As he prepared for his first-ever State of the County address this week, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball thought of the elements he would have to convey — concerns about shrinking county revenues, facility needs in the school system, the potential impact of climate change and the daunting task of implementing a flood mitigation plan for historic Ellicott City among them.
But he also said he wanted to touch on the attributes and optimism of Howard County, from its high-ranking schools to its reputation for public safety to its natural beauty.
In his State of the County speech at Turf Valley resort in Ellicott City on Wednesday, Ball stressed the fiscal message he felt he had to convey, but also the messages he said county residents have told him, in part through the nine listening sessions he held throughout the county since taking office in December.
Ball during his speech told residents he and his administration had done something “politicians are not well known for — we listened."
Ball said those listening sessions yielded nearly 600 comments from more than 800 residents — many of them urging the government to focus on sustainability and the environment. Ball in his speech focused on matters financial and environmental.
“We must realize that the policies that protect our environment will also impact places like Ellicott City, Savage, Elkridge and every other corner of Howard County that could be tragically damaged with life loss from natural disasters,” Ball said in his speech.
In addition to listening sessions, Ball said the report from his transition team solidified a reality the county is facing — that revenue streams are slowly shrinking. A 2018 report warned the county’s spending could soon outpace its revenue which comes largely from taxes including property, local income, recordation and commercial income.
Ball said Monday that he spends up to 15 hours a week studying the county budget and has directed officials to cap the budget’s growth at 2 percent so the county could “protect the services the community expects and needs.”
In his speech he spoke of the importance of maintaining Howard County’s AAA bond rating, which enables the county to retain low-interest rates on bonds. The low rates are pivotal amid the county’s decreasing revenue streams, Ball said Monday.
Shrinking revenues coincide with a $52 million blacklog in road resurfacing and repairs, the need for $87 million to replace the 37-year old detention center, and expanding student populations that have resulted in school overcrowding and calls for new facilities.
Ball said he knows school advocates are pressing for two major high school projects — the county’s 13th and 14th high schools. In his speech, he said that he is “committed to finding funding and doing my part to ensure both schools are built by 2025.”
Ball in his speech committed to making “complete streets” a priority to “promote our vision of a true multi-modal transportation system, beginning with more bike lanes.” Bike advocates in December requested the county allocate $3 million to creating more bike infrastructure in the county.
Out of 1,038 miles of roads maintained by Howard County, 35 contain bike lanes, according to a county spokesman. The county has 108 miles of shared use pathways for bikers and walkers located off the street — 90 of which are in Columbia.
The “complete streets” model is part of an overall emphasis Ball made regarding quality of life issues. He also told residents he had heard concerns about growth and development.
“There is a balance between continuing to invest in new development and preserving the quality of our communities, integrity of our infrastructure, and natural beauty of our county,” Ball said.
Ellicott City, the mill town that has seen two deadly floods since 2016, was seen as a key theme of his address in his speech.
He noted that just a year ago, Ellicott City was “a Howard County success story” for its comeback from the 2016 flood, only to experience another flood just a few months later. “...sadly, it came at the cost of another life, and a town devastated all over again.”
Ellicott City has been the point of some debate since Ball took office. Last month he unveiled his “Safe and Sound” program for the historic district, including an evaluation of buildings, an emphasis on flood mitigation projects, installation of sirens as part of an alert system and other efforts aimed at recovery.
Jon Weinstein, a former councilman who represented historic Ellicott City, has criticized what he calls Ball’s lack of action to produce a plan for buildings located on lower Main Street. He said that while upstream projects announced under the administration of former Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman have been kept by Ball, they “can’t yield the benefit of saving the lower end from being destroyed again.”
In his comments, Ball discussed opportunities for Ellicott City’s Main Street that he believes will make the district safer “while preserving the culture that makes it a national treasure.” He planned to talk about the flood mitigation assistance pilot program offering matching grants, and planned to tell residents that the county is “making progress on our plan on a weekly basis.”
Former Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat who served on the County Council for 20 years, praised Ball for retaining portions of Kittleman’s flood mitigation plan. He also said Ball has made good on other campaign promises, including an emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the county.
“I think Calvin’s gotten off to an excellent start,” Gray said.
Other issues Ball touched on included needs for the county’s aging population, services for those who need help due to poverty, mental health problems, or addiction, and specifically the impact of the opioid crisis on our county. Yet despite those weighty issues, Ball’s advance remarks indicated he planned to declare the “state of the county” is strong.
“We are listening to concerns, finding solutions and utilizing innovative practices for every part of Howard County,” he said, “and accepting all the challenges before us, without delay.”