Howard County Times
Howard County

Kittleman's first 100 days marked by tough budget choices, reaching out to residents

County Executive Allan Kittleman delivers his inaugural speech to a crowd Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 at Glenelg High School in Glenelg.

In a flash, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's first 100 days in office are already behind him.

The Republican, elected in November and sworn into office on Dec. 1 last year, passed the benchmark without any fanfare on March 10.


"It's definitely flown by," Kittleman said Tuesday.

But he's not sitting still. Kittleman's time as county executive so far has been busy, with a deficit to patch up in the current fiscal year, a new budget to craft and lots of campaign promises to keep – not to mention a share of the unexpected issues that always seem to crop up: A record-breaking cold snap, shrinking education funding from the state, backlash over a planned homeless center.


"In some ways, it's been humbling and challenging, but it's also been rewarding," he said.

It's a scenario familiar to former County Executive Chuck Ecker, who held the post from 1990 to 1998 and is the only other Republican to serve in Howard's top seat.

Ecker, too, faced a deficit when he took office more than two decades ago. To make ends meet, he made the hard decision to reduce the county's workforce by 18 percent, freeze pay raises and institute furlough days.

"I really had a tough first several months," Ecker remembered.

Kittleman hasn't had to resort to such drastic measures, though he released a plan last month to plug a $15.8 million deficit in the fiscal year 2015 budget by trimming spending across county departments, mostly through a combination of hiring freezes for non-essential positions, putting several one-time projects on hold and delaying workplace expenses such as new computer purchases and non-critical staff training.

Former County Executive Jim Robey, a Democrat who succeeded Ecker and served until 2006, dealt with early budget issues in a different way: He raised the property tax.

"I was the bad guy who raised taxes," Robey said. "A lot of people weren't happy, but a lot of people also said they wanted to fund education and public safety, and the quality of life they wanted to foster in Howard County."

Kittleman has indicated he's not inclined to raising taxes.

As the new executive's term progresses, then, "the issue for him is how is he going to continue funding the things Howard Countians expect without raising revenues?" Robey said. "He's going to have to make some hard cuts."


"It wasn't a great inauguration gift," Kittleman acknowledges of Howard's current financial situation. A recent report by the county's Spending Affordability Committee predicted the county's revenue will experience only a tepid growth of 1.5 percent next fiscal year.

Despite that reality, Kittleman's past two citizen budget hearings have been packed with people and organizations making requests: a hearing Tuesday night was standing-room-only as people filled the largest chamber at the county's Ellicott City headquarters.

As he works out funding allocations for 2016 – the county executive's capital budget is due to the council April 1 – Kittleman admits he will have to make some unpopular choices.

"It's hard, because I want to do as much as we possibly can... but I also owe [Howard taxpayers] a fiduciary duty to properly manage those tax dollars," he said.

Howard Democrats hope the top priorities of the last eight years under former County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, will remain intact.

"I think we feel strongly that there are certain issues that we strongly support," said Abby Hendrix, the chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee. "Howard County has done a really good job of funding education, putting Healthy Howard as a top priority, the environment – those were things that we really, really supported, and it will be interesting to see if he continues to support those things."


Kittleman has been garnering input from stakeholders across the county in the meantime. In addition to his two budget hearings, the county executive has a town hall scheduled for March 31 in Oakland Mills.

Inclusiveness in county decision-making was a campaign promise for Kittleman; on the campaign trail, one of his favorite lines was "if you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu."

Republican party chairwoman Loretta Shields called Kittleman's time in office so far "refreshing" for its follow-through.

"You can tell the difference between a politician and someone who's elected to work for the people," she said.

But for Kittleman, whose affability was arguably one of the reasons he was elected in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one, eagerness to please could lead to disillusionment, some said.

"You have, as I recall, lots and lots of individuals and organizations that want time with you to promote their priorities and their plans," Robey said of his first days in office. "My biggest disappointment is that I couldn't make everyone happy, but you do what you think is best. That's what Allan's going to have to do."


Local blogger Tom Coale, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully to represent Ellicott City in the General Assembly this fall, called Kittleman "one of the nicest people in politics."

But, he said, "you can't please everyone, so when those decisions come up that are sure to displease people, that's where real leadership is necessary."

Kittleman had a first taste of dissent in January, when a group of Savage residents – including some of his supporters during the campaign – asked him to reconsider plans to build a housing and resource center for the homeless on Guilford Road in Jessup.

At the end of a two-hour-long meeting where many expressed their fears that the project would bring crime and drug use to the community, Kittleman told them he still intended to support the center.

"While some people may have been disappointed with my decision, I think that they appreciated the fact that I'm trying to be as responsive as possible and trying to listen," he said of the meeting.

On other issues, Kittleman has been less decisive. He's taking his time to think through next steps for potentially controversial decisions about the future of the Long Reach Village Center, whether to remove parking meters in Ellicott City and whether to repeal the county's stormwater fee. The latter two were campaign-trail pledges.


Coale called Kittleman's approach "cautious.

"Pretty much every big policy announcement that has come out of the county executive's office seems to have been pulled back and remade in some form along the way," he said.

One issue in particular – a reorganization of the county's Human Rights Commission proposed by Kittleman's transition team – led to a near-total backtracking on the administration's initial plan to transfer the commission's responsibility to rule on discrimination cases to a professional hearing examiner.

The proposal caused a backlash, with insiders on both sides of the debate accusing each other of being driven by partisanship.

It also led to some tension with the Democrat-dominated County Council. In response to the Human Rights Commission flap, Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty penned a letter expressing disappointment about what she called a lack of communication between the administration and commissioners.

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Kittleman's relationship with the council could shape his legacy as much as the initiatives his office announces, since councilmembers must vote to approve many county decisions.


Councilmember Greg Fox, the council's lone Republican, said he's observed the county executive making an effort to build a working relationship with councilmembers.

"I think he's at least attempting to reach out more to the council," Fox said, noting that Kittleman recently met with councilmembers to discuss the capital budget, a departure from past executives' traditional process of presenting the budget to councilmembers just a day or two before it's released to the public.

"He's certainly finding his way, which is to be expected, but it's been friendly," Sigaty said of Kittleman's early days.

On the upcoming budget, a possible source of disagreement, Sigaty said she and the other councilmembers understood they would all have to make tough choices.

"We all know – and we've done this before – that we have to live within the means that we have at the moment," she said.

"We're just going to have to continue to have dialogue, even if once in a while we have disagreements," Kittleman said. "I try to work in a very nonpartisan way."