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Howard County executive says in State of Business address that there is much to do to ‘reignite our economy’

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball delivered his second State of Business address Wednesday, touting his economic achievements of the past year during the coronavirus pandemic.

During the 17-minute speech, Ball touched on the county’s response to the pandemic amid economic uncertainty, as well as his efforts to encourage the county government and residents to spend money with local businesses.

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Ball said in the early days of the pandemic his administration made difficult fiscal decisions to attempt to reduce the impact of COVID-19, including an internal government hiring freeze.

“As the pandemic gripped the world, it was clear that we needed to take smart, aggressive fiscal action,” he said.

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Ball noted that despite the uncertainty during the fiscal 2021 budget process in April, the budget funded the Howard County Public School System at above maintenance of effort. Maintenance of effort is a value that demonstrates the level of local and state funding that remains relatively constant from year to year for the school system. During the approval process of the budget, however, the County Council did make cuts to both the capital and operating budgets Ball proposed.

The county’s budget process is set to begin Monday when the Spending Affordability Advisory Committee will release its fiscal 2022 report.

The $56.8 million in federal CARES Act funding the county received in June was also a point of progress during the year, Ball said. Of that, $14.6 million was spent by the Howard County Health Department.

The county gave out $13.5 million in the first two rounds of HoCo Rise grants to a variety of businesses in the county affected by the pandemic.

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“We provided the means to shift operations online, create touchless points of fund systems, fund personal protective equipment for employees and invest in additional safety measures to keep customers safe,” Ball said.

The county announced a third round of business relief grants in early February, totaling $5.1 million for county businesses, restaurants and hotels. The funding has been allocated in three parts: $2 million in county funds for local businesses, $1.5 million from the state for restaurants and $1.6 million from the state for hotels.

Ball also discussed his work to increase procurement opportunities within the county for both the government and other businesses, meaning more money being spent within the county.

In December 2018, 100 firms were certified with the Office of Purchasing under the Local Business Initiative, according to Ball; as of this month, there are 210 firms that are certified. The goal of the Local Business Initiative is to promote the growth and success of local businesses and to increase the percentage of county dollars going to local businesses, according to the Howard County government website.

“These outreach efforts continue with monthly virtual events geared toward ensuring that our local businesses understand what is needed to competitively and successfully bid or obtain procurement opportunities with Howard County,” Ball said.

Ball also said in his address that the county spent more money with local businesses this past year than in previous years. In fiscal 2018, the county spent $4 million with local businesses, while that rose to $16.4 million in fiscal 2020.

Ball cited Lost Ark Distillery as an example of the procurement efforts. The Columbia distillery shifted to making hand sanitizer to meet increased demand in the early days of the pandemic. According to Ball, Howard County government was the largest purchaser of that hand sanitizer.

“We know that the road to recovery from this pandemic will be a long process, but there is much we can do to reignite our economy and get people back to work,” Ball said.

At the end of his remarks, Ball offered a look ahead based on predicted job growth in the professional and business sectors. He said those industries will drive demand for additional commercial space in the next 20 years.

“The county needs to invest in commercial growth in the coming years to meet an estimated 59,000 jobs added to the county by 2040,” he said. “This will mean recruiting new larger employers to our community that will bring with them well-paying jobs, resulting in more revenue to enhance our community features that add to the quality of life.”

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