide the county with detailed outage information, including addresses of affected residences, for places where power has not been restored within 24 hours after an outage. Watson said this provision is aimed at making sure county emergency operations teams can get resources to people who are without power for long periods of time.
Fox recused himself from voting the resolution because he works for Constellation Energy. Constellation and BGE are both a part of the Exelon Corporation.
Livable homes tax credit
The council unanimously passed a bill to authorize a property tax credit for homeowners installing certain accessibility features within their homes, such as access ramps, widened doorways, grab bars in bathrooms and stair glides or elevators.
Terrasa introduced the bill, which is cosponsored by Ball, to help households that would like to provide more accommodations for seniors or individuals with disabilities.
Before passing the bill, she amended it to change to the name of the credit from the universal design tax credit to the livable homes tax credit to better convey the purpose of the credit.
Terrasa also amended the bill to include "alarms, appliances and controls structurally integrated into the unit designed to assist an individual with a sensory disability" in the list of eligible features and to require the Department of Finance to report once a year to the council on the use of the tax credit.
"I think we're doing a really good thing here ... I'm happy we'll be supporting seniors and individuals with disabilities to live more independently," Terrasa said.
Fox attempted to revise the bill to include a three-year sunset provision to ensure people didn't have the expectation it would be around forever, but the other members rejected his amendment. Despite that, Fox still voted for the bill.
"(Terrasa) looked into a number of things that I did have concerns about," he explained.
The tax credit only applies to features installed in existing residences. To be eligible for the credit, homeowners must have installed the feature within a year of applying for it and spent at least $500.
The amount of the proposed credit is the lesser of $2,500 or 50 percent of the cost to install the feature.
The bill puts an annual cap of $100,000 on the total amount of credits the county can award. Credits would be granted in the order in which applications are received by the Department of Finance, with any coming in after the annual cap has been reached being deferred until the next fiscal year.