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Carroll County commissioners note challenges, highlight successes during annual State of the County address

The five members of the Board of County Commissioners detailed the challenges Carroll has faced since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, outlined their response to them and pointed hopefully toward the future Tuesday during the annual State of the County address.

“To stand here and tell you that the state of the county is currently strong would be misleading,” Commission President Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, said. “With that said, I believe that Carroll countians are extremely resilient, and by working together, neighbor to neighbor ... we will be successful through county citizenship.

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“Between our partnerships with government ... our businesses, our schools and most of all you, our community, who we serve, we will have a strong state of the county once again. Between now and then we must navigate through some turbulent waters that focus on our health, personal and economic well-being.”

The event, hosted by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, typically takes place at Carroll Arts Center in front of an audience of 200 or so, but this year was live streamed from the county government building, with four commissioners speaking in person and one virtually.

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Several of them hit on similar points, notably the need to continue supporting local businesses, but they also carved out their own niches consistent with themes and topics they’ve spoken about in the past, with Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, addressing public safety, Richard Weaver, R-District 2 addressing agriculture, Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, addressing education, and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, addressing fiscal responsibility.

Rothstein took a broad view. He was the first of several commissioners to note how successfully Carroll processed federal and state funds, getting money to the health department and businesses. He was also one of several to advocate buying local. “I ask that we continue to focus our efforts on Main Street and not Wall Street,” he said.

Rothstein also pointed out Carroll successes from 2020, highlighting a partnership with Howard County for a community organization active in disasters in the South Carroll area that helped support those in need by feeding hundreds every weekend with public food pantries. He also noted work done on rezoning, the county’s maintaining its AAA bond rating, breaking ground for expansion of the Carroll County Career and Technology Center, and finishing first in the state and 24th nationally in U.S. Census participation.

Bouchat sounded perhaps the loudest alarm when he spoke about the next crisis of the pandemic: the fiscal aftermath and recovery.

He noted that the county has numerous looming financial burdens without the revenue to support them, mentioning the fire and emergency medical services staffing, pay increases needed for professionals in law enforcement and education to keep them from leaving the county, stormwater management, solid waste/recycling mandates and demands for more buildings such as senior centers, among other items.

“To all those calling for tax increases, it is too simplistic and ignorant of a solution, void of economic intellect concerning free markets our nation was founded on,” said Bouchat, a business owner who described sleepless nights concerned about issues facing the county.

He offered five solutions:

—Elect more members of the private sector to government;

—Freeze all capital building projects they have the ability to, legally;

—Freeze all agriculture preservation, which he called “farmer welfare subsidies”;

—Link solid waste and recycling costs;

—Find ways to delay or modify implementation of state mandates.

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Frazier talked about ongoing improvements to the county’s mass transit system and its website, but began his speech by thanking county workers, including those who helped get relief funds into the right hands.

“The county’s economic development department has managed millions of dollars in grants to our businesses and restaurants and had the money into the hands of businesses before other counties even started looking at applications,” he said, thanking all county workers for balancing safety and service and making things go as well as possible. “Now on to something that has not gone so well: How the board of education has handled the pandemic.”

Frazier noted that the BOE is a separately elected board that makes the decisions on how to run Carroll County Public Schools.

“But that does not mean that I as a county commissioner should sit idly by while I believe the safety of the county has been put in jeopardy. I don’t understand how they can go against advice of the health officer and put children back in school during what is so far during the height of the pandemic. Maybe equally as bad is they have not even followed their own motions,” Frazier said, noting that the board voted in December to resume hybrid learning only if the metrics improved, but that on Jan. 4 they went back to hybrid with metrics that had gotten worse.

“The board of education seems to be hanging their hat on the fact that most people in the hospital from COVID are in the over-40 age groups and most deaths are in the over-65 age groups,” he continued. “But this is a pandemic. The concern is not just about the number of children who may contract the virus, and their ill effects, although that is a major concern, but also that the children who may contract the virus, be asymptomatic as many people are and bring the virus home to the families and continue the spread. ... We must think about our community when making decisions and not just one segment of it.”

Weaver said he wanted to be optimistic during his portion of the address, at one point saying, “I firmly believe history will remember 2020 as the catalyst that highlights our steadfast resolve and dedication to one another.” He also said he is optimistic about the the agriculture and small business community that in 2020 “had to endure financial setbacks to their financial stability and their future growth.”

“It’s a sometimes forgotten-about small business,” Weaver said of agriculture. “This year, we briefly experienced shortages in our food supply due to interruptions in food chains. While this was short-lived, we must heed the warnings and realize the frailty of this system that brings food from farm to our tables. ... “When we were in this difficult food situation, the local agriculture community answered the call.”

Weaver said those are the reasons he remains a strong proponent of agriculture preservation, calling it an investment in the security and stability of our local food chain. he noted that the goal of preserving 100,000 county acres is the only goal that has been passed onto every administration since 1980. More than 75,000 acres have been preserved thus far. He then brought up a community solar zoning proposal that would utilize existing parcels that have already exhausted their development rights and are limited in their future zoning uses for solar usage that would also require a permanent easement granted to the county that establishes an additional non-agricultural development area.

He closed by thanking those helping to make the Panther Events Center, planned on the site of the former North Carroll High School campus, a reality. Chesapeake Real Estate group entered into an agreement with the county to purchase the school and develop a facility that he said will “include turf and grass fields, gymnasiums and an events center to ensure the building and the property would continue to be a staple of the community and an asset to the entire region.”

Wantz, who served as board president during 2020, was the last commissioner to speak. He continued Rothstein’s nautical navigational theme, saying “the voyage to this year’s state of the county has been long and treacherous.” He noted how his message had been one of exuberance during last year’s event, but then all normalcy stopped on March 13.

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Wantz said that, as a board, the commissioners “declared war” on the pandemic and thanked his colleagues for their work in making difficult decisions, but keeping a focused and consistent message. He credited getting through 2020 to effective collaboration so that Carroll County government could continue to provide necessary resources to citizens. He thanked Health Officer Ed Singer, Carroll Hospital officials, with nurses, doctors and first responders, all county employees, the chamber of commerce, businesses, the eight municipalities and the large majority of citizens.

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He, too, criticized the school board’s decision to resume hybrid learning, but said “we have asked for flexibility in vaccinating, so that our valuable school employees are vaccinated right after health care and first responders.” He cited bright spots from the past year, such as the county’s bond rating, the lowest unemployment rate in the state and the way government transitioned to a virtual environment as well as the way buildings received safety enhancements. He also put out a call on the eve of the opening of the Maryland General Assembly for legislators to focus on important bills like the governor’s relief act “rather than their personal-agenda spending.”

Wantz closed by calling public safety his No. 1 priority. “With 44 years of public safety experience, I know elected officials must ensure our citizens can live, work and play safely.” He said they would continue to work to ensure the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office has the tools they need. He also noted the hiring of Robert McCoy as the county’s first director of fire and emergency services and the need to infuse paid, career personnel into volunteer stations, which he said will be a “large fiscal challenge.”

“We can not let our guard down when it comes to public safety,” he said. “Have you seen the difficult and trying times we are living in?”

Also speaking Tuesday morning were Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMullin, who urged residents to support local businesses and restaurants and called for more kindness on social media, outgoing chamber chair Dennis Twigg, and new chair Steve Aquino, who previously served in the position in 2011.

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