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Is Calvin Ball's Ellicott City flood mitigation plan worth the cost?

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball's plan to mitigate flooding in Ellicott City does not require a trade-off with school funding.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s plan for mitigating future flooding in Ellicott City addresses many of the concerns we had with his predecessor's proposal. It requires the demolition of fewer buildings on the town’s historic Main Street and has the capacity to move more water safely away to the Patapsco. If and when the town is hit by flooding on the magnitude that we saw in 2016 and 2018 — a good bet given the chaotic effects of climate change — Mr. Ball’s proposal should make the loss of life that we saw in the last two floods less likely and the property damage much less severe. His plan also has the virtue of emerging from a fuller public discussion than the previous one.

It is expensive, though. Cost estimates range from $113 million to $140 million, double or more what former County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed spending, and it would not eliminate flooding on lower Main Street in a truly severe storm, just mitigate it more than the old plan would. Mr. Kittleman’s plan would have left 5.5 feet of water on lower Main Street during a 2016-level flood; Mr. Ball’s would knock that down to 3 feet. County Councilman David Yungmann, a west county Republican, asks a fair question: Is the added benefit worth the added cost?

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On balance, we think it is. The trouble with the Kittleman plan wasn’t just that it left too much potential for flooding but that its cost was much too high in terms of what would have been lost — about 5 percent of the buildings in the town’s historic district. The bonds Howard County would have to float to pay for Mr. Ball’s plan would be retired someday, but under Mr. Kittleman’s, the historic charm that makes Ellicott City worth saving in the first place would have been diminished forever. (And the concern expressed by Preservation Maryland that the Kittleman plan could have jeopardized Ellicott City’s historic district status wasn’t trivial either; in the long run, that could cost much more than the difference in the price tags of the two plans.)

What Mr. Ball needs to do now is to flesh out the details of how his plan could be financed. What are the possibilities for federal or state reimbursement? Are there opportunities for public-private partnerships? Might a special taxation district be appropriate to shoulder some of the costs? And what trade-offs might this plan require in terms of Howard’s other capital needs?

That kind of public discussion is particularly necessary since the Ellicott City flooding issue is being conflated with the current debate over Mr. Ball’s proposed schools budget for fiscal 2020. He is facing significant pressure from teachers, parents and students over his decision to increase the county’s contribution to the school budget by $16.2 million, which is $5.4 million more than the state’s maintenance of effort law requires. It is, however, far below the $52.3 million increase in county funds the school board asked for, and school officials are predicting increased class sizes, among other consequences, if the County Council can’t find more money.

Howard, like every other jurisdiction in the region, is grappling with educational needs that are outstripping the available resources. That reality has led to proposed tax increases in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and projected elimination of teaching positions in Harford. It’s likely that implementation of education funding reforms stemming from the state’s Kirwan Commission will put additional fiscal demands on the counties in the years ahead. Howard County, which is already coping with a deficit in its school system’s health fund, faces some hard decisions about how to maintain the excellent public education system for which it is known.

But the conversation about those recurring operating expenses is different from the conversation about a one-time capital project, like the flood mitigation in Ellicott City. Choosing to do one has no real impact on the other. Howard Countians can debate the merits of Mr. Ball’s flood mitigation plan without fear that saying yes will mean bigger class sizes and fewer supports for students and teachers.

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