I was one of several hundred who attended the 19th annual Economic Outlook seminar hosted by the Carroll County Department of Economic Development. Attendees included numerous business owners, government officials, the local Board of Education, and the students from the Carroll County Public School Academy of Finance.
The presentation was delivered by Anirban Basu, the chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc. Basu, a leading economic consultant in the Mid-Atlantic region, teaches global strategy at Johns Hopkins University, is the chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission, and a noted lecturer. His presentation this year included a review of the economy including international, national, Maryland, and local perspectives.
I followed up with Basu regarding a comment he made during his presentation last year that was specific to Westminster. He had mentioned his observations regarding Westminster’s lacking Main Street and that small business can compete successfully with big business like Amazon by competing experientially.
He stated that a lot of individuals spend money with small business based on the experience that a community’s Main Street has to be vibrant and that Westminster is a massive missed opportunity. He stated that nothing had changed that he had seen in the past 18 years he had been visiting — that it didn’t work the way it should work or look the way it should look, specifically referencing Westminster’s Main Street and downtown areas. He stated that he loves Carroll County, but we are not the thriving Main Street that we could be nor using our potential. In last year’s presentation he cited thriving Main Streets including Frederick and Asheville, North Carolina. He said these downtowns offer experience, beauty, charm, and liveliness and that Westminster has massive potential and opportunities, but that all parties must raise their game.
I wholeheartedly agree. I have spent time in Asheville and observed its remarkable Main Street and downtown areas. Given that we as business owners can only accomplish so much on our own we need the leaders of the city of Westminster as well as county leaders to step up to the challenge to improve our county seat into a flourishing area for business and commerce.
Public and private partnerships with the city of Westminster and county government are needed and our city government needs to invest in itself to make Main Street and downtown more lively with better lighting and cleaner. We know it works if we look at successful Main Streets across the country — even as Frederick. To date, Westminster is dealing with a lack of leadership. It suffers from inadequate boldness, a lack of coherent vision, and we need to galvanize the community to improve Westminster into what we’ve always known we can be.
Much like Westminster, the county has economic challenges which includes county revenues decreasing. While the county has seen some areas of savings in the most recent budget presentation, the county is seeing revenues from taxes growing slower then predicted. This slowing could potentially lead to the county taking in $5.5 million less than expected by fiscal year 2024.
Another costly concern in a recent presentation is the upgrade to Next Generation 911 services. While the upgrade will be of significant benefit it does pose added expenses including hiring additional employees and data storage. The Maryland Commission regarding Next Generation 911 reports that systems should be upgraded by 2021. Gov. Hogan is still reviewing the bill. If enacted this would change the manner in which fees are applied to cellphone bills in Maryland. Currently, the state collects $.25 a month and Carroll County takes an additional $.75. The new bill would place a fee on each phone rather than each phone plan. A family of four would now pay $4 instead of the current $1 a month. This would translate into $48 a year versus the current $12 a year in fees — a 400 percent increase.
Board of County Commissioners President Stephen Wantz recently stated that “The bottom line is, cellphones are a fact of life now, so an extra dollar per phone, or whatever the fee is going to be, is pretty small potatoes.” While a dollar doesn’t hold the value it once did, an increase of this nature will undoubtedly affect our county residents in various capacities. Take an average salary of $44,000 assuming a 25 percent tax bracket and excluding any other deductions an individual brings home roughly $2,700 a month. After deducting housing, living, car payment, health insurance, and other expenses, would this individual consider the possible imposed fee of a $1 or more per phone a month small potatoes?
The notion that a cellphone is a fact of life in society today is irrelevant. Some point to the $1,000 cost of an iPhone as not seeming like a big deal which is inaccurate. First, today’s phones are truly not a phone, but rather a communication device. Many phone users spend more time surfing the web, using apps, and texting instead of speaking on the phone. Secondly, these expensive phones are not typically purchased in full, but paid for on extended contracts. Attempting to justify an added or increased fee is just taxing the wallets and pocketbooks of the public who are consistently seeing strain on their income. Consistent increases in medical costs, health insurance, housing and food are just some expenses that continue to shrink the family budget.
When it comes to budgets, true politicians don’t look at them in the same manner as personal family budget. We tend to hear soundbites and vague comments about the need for out-of-the-box thinking regarding tight budgets. The public unlike our government can’t tax or raise fees to solve an issue, but rather can only obtain an additional job, cut spending, or tighten their belts. What is “small potatoes” to one family might be a meal to another.
Perhaps, our elected officials don’t see an issue reaching their hand deeper into the pockets of the citizens. If this is believed to be out-of-the-box thinking and their immediate response, perhaps it’s time to institute pragmatic methodologies instead of idealism.
There is indeed a place for out-of-the-box thinking and in many ways it has marked an upward trend in our lives and has moved us forward as a society. The people and public of Carroll County truly deserve not only a hard look, but a creative look at budgets. The public doesn’t have the option to raise taxes and fees so why should we allow our leadership to claim this as a sole solution?