This week I’m at the annual gathering of county leaders from across Maryland who come together in Ocean City for the Maryland Association of Counties conference where we discuss our shared critical issues as well as potential partnerships. This is a time of great transition for our state as a new governor, comptroller and attorney general will take office in January. I’m having some productive conversations with elected leaders from around the state.
Montgomery County earns AAA bond rating for 50th consecutive year
I am pleased to report that Montgomery County has once again earned a AAA bond rating from all three ratings agencies. This is an incredible accomplishment since only about 50 counties out of approximately 3,000 nationwide earn a triple AAA rating from Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch.
And this year was a milestone as it is the 50th consecutive year that we’ve earned a AAA from Moody’s. Standard & Poor's and Fitch have been rating Montgomery County with AAA for the last 48 and 33 years respectively.
These AAA ratings mean that Montgomery County is a top-rated issuer of municipal securities and that our government has secured the highest credit rating possible by a local government. We achieved this rating due to our strong fiscal management policies that have held true even in the face of economic struggles brought on by challenges like the pandemic, inflation, supply chain shortages and staffing issues.
Specifically, Moody’s noted that we will “continue to benefit from a dynamic and expanding economy, very affluent resident population, and a growing and highly educated work force.”
Standard & Poor’s wrote that the “County has leveraged its very strong economic underpinnings to support its sound financial position” and “has historically maintained strong or very strong budgetary flexibility.”
And additional praise came from Fitch reporting that Montgomery County “demonstrated the capacity to absorb revenue losses during periods of economic downturn” and lauding our office for “sound fiscal decisions to restore and enhance the County's financial cushion and operations during recovery periods.”
Our AAA bond rating allows the County to sell long-term bonds for capital improvement projects at the most favorable rates, which allows us to maximize savings over the life of the bonds. Basically, this is the equivalent of the county having a perfect credit score – meaning that we can sell bonds and raise funds at lower interest rates saving our taxpayers money.
It means projects like a new library in Clarksburg or the forthcoming wellness center at John F. Kennedy High School in Wheaton can be financed at lower interest rates. Improvements at Montgomery College, such as the financing of the new East County Campus, as well as our many infrastructure projects can move forward and cost less.
I appreciate the recognition by the credit agencies of our sound management of the county’s finances.
The State of Maryland counts on Montgomery County
Montgomery County is often described as the economic engine of the state, and I am happy to report that we continue to receive positive economic news. Just in the past six months over 3.5 million square feet of life sciences space has been announced for development. Additionally, our North Bethesda development activity continues, and we received over $16 million dollars of investment from the State to be used over the next two years.
We are also seeing companies grow, expand, and relocate to Montgomery County. Deka Biosciences started in an incubator and is breaking ground on 14,000 square feet of office space. Another of our incubator companies, Arcellx, is expanding their Rockville operations by adding another 60,000 square feet of lab space. Horizon Therapeutics recently announced they are moving their 192,000 square feet east coast manufacturing hub to Rockville. And Lentigen/Miltenyi Biotec is moving their U.S. headquarters to the County from California, adding 130 new employees, and expanding nearly 150,000 square feet.
AC Motels by Marriott opens in Bethesda
Our economic success is not limited to our life sciences sector. This week, I attended the opening of the new AC Hotel Bethesda by Marriott. This hotel at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Montgomery Street was formerly Second District headquarters for the Montgomery County Police Department. You’d never know that now after extensive work and a beautiful redesign inside and out. Now it is home to more than 200 new hotel rooms, thousands of square feet of conference space and a new dining option for hotel visitors and Bethesda regulars.
Montgomery County is proud to be the corporate headquarters and home to Marriott and we appreciate their continued investments in our County’s hospitality industry. Montgomery County has a nearly $2 billion dollar tourism industry employing thousands of workers. The county’s hotel occupancy rate has rebounded from 9 percent during the worst of the pandemic to nearly 80 percent occupied rooms today.
COVID cases drop, Montgomery County returns to Low community level
Our community level status had been right on the line between medium and high for the last four weeks. This week we dropped below 200 cases per 100,000 people and our hospitalization numbers and rates have also dipped. This resulted in our COVID-19 Community level status returning to “low” for the first time in months.
These numbers are encouraging but the lag in people getting their boosters remains a problem. Our data has shown that vaccination and vaccination plus getting the boosters makes a difference in outcomes for people who get COVID.
While vaccines plus boosters may not provide absolute protection against getting COVID, it has a positive impact on reducing the severity and the death rate from COVID. As the chart shows, the unvaccinated are 3 to 4 times more likely to test positive for COVID and they are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized than people who are vaccinated and boosted. For adults who have not yet been vaccinated , we now have a new vaccine from Novavax that is produced in a traditional way and not based on mRNA technology.
As students prepare to return to school, new guidance from the CDC
We learned last week that the CDC will no longer require students exposed to someone with COVID-19 to be quarantined if they are not showing any symptoms. Additionally, the school system is currently recommending a mask optional approach to start the school year, but, if outbreaks occur, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders will have the option of implementing their own facemask recommendations per class or campus wide if needed.
Our Health and Human Services department has been meeting with school leaders, and they are encouraging every family to take advantage of the County’s vaccination opportunities from now until the start of the school year to make sure that all the students are up to date on their COVID vaccinations and boosters. It not only helps protect them from getting severely sick but also helps our community by limiting the potential for community spread of COVID among teachers, students and school staff.
I also met with MCPS Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight and they are diligently preparing for potential health threats. I offered my continued support and look forward to a safe and productive school year.
Another bit of good news on the school front, Dr. McKnight reports that they are rapidly closing the staffing gap. This is important for the successful opening of our schools, and I appreciate their all-out effort at recruitment for these essential positions.
Additionally, I want to be sure MCPS parents and students are aware of the upcoming Back to School Fair at Westfield Wheaton on Saturday, August 27th from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. This free event is an opportunity for families to learn about the school system as well as county programs and services. We will also be providing a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic, COVID rapid tests and critical information for the health and safety of our students and their families.
Town hall on Monkeypox (MPX) town on Monday
This Monday, August 22nd, county Health Department leaders will be hosting the first in a series of virtual townhalls focusing on Monkeypox - also known as MPX. Prevention, treatment and clarifying information will be the topics of the townhall. Attendees will also have the chance to ask questions and share concerns about MPX.
The event can be seen live on Montgomery County’s Facebook page or County Cable Montgomery.
You can also learn more about monkeypox on our website https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/HHS/RightNav/Monkeypox.html
Please know that nationally the supply of monkeypox vaccines is limited. We are using our limited supply to target those most at risk. At the same time, we continue to accept pre-registration for the vaccine when more are available. The list now has close to 2,500 names so when more vaccines are available, we can quickly contact people who have expressed interest in getting the two-dose regimen.
Feds approve millions for Ride On Green Carbon Buses
We have some exciting public transit and climate conscious news to pass along. This week Montgomery County won a $15 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration that breaks new net zero ground.
The funds will be used to purchase 13 new hydrogen fuel cell buses and build a green hydrogen station for refueling. It’s the first public transit project involving green hydrogen on the East Coast. LINK to press release https://www2.montgomerycountymd.gov/mcgportalapps/Press_Detail.aspx?Item_ID=42004&Dept=50
Obtaining the hydrogen-electric powered buses helps Montgomery County as it strives towards a goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2035. This move alone will reduce annual emissions by 640 tons while ensuring reliable and sustainable bus service.
I’m pleased that the Federal Transit Administration selected our project for this competitive award, and I want to thank the state delegation for supporting the effort. Without their help we may not have been able to win this grant with more than 500 nationwide projects applying for funding.
By the end of the year DOT anticipates having 14 electric buses on the road. The hydrogen fuel buses are expected to start running by the end of 2025.
Mini-grants available to help fill gaps in hunger aid infrastructure
The Montgomery County Community Food Rescue Mini-Grants Program is back! These grants are intended to provide opportunities for improving capacity and infrastructure of the local food system in all aspects of food recovery, and for innovative and collaborative approaches to reducing food insecurity.
As we've seen throughout the pandemic there's been an outpouring of support to match the increased need in the community as some families struggle with impacts from COVID-19 and more recently inflation.
Community organizations involved in food recovery and food security could receive anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 in mini-grants to help improve capacity and infrastructure of the local food recovery system.
Opportunities will be available for potential recipients to have questions about the mini-grants answered, including a technical assistance conference happening Monday, August 22 from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Applications are due September 6th.
These grants will help to directly impact people’s lives. I encourage any eligible organization to apply and help us reduce hunger and food waste in our County.