Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) delivered his State of the County speech last week to the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. Following are some excerpts.
I believe the year 2000 is a good time for Howard County to recognize its own milestone. Folks, we have reached middle age, and many of you out there know well the aches and pains that it brings. We are beginning to feel the symptoms of the same aging conditions that other, older jurisdictions have wrestled with for years.
This past year, our news headlines talked about the perception of inequities in our education system and a slight drop in test scores. Isolated incidents of violent crime, complete with full, front-page color photos, left residents uneasy. Add to that our aging neighborhoods, aging infrastructure and an aging population and we are face-to-face with the very dynamics that, if left unattended, can set into motion a dangerous change in the perception of the overall quality of life our county has to offer.
Thankfully, we are not there yet. Middle age is just that. In the middle. The inexperience and impatience of youth is behind you. You now have the benefit of wisdom and knowledge gained from life's experiences as your guide.
And, if you're lucky, you mature and discover the art of "aging with grace."
Therein lies our challenge . . . to age with grace.
Over the past 20 years, Howard County has become the "ultimate" quality-of-life experience, both for families raising children and companies looking for a place to do business. That still holds true today for many reasons.
Statewide, our median household income--almost $70,000--is the highest. Our unemployment rate, now at 1.5 percent--is the lowest. We led in job creation for the past decade with just over 33,600 new jobs. Our property tax rate is low in comparison to similar surrounding jurisdictions. We have the lowest income-tax rate in the Baltimore-Washington region, and our government services are top-notch thanks to dedicated, hard-working public service employees.
Our economic good fortune continues this year. Thanks to these financial factors, we had a $26 million surplus cushion last year and expect at least that for this fiscal year. More importantly, our Rainy Day fund remains fully funded, with $26.5 million.
Projections show that our overall assessable base will grow by almost 6 precent over last year. And our commercial base is growing even faster. What began as a gradual increase in 1997 in corporate personal property has accelerated to an 18 percent increase in the current year.
'No New Taxes'
Thanks to our strong economy, there will be no new taxes this year. I will not be raising property or income taxes. We are required by charter to reexamine charges and fees associated with water and sewer service this year. Recommendations for revisions that may be necessary to pay for these services will be part of the upcoming budget.
In the coming year's budget, I will focus on investing in key programs that I feel are critical to this quality-of-life preservation issue.
In education, we need to bring Howard County back to No. 1 in school performance. The operating budget request from the school system for FY 2001 is $241 million--$20.2 million above last year, a 9.2 percent increase. This request does not include any increase in salaries. The capital request is $53.6 million.
I will, in the best interest of preserving the quality of education our children receive, support funding for salary increases for our teachers and for remaining class-size reduction efforts. However, choices must be made here like everywhere else.
This coming year, I will begin a major investigation into ways to support and fund revitalization efforts in our older communities with a specific emphasis on the Route 1 corridor.
In support of this initiative, I will request a new staff position and $50,000 for consultant services in this year's budget.
To help preserve our heritage and environment, I will also request $15 million in new spending authority to purchase development rights under the county's Agricultural Preservation Program. This appropriation should allow permanent preservation of roughly 2,500 additional acres of farmland in Howard County.
Public safety remains a top priority for me. Howard County continues to be one of the safest communities in the Baltimore-Washington area, but we are not immune from the more heinous crimes that plague our society.
Based on crimes per capita, the overall violent crime rate in Howard County has declined 19 percent in the past decade. The property crime rate mirrors that reduction with an 18.4 percent drop.
What is not declining is our population, which increased 29 percent since 1990. And with that rise comes a greater likelihood of criminal activity. For us to keep pace, our resources for fighting crime must also grow.
I'm happy to announce that thanks to the investments we made last year in police salaries and benefits, our department is once again competitive with other jurisdictions in the region. Staffing shortages are over, our recruitment efforts are attracting quality candidates and the exodus to other agencies is over.
Funding Firefighting and emergency medical response play another key part in keeping our community safe. Last year I appointed a committee to look at the way we fund this vital public service. Based on their recommendations, I believe it is time to eliminate the two-district fire tax system and create equity countywide among taxpayers to pay for these services.
Today's fire and rescue organization is very different from the volunteer-based system of years ago when multi-district taxing rates were first created to fund the volunteer companies in those districts. Thanks to prevention education, sprinklers in buildings and smoke detector systems, fire suppression is no longer the primary service we provide.
Last year, over 70 percent of the 50,000 calls received were for emergency medical service--ambulances and paramedics. Demands for that service are expected to climb even higher across the entire county, as aging population figures kick in over the next 10 years, and more assisted-living facilities and retirement communities open here to meet that need.
Some members of our state delegation felt the request for the enabling legislation came too late for consideration in this year's session. I, on the other hand, felt it was too important to wait.
Adequate funding for this service means the difference between life and death, and I will not play politics when it comes to the safety of our residents. I will continue to pursue and encourage our state delegation and our County Council to put aside parochialism on this issue and do what is right for Howard County as a whole.
Can't Stop Development
Since we are talking about divisive issues, growth is another one that continues to polarize our county. Despite our best efforts (short of placing drawbridges at the county lines), growth remains a battle cry for some.
It concerns me that public perceptions persist that growth is the root of all our problems. Let me tell you a true story.
I had just had breakfast with my wife, Janet, at a local bagel shop. As we walked out to the car, I hear this lady behind us say, "Well, there he goes, the developers' friend!" It made me a little mad knowing that in my entire first year in office, not one land-use decision had crossed my desk. Then it made me sad, because I realized the depth of misunderstanding that must exist among the public I serve about this issue.
People find it hard to accept that government does not have the authority or constitutional right to prohibit or deny property owners the right to use their land to their own benefit. We can manage growth, direct the pace of it and even say what type of development can occur, but we cannot stop it.
It is time to find innovative ways to make owning a home in Howard County affordable. That's why I've proposed legislation that I am confident the County Council will pass, to help increase the opportunities for young, moderate-income families to own a home in Howard County.
Built into the program are also incentives that will encourage these new home buyers, many of whom grew up here, to become our catalysts for the rebirth of our aging communities.
As we prepare for middle age, we must accept that many decisions and solutions will require major investments both in time and money. For us to avoid the same negative aging patterns that have happened in other jurisdictions, we must be prepared individually to make sacrifices today to preserve this quality of life for future generations.