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Navigating the pandemic: Carroll County government dealt with ‘unprecedented’ COVID-19 challenges in 2020

COVID-19 overshadowed all else in 2020, affecting every aspect of life in Carroll. This week, the Times is looking back at how five key sectors — business, education, government, health care and law enforcement — adapted and carried on amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus wasn’t on the agenda when Carroll County’s commissioners got together in January for their annual state of the county address.

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They convened at Carroll Arts Center in Westminster and talked about Carroll’s economic growth, the county’s comprehensive rezoning plan, and an aim to preserve acres of farmland, among other topics. Two months later, Carroll and the rest of the state ― and the nation ― were concerned above all else with COVID-19, which shaped the way county government operated throughout the remainder of 2020.

“I can sum it up in one word and that would be unprecedented,” said Stephen Wantz, R-District 1 and outgoing Board of County Commissioners president. “Like many of the jurisdictions in the state … we were flying, we were flying high. We had good budget outlooks, unemployment rates were low. We saw a ton of economic development activity. And the horizon was incredibly bright.

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“And then this little COVID thing hit. It made things sour a little bit.”

By late March, Wantz and his fellow commissioners and county officials were meeting virtually rather than in-person. Some returned to the county government building for meetings while others stayed home or in another work location.

But the pandemic didn’t keep officials from their agendas and goals, Wantz said. And they didn’t take COVID-19 lightly, he said, given its impact on Carroll and neighboring counties.

“All these decisions with this pandemic have been done without a script, without a playbook,” he said. “We have tried to be consistent here in Carroll, and I think we achieved that.”

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Wantz said the county’s support of local businesses, restaurants in particular, remained steadfast. Thanks to the commissioners adopting the Carroll County Restaurant Relief Fund, and the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund, those establishments in need were allotted a combined $1.2 million from state and federal grants.

“The message here from us, and us being all of us here, has been consistent,” Wantz said. “And I think that our citizens and our businesses and everyone have appreciated the way in which we’ve done that.”

Carroll County Commissioners, from left, Stephen Wantz, Richard Weaver, Dennis Frazier, Ed Rothstein and Eric Bouchat are in the spotlight during the annual State of the County Address hosted by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.
Carroll County Commissioners, from left, Stephen Wantz, Richard Weaver, Dennis Frazier, Ed Rothstein and Eric Bouchat are in the spotlight during the annual State of the County Address hosted by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Dylan Slagle/Carroll County Times)

One of the commissioners’ objectives pre-COVID was to hire the county’s first fire and emergency services director. Wantz said in January he hoped to have that position filled in April, and a few months later it became official when Robert McCoy was hired to form Carroll’s first countywide combined fire and EMS service.

The Carroll County Department of Planning worked with commissioners and other local officials throughout the year to keep to its mission of updating and changing the zoning code and map to implement the 2014 Carroll County Master Plan and the 2018 Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan. An original plan for countywide rezoning dates to the 1960s.

The rezoning plans have been met with dissenters from around the county, and Wantz said meeting virtually to discuss the issues can pose challenges. The commissioner recalled his days in emergency services when he attended in-person meetings at the county office building, where everyone was welcome. Those days are gone for now, but Wantz said he’s hopeful they will return once it’s safe to do so.

“Carroll, unlike many jurisdictions, we are a face-to-face county,” Wantz said. “The doors to the county office building were always open. And you didn’t need an appointment. You came in here, if you wanted to yell and scream at our open session, unless I threw the gavel at you, you yelled and screamed. That opportunity has always been given for our citizens.”

Wantz said he and his fellow county officials have survived technological struggles to become a more savvy group in the last nine months.

“We’ve conducted public hearings, many of them large public hearings, especially with our comprehensive rezoning,” he said. “There were some nights here not too long ago when we had 40 to 50 callers on the line. We got it. And as a result of that, you’re going to see change in the way we do things moving forward.

“Do we want to get back to face-to-face, and you can come in this door any time you want? There’s no doubt that we want to do that. But there are going to be certain things we’re going to be able to tweak.”

The commissioners recently voted unanimously to sell the former North Carroll High School facility to a real estate development company that plans to create a multi-purpose sports complex in its place. The notion of having artificial turf fields for recreational use in the northern part of the county “will be a boost for Carroll,” Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said at their Dec. 3 meeting.

Carroll County Commissioners Dennis Frazier, left, and Eric Bouchat, pictured in 2019, pushed for their colleagues to consider the early step of assembling a charter writing committee.
Carroll County Commissioners Dennis Frazier, left, and Eric Bouchat, pictured in 2019, pushed for their colleagues to consider the early step of assembling a charter writing committee.

The commissioners in early November voted 3-2 against forming a committee to write a charter for a potential change in government. The idea of the charter had been tabled for more than a year, and opinions varied on how Carroll should be governed in the future. Wantz stood opposed to the charter idea, while Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said during the November meeting it was troubling to him that his colleagues don’t want to better empower the public.

In April, the commissioners voted 3-2 to close the Northern Landfill in Westminster for 15 days to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Wantz made a remark about finding “a cure for stupid” that offended residents, and later said he received personal threats because of it. (He said at a later meeting that he used “a wrong choice of words.”)

Wantz said making decisions amid the pandemic and enduring reaction from the public, social media in particular, has been concerning to him and his colleagues.

“If you think you can do it better, then I encourage you to,” Wantz said. “The majority of the decisions we made were spot-on. Listen, we’re not perfect and we missed some. Patience I wish had been a little bit more by some people. But I guess that’s the way we roll.”

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Wantz’s run as board president comes to an end when the commissioners resume their meetings in early January, and the board talked during its Dec. 17 meeting about how the pandemic shaped them over the last nine months. Bouchat said dealing with COVID-19 has brought the commissioners closer together in trying to work for the people of Carroll.

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Wantz agreed.

“I agree with Commissioner Bouchat. It’s interesting that he said that, because he’s disagreed on several things,” Wantz said. “And he made the statement that this has made us all work better. Well, there’s the glass half-full my friend, right there. Do we always agree? Absolutely not. But when we don’t, we discuss it and we come to a conclusion, we make the decision, and at the end of the day we move on.

“I think that’s the most important part about governing right now.”

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