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Will Howard's executive Calvin Ball put the brakes on Ellicott City flood control plan, shift other priorities?

As he prepares to move into the county executive’s suite next month, Calvin Ball is facing a wide range of challenges: Which political appointees will remain and which will go? Whether to advance a $50 million flood-control plan in Ellicott City that calls for tearing down buildings. How to fulfill campaign promises to improve education without raising taxes.

“You go from working really hard on a campaign … then you’ve got [less than] four weeks to put together an administration and transition,” said former County Executive Ken Ulman. He said assembling a staff is Ball’s most pressing task.

Ball, the first African American county executive-elect, will be able to appoint 93 people to key policy and management positions, including department heads and executive staff, according to Paul Milton, spokesman for outgoing County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican who last week lost his re-election bid.

An important role up for grabs is chief administrative officer, who oversees personnel, legislation and the county budget. Howard has had two people in the role since 1991. Racquel Sanudo was put in the job by Republican Executive Charles Ecker and retained by Democrat James N. Robey until 2006. Lonnie Robbins was appointed by Ulman in 2006 and retained by Kittleman.

Ball spokeswoman Jamila Ratliff in an email said that “while no final decisions have been made regarding staffing, we will ensure Howard County has the very best staff to move our vision forward.”

After taking office, Ball will have to address the current “hot button issue,” said Ulman, the five-year, $50 million plan to mitigate flooding in historic Ellicott City that was proposed earlier this year by Kittleman and Jon Weinstein, the Democratic councilman who represents the area.

The plan, which then-councilman Ball voted against partially funding because it did not address his concerns, including diverting funds from other projects, requires the county to raze 13 buildings on Lower Main Street to widen the stream channel and create an open space.

The plan is opposed by Preservation Maryland and others who fear the change will lead to the town’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places.

In an interview a day after last week’s election, Ball declined to say if he would acquire 13 buildings as he would “not know where the deals will be in the process” when he takes office.

“I want to better understand what we would do if it were acquired and what we would do if it wasn’t acquired,” Ball said.

The acquisitions and demolitions would happen under Ball’s watch as funds will not be available until December, according to Kittleman aide Andrew Barth.

Ball has said he wants to place a greater priority on projects that address flooding upstream and “wants to see the data” that ensures the current plan maintains a “level of safety.”

The five-year plan is modeled on a deadly 2016 flood that pushed more than 8 feet of water onto lower Main Street. The current plan is designed to decrease the water speed and reduce the amount of floodwater in a similar storm to 4 to 6 feet.

“Four feet of water will allow people to go into buildings and be safe [when a storm hits],” Weinstein, a Democrat who represents historic Ellicott City, said, adding that “as long as there are buildings built over the stream [on Lower Main Street], [any work] upstream will be limited in its effectiveness.”

“It’s a fool's errand to think we can get to zero feet of water on lower Main Street,” he said.

The town is built in a 100-year floodplain and has seen two deadly 1,000 year storms since 2016.

Ball also said he wants to bring in an expert to study more closely boring a tunnel to mitigate floodwater on lower Main Street—an alternative that was explored in 2016, that was estimated to cost $80 million, take more than five years to complete and would only be successful if the Patapsco River waters stay at a low level, according to Mark Deluca, deputy director of public works.

“Delaying to find a solution that has not been uncovered in the last seven years of research, is playing Russian Roulette with the next flood,” Weinstein said.

If he decides to move forward with future mitigation projects, Ball would request funds from the County Council, which will consist of entirely new members.

Working with rookie lawmakers is a “unique” challenge Ball will have to overcome, said Joanne Drielak, political science professor at Howard Community College.

“They’re going to have to find their own dynamic on how the work together,” said Drielak, adding that Ball has an advantage because he served three terms and can “use his experience to guide him through the process.”

The new council also will have to approve a budget put forward by Ball’s administration. The county’s $1.6 billion operating budget, which funds everything from school to road construction, fire and police protection, grew by 94 percent since 2011 to keep pace with Howard’s population, which is expected to increase by 11 percent by 2020.

Ball has spent a dozen years on the County Council, where he hewed what some consider a progressive path on social issues and touted the importance of maintaining a quality school system.

Ball during his campaign and in an interview pledged to increase education spending, ease classroom crowding in public schools and boost access to career education programs.

Outgoing Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican who represents the western portion of the county, in an email questioned how Ball would be able to accomplish his goals for education without raising taxes.

“With all of his campaign promises, [Ball] will either be raising taxes or breaking promises, maybe both,” Fox said. “My guess is he’ll be raising taxes within the first two years. He has said that fully funding the budget of the Howard County Public Schools a priority. If it truly is, he has a large [funding] gap to address right off the bat.”

The county funds about 70 percent of the high-achieving school system’s $860 million operating budget and has plans in the works to build new high schools in Jessup and Elkridge by 2028.

Ball in an interview last week said future monies would be found while building the annual budget. He plans to work with department heads to determine how to make and “effective” and “efficient” use of the modus operandi.

Ball said he would beef up the commercial tax base through the continuation of the county’s strategy of growing businesses to boost tax revenues and attract outside companies. He also pointed to a statewide ballot question approved last week that would dedicate funds from casino taxes toward education in all counties.

Ball said he believes addressing the minimum wage should be done at a state level to eliminate potential competition for businesses between counties.

Ball during a September press conference said he wanted to ensure all school employees earn a living wage under his vision for Howard’s school system.

Though experts deem $13.28 per hour a living wage for a single adult Howard household, campaign spokesman Jamila Ratliff in a September email declined to provide a specific dollar amount under Ball’s campaign promise, saying the Democrat believes it “is less about a static dollar amount and should take into account where the jobs are and the cost of living.”

The Democrat ran his campaign on environmental sustainability. Ball on his website said he would update Howard’s 2015 ‘Climate Action Plan’ to further evaluate key advances and shortcomings and create open incentivizes for open space, farmland, & forest preservation.

Ball said he “hasn’t decided” which environmental programs he plans to implement nor which energy-use goals he might mandate.

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