May 19, 2023

Message from the County Executive

Dear friends,

We had another great announcement this week for green energy – a microgrid that will use solar energy to power our buses and to make hydrogen to fuel hydrogen powered buses. Hydrogen allows the buses to operate for longer distances and it does not require battery storage. While emissions from hydrogen are clean, production of hydrogen can be clean or dirty. This new project will lead to the production of clean hydrogen, and the emissions will be clean.

Here is a rendering of what that project could look like:

The hydrogen reaction only produces water as a byproduct, and I have asked plan developers to see if we can even reuse that water and put it back into the system to increase the resiliency of the project. Click on this link to learn more about this first of its kind project on the East Coast—and one of only a few in the country.

We worked with the same company—AlphaStruxure—to develop the solar panel microgrid system at the Brookville Bus Depot in Silver Spring. As one project lead put it, this project would create the gold standard for sustainable public transit.

Montgomery County is leading the movement into resilient public transportation, which is good for the environment and for our economic development goals. Green public transportation helps relieve congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot green the electric grid by ourselves, but we can lead the way and show everyone in Maryland and throughout the nation how innovative projects like this produce a greener County.

Late-Night Safety Bill Passes

I want to thank the Council for passing an important bill I introduced earlier this year that is designed to improve safety in areas such as Downtown Silver Spring and across Montgomery County.

The Late Night Safety Bill applies to all businesses that provide on-site consumption of tobacco, food, alcohol or cannabis, and either: operate between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.; or operate between midnight and 2 a.m. and have been the subject of two or more service calls for law enforcement to respond to serious incidents during the prior 12 months. These businesses must develop safety plans. These plans might include security staff, enhanced lighting, surveillance cameras and other tools to help deter crime. I appreciate the Council’s engagement – especially Councilmember Kate Stewart who represents the area - to help improve the original version of the bill, and I believe this bill will help improve safety for residents, visitors and businesses. We worked with police, Councilmembers, downtown Silver Spring business owners and residents to develop this legislation. Some businesses voluntarily implemented a security plan ahead of this legislation and have shown that it can be helpful, so we believe that expanding the plan countywide will have a positive impact.

As a longtime community activist, I know how important it is to involve the community. So, I especially appreciate the effort by so many in the Silver Spring community for continuing to work with us to make the area safer. The culture of Silver Spring is one of inclusivity, appreciation and concern for neighbors. For nearly two years, elected officials, the community, businesses and the Montgomery County Police Department have been working to put systems in place to promote communication, encourage cooperation and educate businesses on better ways of crime-proofing. The Late Night Safety Bill is another step in creating a safer community for everyone. 

Budget Process Nears End with Straw Votes

This week the County Council indicated its final action on the Fiscal Year 2023 Operating Budget. I certainly expected some changes to my recommendation for the operating budget, which is normal in any year and I greatly appreciate the unanimous support almost all of my proposals received, including the important compensation increases for our outstanding County employees.

However, I am concerned that the Council’s decision on both the tax rate and level of spending could put us in a difficult situation going forward. You can read my statement here.

I had proposed a property tax increase to ensure adequate funding for our schools - the request from MCPS was primarily about increasing pay for teachers and other staff. Other funds within the request would have gone to address staff shortages and some programs. In conversations with Councilmembers, I had proposed possible ways to reduce the property tax that would still have included the necessary funding (there were sources that I could not use without Council support) by rethinking some of our outmoded, and frankly unnecessarily, burdensome budget policies. These changes would produce savings this year and going forward. I preferred using money we already had in hand differently, rather than reducing services and programs that residents want and need. It would not have cost taxpayers more to follow our suggestions. It would not have created problems in the future. It would have preserved funding for programs we need now and down the road. Some of the cuts are okay, but I am concerned that others will negatively impact the continuation of very important services that our residents need. These are services that we saw were essential during the height of COVID and I think we need to provide some of those services now that the Federal government is not funding these services anymore. The Federal funding may be gone, but the need has not disappeared. Food, access to medical care and housing needs are continuing and often severe. My budget included funding to continue this community support that now could be in danger of being cut and that would not be good for our County.

I am glad we reached an agreement on how to not tie up money that we know we will not spend this year on payroll in response to the vacancies we have. That money is best used on budgetary needs, and I think we reached a balanced approach.

On our part, we already directed department heads to focus on hiring for positions where vacancies are causing work not to be done or putting undue burdens on existing staff.  We have managed this three-year COVID nightmare and have been able to largely maintain services, despite the great resignation that has bedeviled both the public and private sector.  As departments move forward, this gives us the opportunity to reimagine our work structure to see if a combination of more skills and better deployment of our staff and technology could meet needs of our residents while somewhat reducing the number of staff needed to do this. This work, that I had hoped to do early in my first term, simply could not be done during the pandemic when our workforce was not at work and many of our staff were doing COVID-related jobs out of necessity.  Besides the logistics of trying to do the work, we were focused on dealing with pandemic. Now that we are in our first sort of “normal year,” we can engage in the bigger project of rethinking how we work.    

The school system creates a real conundrum for all of us. As I said in the beginning, education is the crux of this budget discussion. I am glad that the Council funding is intended to support teacher pay, which has sunk to the point that we are not competitive in an area with the highest living costs in the State. That is a serious impediment to recruitment and retention. Telling MCPS that it cannot sequester its own separate reserve fund was a good step, I support it and it will save $22 million in the FY24 budget, or 1 cent, in taxes.

However, I am concerned about the elimination of tens of millions of dollars from the MCPS budget. I share the concerns about the MCPS budget process and have been vocal about the lack of accountability and transparency in the school budgets, as well as a lack of a meaningful role for the actual educators in thinking about where resources are most needed to improve instruction but those concerns do not mean that we can drastically reduce the requested funding. I also want to say that this is not a new problem – the wall between the County and MCPS was erected a long time ago. It has been a problem for every administration and has been enshrined by a State Maintenance of Effort law that prescribes that the County must increase school spending by growth of the student population and inflation. That is it—that is our role.

While I understand the frustration with the process, we need to be aware of our overall decline in support for school funding. Today, we are funding schools—our spending per pupil—at 80 percent of what we funded in 2010 and not all of the difference is accounted for by pay. So, some of the school requests beyond the employee funding were teacher positions in areas that need more attention, like students in special education. The lack of funding is impacting instruction. Simply wielding a big sledgehammer without knowing where it will land and what the result will be can exacerbate existing problems. There is no analysis that identifies $45 million in the budget request that should not be funded, nor what should be funded if more money were available. I hope that whatever happens in this moment results in a fuller engagement between County Government and County schools—not just the administration, but the teachers themselves. And I share the Council’s interest in raising this core issue at the State level, to seek legislative change, if necessary, to give County Government a larger role than simply writing checks,   

This is about us investing in our students and our community. Maintaining high-quality schools and education is good for all of us.

Planning Board Update

Artie Harris was selected to lead the Planning Board this week by the County Council and Josh Linden was appointed as a Planning Board commissioner. I will be meeting with them to talk about their perspectives on how we create more equitable, inclusive and thriving communities through the planning process.

Our Planning Board plays an essential role in shaping what our County will look and feel like, so having a board that is committed to ensuring that our diversity is front and center in their planning decisions is essential. I have known Artie Harris for a long time and appreciate his experience and knowledge. I have 30 days to conduct interviews with the two nominees before they join the board. I look forward to those conversations and learning more about them and their visions for Montgomery County.

Community Health Update

I want to applaud the effort this week to protect school-age kids from the potentially deadly impacts of fentanyl by giving students at Montgomery County Public Schools permission to carry Narcan, the overdose antidote on them to protect friends and classmates. It is one tool—but not the only one—being used in response to a spike in overdoses among minors that drove a 90 percent rise in opioid-related emergency room visits over last year. More than 80 percent of all fatal and non-fatal overdoses are due to fentanyl. We are developing a medication assisted treatment program for adolescents 17 and younger.  Medication-assisted treatment is an alternative to going “cold turkey” by helping manage acute withdrawal symptoms, as well as long-term cravings. However, we need the State’s help to bring more of that closer to home. It is not something that can happen overnight.

On the prevention side, we are committed to programs that help educate kids and the community to keep them from using fentanyl. It truly is a “just once can kill you” type of threat. We are also working with community partners to address behavioral health and mental health issues. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Statistics provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness show one in 20 adults nationwide experience a serious mental illness each year, but less than two-thirds of them receive treatment. In fact, it can be years before someone showing signs receives treatment. Drugs can be a way that some use to dull the pain that some people are experiencing, but as we have been saying all year: one mistake with fentanyl could be deadly. 

In COVID-19 news, we saw a slight uptick in our case rates over the last week, but those spikes quickly dropped again. Our hospitalization rates and percentage of beds being used by COVID patients remained flat and our community status remains “low.” 

Now that the Federal public health emergency for COVID has ended, we are in a waiting game to see how the State will share its data on cases and hospitalizations. No matter how often it updates its dashboard, we remain committed to sharing as much information as we can about the impact on Montgomery County. This week, we will wind down our final vaccine clinics at schools and focus on appointments and outreach opportunities.

Busy Weekend of Activities

There are many community events to highlight this weekend, the final weekend ahead of a long Memorial Day weekend.

Public Safety Day will be held from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday, May 21, at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. It will be interactive with police officers giving the public a chance to pass the MCPD motorcycle skills course, meet the department’s K-9 officers and get to know the County’s firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement professionals in a fun setting. This is also an opportunity to thank police officers for the work they do as National Police Week concludes.

On Saturday, May 20, the County Department of Transportation is opening up its truck yard in Rockville for Truck Day. Families are invited to climb aboard select vehicles and get a close look at some of the heavy-duty equipment used to help clear streets of down trees, make emergency repairs and more. The event helps support National Public Works Week. Visitors will be able to vote in the “Paint the Plow” contest in which local middle schoolers compete for the best plow design. The winning schools will get a cash prize.

Also on Saturday, a Spring Fling featuring a community picnic with music and food will be held at the Marian Fryer Town Plaza from noon-4 p.m.

In Gaithersburg, book lovers will gather on Saturday at Bohrer Park. The Gaithersburg Book Festival is a free event that celebrates books, writers and literary excellence with more than 135 authors.

On Sunday, May 21, the County will host the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration. It will be held from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. The event will feature cultural performances, crafts and games for kids and a cultural and community bazaar. Many County groups are responsible for coordinating the event including the Asian Pacific American Officers Committee and the County’s Asian American Health Initiative, which just launched a first-of-its-kind resource for the Hindu and Jair communities called the Health Care Providers’ Handbook on Hindu Patients. I encourage you to share this link with anyone who could benefit from this community resource.

As always, my appreciation for all of you,

Marc Elrich
County Executive