After months of waiting to learn the fate of flood reduction efforts in historic Ellicott City, Howard County officials chose an expensive proposal.
Last month, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball revealed he was weighing five proposals that ranged in effectiveness and cost. The price tags ranged from $63 million to $175 million and would take four to seven years to complete.
The plan chosen May 13 will bore a tunnel parallel to lower Main Street, build retention ponds and raze four buildings located above the Tiber channel, among other projects. It is estimated to cost $113 million to $140 million.
The old mill town was ravaged by deadly, catastrophic flooding in 2016 and 2018. National Guardsman Sgt. Eddie Hermond died in 2018 while helping a woman caught in the floodwaters. Jessica Watsula and Joseph Anthony Blevins died in the 2016 flood.
According to models, the flood plan would dramatically reduce the velocity of cascading rainwater and leave a maximum water level of 3 feet on lower Main Street if the 2016 flood were to occur again.
“The previous plan called for more buildings to be knocked down and left more water on Main Street,” Ball said during a news conference announcing the details. The “ambitious” project would be completed by mid-2025 if everything goes according to plan, he added.
The previous plan posed by then-County Executive Allan Kittleman in 2018 would have resulted in dramatically decreased water velocity and left 2.5 feet more floodwater on lower Main, but would have cost much less.
When Ball, a Democrat, took office last year, he instructed officials to not think of financial limitations when drafting flood reduction plans. The charge was different from that of his predecessors.
In August, Kittleman, a Republican, proposed an estimated maximum $56.5 million, five-year plan that would have demolished 10 buildings on lower Main Street to reduce future flooding.
The financial realities Kittleman considered when picking a plan most aggressively accounted for the county’s fiscal realities, he previously said. A March county report found Howard’s revenue streams are in danger in outpacing spending if future budgets aren’t checked.
The Kittleman administration planned to pay for projects largely through bonds in future capital budgets, former officials previously said. They planned to recoup much of the money spent through federal reimbursements.
The combined amounts of funding given by the state and approved by the County Council last October would have left an estimated maximum of $35.4 million to pay over the next few years.
Ball’s flood plan requires an estimated maximum of $119.4 million over the same time frame.
Throughout his political campaign for office, Ball called himself an education advocate. On top of helping fund parks, public safety and nonprofits, he proposed $54.6 million for the school system in fiscal 2020 — $37.7 million less than what was requested by the Board of Education. The fiscal realities of the county inhibited him from proposing to fully fund the school board’s $92.3 million capital request, Ball previously said.
How can a government, with seemingly stringent financial resources, contribute $119.4 million to a massive project over five years?
The answer, officials say, lies in the capital budget and public-private partnerships.
Over the next few years, the county plans to pay for most projects through revenue streams and bonds allocated through future capital budgets.
For projects estimated to cost less than $5 million, the county will use these routes, said Mark DeLuca, deputy director of Public Works during Monday’s County Council meeting.
DeLuca said paying for these smaller, cheaper projects out of the capital budget is the most efficient use of county money.
The cheaper projects include the culverts located along Maryland Avenue and some retention ponds.
For the two largest projects, a large retention pond located south of the Tiber River and the tunnel, utilizing a public-private partnership will be the best route, DeLuca said. The pond is projected to cost $20 million, and the tunnel is projected to be $50 million to $77 million.
DeLuca said the county is currently “pursuing” a public-private partnership to complete these two projects. They “are [within] a certain threshold to make it worthwhile,” he added.
A public-private partnership allows a separate entity to lead the design, construction and maintenance of the projects. The county would likely not have to pay its bill, which will accrue interest, until construction is complete.
The county does not plan to include the smaller projects in the partnership as it would not be financially wise, DeLuca said.
“It’s a lot easier for the county to move forward with its own bonding and its own bond rates for projects within a certain size,” he said.
The county has, for 22 years, maintained the highest bond rating which allows officials to pay bonds back with low interest.
The county has already spent more than $24 million to repair damage caused by the 2016 and 2018 Ellicott City floods, according to a county report and Ball spokesman Scott Peterson. That number will increase if another catastrophic flood hits the town.
The county has recouped $3.2 million of its expenditures in federal reimbursements, according to Peterson. The Ball administration is hopeful to gain more funding from the state and federal governments.
Ball last month proposed allocating $15 million in the capital budget for flood projects. If the County Council approves the budget, $108.5 million toward the projects would still need to be funded.