Harford's Glassman calls his first year as county executive 'amazing'

Harford leader Glassman said is committed to "making government more like your smartphone."

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman says his first year in the top local elected office fulfilled a long-held dream.

"It's been an amazing year," Glassman, a Republican, said during an interview session with Aegis reporters and editors Wednesday in his third-floor office in downtown Bel Air. The office is filled with sheep-themed items in a nod to his Darlington farm, but also is not lacking in waterfowl carvings and other tributes to his personal and his county's varied history.

Glassman said he's wanted to be the elected leader for a long time, back to his days as a student at Havre de Grace Middle School.

As with any elected officials, his first year has been full of popular and unpopular moments. The first year's flurry of activity, includes buyouts of longtime county employees, privatizing the county's landfill operation, getting rid of the rain tax in the county, fighting the heroin epidemic, delaying funding of capital projects and working to make county government more attentive to the needs of its citizens.

Reflecting on the 365 days since he took office in December 2014, Glassman said he has been a lot busier in his first year running the county government than any year as a legislator.

Busy, but also productive, is how the Level Village native and longtime Darlington resident, summed up, placing particular emphasis on improved customer service and efforts to make county government more digital savvy and friendly for citizens.

Glassman said is committed to "making government more like your smartphone," including revamping the permit center and working on requiring every employee to take a customer service course.

A longtime employee of BGE, where he worked in claims adjustment before retiring, Glassman, 53, said he learned first-hand about customer service both with "gas and electric" and in a lengthy political career that began with his election to the Harford County Council, on the second try, in 1990. After eight years on the council, he moved on to the House of Delegates in 1999 and then to the State Senate in 2007.

Although he has expressed an interest in running for the U.S. Senate next year, Glassman said he long dreamed of becoming county executive. So far, he said, the reality has met the anticipation.

"I have kind of always wanted to do this," he said. "It's been a good fit for me. You get a lot of energy, and I think I made the right decision doing it."

As for a run at the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Barbara Mikulski, Glassman said he's not ready to make any announcements.

He commissioned a poll that he previously said was encouraging, but declined to say definitively Wednesday if he is a candidate for the Republican nomination.

"I haven't decided," he said. "I'm still thinking about it."

"I'm happy where I am, but I'm being pulled in different directions. Stay tuned for the State of the County address," he said, adding that is where he plans to make an announcement.

As for his current job and his first year in it, he pointed out his work in making Harford the first county to repeal the rain tax, more formally known as a stormwater remediation fee, and reducing the county's debt by postponing some capital projects.

His administration launched a virtual town hall for budget hearings and an online discussion platform for the HarfordNEXT master plan, and launching online applications like a plow tracker and "You Click We Fix" for residents requesting county services.

The streamlining included changes at the Main Street county headquarters in Bel Air, with drivers being allowed to enter the facility from Main Street instead of Route 22 and making most of the parking dedicated for visitors.

The HarfordNEXT plan, spearheaded by Planning and Zoning Director Brad Killian, was unveiled this spring with the goal of streamlining the master plan and comprehensive rezoning processes.

Glassman believes he has "set the tone that we are going to run this kind of like a business" and is pushing forward with new initiatives, including trying to revive development at the stalled James Run corporate site near I-95 and establishing an agricultural research and exposition center on a northern Harford property the county owns at the Dublin crossroads of Routes 1 and 136.

The ag center could include a research component for fields like food safety to offer young graduates from the northern Harford area a chance to make better use of ag-oriented college degrees, he said. It also could become home to exposition facilities or an educational component.

Glassman said the county could get some bond money or revenue from the recently-passed hotel tax to put toward the ag center, but he cautioned the proposal has a long road to travel. While confirming the Dublin property is the first choice for the site, "we haven't even perc tested it" to see if it could support on-site waste disposal systems for any buildings.

He does want the county to establish a "STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) for farmers" program and recently introduced a bill to permit craft brewing on local farms, noting that Harford appears to be an emerging leader in the craft brewing craze.

He's also looking at ways to boost commercial and residential development, saying he recognizes the county is unlikely to return to the days when it saw 1,000 to 2,000 homes and apartments being built annually, with the current 500-600 unit activity being more the norm.

"The county is not going to progress and prosper – I like to say 'prosper' – if we don't grow, and you have to think outside the box," he said.

The County Council passed Glassman's $642.3 million operating budget for Fiscal Year 2016 in May, a $14.8 million increase over his predecessor David Craig's final budget. Glassman's first budget included modest merit-based pay increases for employees, fulfilling one goal he emphasized in campaigning for county executive.

Under the current economic climate, he said he believes the county can sustain annual revenue growth of 2-3 percent.

The capital budget, meanwhile, fell by $16.1 million, as Glassman said he wanted to step back, borrow less each year and reduce the county's overall debt, as some earlier bond issues mature.

That ruffled feathers when one the previously approved projects put hold was a replacement building for Havre de Grace High and Middle schools that Glassman himself attended. He said, however, he remains committed to starting the project before his term ends in late 2018.

"I'm paying for a lot of the other guys' projects," he said in reference to the county's debt, which sits at $668 million, not counting interest.

Other economic efforts featured helping the Town of Bel Air move forward from its water supply issue, which prompted a building moratorium, by encouraging work on a reservoir, or "impoundment," on the Mt. Soma property off of Route 1 between Bel Air and Benson.

Glassman's administration made the request to sell 68.6 acres of the county-owned Mt. Soma property near Bel Air to Maryland American Water, a private company that supplies water to the Town of Bel Air and neighboring areas.

The plan was a legacy of the final weeks of Craig's term, which Glassman acknowledged, but he embraced it and noted he is the first county leader in 20 years committed to preserving and protecting Mt. Soma's historic barn.

He also brought to an end the years of political wrangling by implementing a 6 percent countywide lodging tax and has already awarded $1.4 million in grants to local nonprofits from that revenue to boost tourism.

Heroin epidemic

From the outset of his term, Glassman declared the county must tackle a local heroin epidemic, particularly by offering access to more affordable recovery options, that has affected many of its young people,.

He boldly addressed the growing problem in his inaugural speech and has since spearheaded an outreach campaign to middle-school families, billboards and cooperation with the sheriff's heroin task force.

He said the drug continues to ravage communities and families throughout the county.

The September town hall on heroin drew a standing-room-only crowd to Harford Community College, where Glassman vowed to "slay this Goliath, this dragon of heroin."

Glassman noted he dedicated $100,000 in the 2016 budget to fight heroin, becoming the first county executive to do so.

He has also secured more than $560,000 in state grants for drug awareness and prevention.

His latest effort includes Project Healthy Delivery, which targets pregnant women dealing with drug or alcohol addiction.

Efficiency

Glassman said he is saving taxpayers about $194,000 annually by outsourcing management of the county website and another nearly $360,000 annually by reducing leased space, as well as offering other efficiencies like moving the government off of a mainframe computer system and eliminating the Chief of Staff position.

His most prominent move toward efficiency was to outsource landfill and recycling operations, which was entrusted to the Maryland Environmental Service. That meant working with unions and maintaining a good rapport with a variety of employees, something that he was less used to doing while working in the private sector.

He said he heard a fair amount of complaints about customer service upon coming to office, and there was "a general malaise" among employees.

He offered an early retirement incentive that was accepted by 73 employees at a cost of $4.5 million. Most of those positions have been eliminated, as were the 46 at the landfill.

He noted the county worked with MES to find positions for the landfill workers, some who also found jobs in other county positions that had been vacant.

"It's not always easy being the boss," he said.

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