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.
For example, McMahon noted, a police car costs about $40,000, half of which is just costs accrued from technologies built into vehicle. Those costs include $4,200 for the police radio, $1,700 for the flashing lights and siren and $600 for the recently added electronic ticketing system.
McMahon also discussed other expensive but effective crime fighting tools, such as license plate readers — Howard County police have eight deployed at a total cost of $144,000 — and finger print identification devices — police have 31 deployed for a total cost of $46,500.
"This is solving crimes every single day in your community, but it's not cheap," he said.
McMahon and the panelists also talked about the more controversial technologies, such as speed cameras and red light cameras.
"The detractors will point to revenue generators, but it really is about traffic safety," McMahon said
Queen Anne's CountyCommissioner Philip Dumenil, a Republican, said it's difficult for counties struggling to balance their budgets during the economic recession to keep up with the constantly changing technologies.
Though Dumenil said "the jury's still out" in his county on whether they should use speed cameras and red light cameras, he understands the cameras do more than raise revenues.
"That's an officer that doesn't have to be at that school zone, doesn't have to be at that red light," he said.
Don Murphy, a former Republican state delegate who represented Howard and Baltimore counties, said he voted in favor of red light cameras when he was in the legislature, so he also attended the presentation to see "how that technology is working for the benefit of Howard County."
Regarding the session overall, Murphy said: "I thought it was very informative and it's very helpful for elected officials. It's important for newly elected officials to learn from their colleagues."