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Carroll County commissioners, delegation discuss ‘terrible’ legislative session, capital projects, residential growth

Carroll’s Board of County Commissioners and the delegation that represents the county in Annapolis convened a virtual joint session to go over the county’s budget, spurring discussion about future funding for capital projects and potential residential growth.

And nearly everyone expressed disappointment with the results of the Maryland General Assembly’s latest legislative session.

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Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5 (Carroll County), called it a very challenging session that saw a decided “turn to the left on a number of policies” during the April 29 session.

Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, called it an “unmitigated, unadulterated trainwreck.” Del. April Rose, R-District 5, called the session “terrible” with “anti-police bills” the lowlight. Del. Trent Kittleman, R-District 9A (parts of Carroll and Howard counties), called it “frustrating” and an expansion of Maryland’s liberal agenda.

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Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, questioned why legislators sought to impose the policies from their own jurisdictions on the rest of the state.

“Baltimore City is always putting these things in and I’m like, they’ve got the worst schools, they’ve got the worst crime and yet they’re trying to tell us what to do with our county,” she said. “Our counties are very different. One size does not fit all. Police reform is a huge problem in some jurisdictions, especially Baltimore City, and it’s a real problem. Our county is the safest county in the state. Our people here respect the police and our police respect the citizens.”

Sen. Katie Fry Hester, D-District 9 (parts of Carroll and Howard) touted the legislative success of approving COVID-19 recovery funding.

Del. Reid Novotny, R-District 9A, who was appointed to the position just prior to the session, provided some levity, saying, “I can honestly say, it was my best session of all time” before criticizing the digital advertising tax that was passed, wondering what else Maryland might put a tax on.

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“We’ve tried taxing the rain before,” he said. “Maybe we’ll tax the sun next.”

Commissioner Eric Bouchat likened the General Assembly to a nosy neighbor who wants to force you into home improvements and make you foot the bill.

“For years, we’ve seen Annapolis push more of the finance responsibilities on the counties so that the state can balance their budget,” he said. “And it’s killing us.”

What might be Exhibit A for that came when Commissioner President Ed Rothstein virtually walked the delegation through the county’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022.

The spending plan was released to the public on April 27, will be discussed at an online public hearing on May 11 and is scheduled to be adopted May 25.

The document contains the proposed operating plan not only for FY22, but also preliminary plans through FY27, when Carroll is projected to see an $18.4 million deficit.

Ready asked about the cause the future budget shortfall.

“We are providing services we want to continue to provide and revenue has been stagnant,” Rothstein said, noting that they have deliberately stayed away from raising taxes despite being in the midst of adding services such as a countywide fire/EMS service.

Commissioner Richard Weaver added that Carroll has a great school system and he wants to keep it that way. And Commissioner Dennis Frazier said this budget began the process of improving county employee compensation in an effort to improve retention.

Rose cautioned them considering tax increases in the near future.

“This is not the time to raise taxes on anybody,” she said, calling doing so “completely inappropriate at this juncture.”

Krebs told the commissioners to be sure to come to the delegation for help with capital projects. Looking at the FY22 budget, she said they should’ve tried to get some state money for the planned pavilion at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

“We could have gone to bat for you for that and maybe saved you $500,000,” she said.

She asked the board to consider any projects that will need funding in the next five years and start looking for funding now. She said maybe Carroll County doesn’t ask for enough. Weaver said, “that’s going to change.”

The commissioners brought up a proposed headquarters for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office that might also included space for the fire/EMS service. The pricetag is expected to be around $30 million and Frazier suggested that perhaps it could be a 50-50 proposition between state and county funding.

The commissioners brought Robert McCoy, Carroll’s fire/EMS director, to talk about the transition to a countywide service. He spoke about how the nationwide trend away from volunteerism necessitated the change in Carroll and discussed how 14 independent companies are being moved under the county umbrella, beginning with Westminster and Sykesville in FY22. He conceded that the move to a countywide service and the addition of a few hundred employees will not save the county money.

“When we look at what county government funds,” Ready said, “fire/EMS, public safety, that’s got to be first in the boat.”

Rothstein then broke down what all the state and federal grant money, notably COVID-19 relief funding, went toward. A slide showed that Carroll received more than $62 million in grant funding from 111 grant programs. Of those funds, roughly $34.5 million went toward COVID relief, $12.5 million toward human services, $6.5 million toward public safety a, $4.7 million toward environmental capital projects, $2.8 million toward other capital projects and $1.25 million toward economic, planning and workforce development.

The next topic was agriculture preservation. Carroll ranks first in the state with 76,449 acres preserved and has been moving toward a goal of 100,000 acres for four decades. Several members of the delegation praised the program, but also took the opportunity to bring up the possibility of Carroll seeing some more residential growth.

Rose said she would like to fight to have some of the state-imposed restriction removed, but only if the county supported her.

“If we’re going to get kids and people to come back to Carroll, we need to have additional housing opportunities,” Rose said. “We need additional lots, we need people to be able to develop properties, in addition to ag preservation. ... We have a lot of land in Carroll County where we could very well accommodate additional building.”

Ready expressed pride in Carroll’s ag land preservation and then expressed interest in working with Rose to fight to remove restrictions on building.

“When we talked earlier about the county and some of the challenges you’ll face on revenue in the future, some of that is trying to find a way to expand the pot, expand the pool of money coming in. And the restriction of development rights that were done under the [Gov. Martin] O’Malley administration artificially and unnecessarily restrict those rights,” he said.

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“Honestly telling people their septic system in northern Carroll County, you can’t have it because it is bad for the [Chesapeake] Bay is kind of like telling people to wear a mask outside when they’re by themselves. It makes no real sense. It has no effect on anything, yet that was a big part of the O’Malley administration’s push,” Ready added.

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Ready called it a longshot to fix everything, but that there might be ways to make some changes that could help.

The meeting ended with the commissioners pledging to get the delegation a list of capital projects to seek funding for and to discuss internally everything, including residential growth.

“I love being a part of Carroll County,” said Kittleman, “because this is a place where rationality actually exists.”

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