In a State of the County address on Tuesday, four of the five members of the Board of Carroll County Commissioners spoke inside the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster about the county government’s challenges and successes during the last year.
The fifth member of the board, Commissioner Eric Bouchat, a Republican representing District 4, opted not to enter the arts center and participate in the public speeches, due to a mask-wearing requirement inside the building.
The commissioner protested outside the building and handed out copies of a written speech to those walking in.
In the printed speech, Bouchat noted that “inflationary pressure” is ravaging the county’s budget.
“Within the first month of our existing budget, the board had to increase allocations” on several projects, including the addition of $3.2 million to the Charles Community Center project.
He claimed that elected officials have “next to zero participation” in creating the county’s budget.
“Every citizen that cares about Carroll County’s fiscal well-being must know the bureaucracy predominantly runs our local government,” Bouchat said, adding the board acts as “the rubber stamp,” approving allocations and moving items forward.
Bouchat also wrote that he believes the next board of commissioners would benefit from not being made up of “old Caucasian males.”
“Females compose 51.5% of the population, a majority of the Board of Education and half our state delegation. Ladies of Carroll County, I am directly calling on you to step up and take control of our local government,” Bouchat wrote in the statement.
Meanwhile, inside the building the four other Carroll County commissioners gave speeches talking about their impressions of the successes and challenges that have faced the county.
“The [COVID-19] pandemic has added innumerable changes and stresses for all of us,” said board President Ed Rothstein, a Republican representing District 5. “The last two years have definitely taken a toll and continues to effect the health, home and economics of our community.”
Although the pandemic “threw significant curveballs” to the county, Rothstein said the residents of Carroll County remained resilient.
“An example of [how the board] navigated through these waters has been the decision-making process and execution of the federal, state and local funds that we received,” he said. “In total, the county received a little over $71.5 million for COVID-19 relief between 2021 and today.”
Rothstein said the board has prioritized how to spend those funds within the county and its municipalities with a primary focus on social services, including unemployment, rental assistance, mental and behavioral health needs and small business revitalization.
Rothstein said successes in 2021 included a 3% unemployment rate, which he called the lowest in the state, and a rating of AAA from each of three independent credit rating agencies, Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and Standard and Poor’s.
“This allows us to keep Carroll County in a strong financial position,” he said. “The rating confirms Carroll County’s fiscal strength with conservative management leads to proper investments that focus on our county’s needs.”
Commissioner Stephen Wantz, a Republican representing District 1, said the county has made tremendous progress this year.
“From budgets to maintaining roads to planning and zoning to working on our strong bond ratings, visiting with seniors, veterans and children in schools, we are watching this incredible county work for us,” Wantz said. “In the last budget we made the decision to harden every gravel road in the county by the end of 2023. This reduces the maintenance needed on those roads and ultimately saves valuable taxpayer dollars.”
Wantz also noted the county’s efforts to begin setting up the first combination volunteer and career fire and emergency medical services department.
“Our 14 fire companies, under the umbrella of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, continue to be in step with us, and our path to the best combination volunteer/career system is now clear,” Wantz said. “We hired a new director, Michael Robinson, who immediately hit the ground running with a vision for success.”
Wantz said a strategic work group consisting of volunteers has worked on and will soon deliver a plan that moves the department “in the right direction.”
Commissioner Richard Weaver said now that COVID-19 vaccines are readily available, restaurants and stores are opening, and for the most part, succeeding.
“Global supply chains have lumbered, increasing prices in every part of our economy,” he said. “A short supply of labor has also been in an issue that many stores and food processors. The inflation rate will probably impact us for years.”
Weaver, a Republican representing District 2, said with challenges come successes.
“This year we celebrate achieving over 75,000 acres in farmland preservation,” Weaver said. He added that the goal of preserving a total of 100,000 acres of farmland is the only one to carry forth with every set of commissioners since 1980.
“Carroll County’s dedication to this preservation program will guarantee a strong food supply to county residents in the future and helps sustain the county’s rural character and scenic qualities,” Weaver said.
Carroll currently ranks first in Maryland for the number of acres preserved. Agriculture is the county’s No. 1 industry, with 50% of the county’s landmass listed as agricultural.
Carroll County Breaking News
Weaver also noted that in 2021 federal funds were made available to expand broadband internet access to areas in of the county that otherwise would not be able to get internet service.
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, a Republican representing District 3, said the board has put efforts into connecting every home in the county to high-speed internet.
“The pandemic has certainly showed us those holes,” he said. “Currently we have about 4,500 homes in Carroll County that have no access to high-speed fiber … but that still leaves a major gap.”
The county recently worked out an agreement with internet service provider Comcast to run fiber-optic cable to areas that have at least 20 houses per mile.
“This board has committed around $15 million of federal COVID money to help close that gap,” Frazier said. “Part of that money is to ensure all county buildings and firehouses are connected with high-speed fiber but a majority of the money is to connect private homes.”
Frazier said the commissioners estimate another 3,000 houses have the potential to get connected, leaving 1,500 not connected. The goal is to secure more grant funding to connect as many homes as possible, he added.
The State of the County address was streamed on the county government’s website and is available there for replay as well as on YouTube.