County executive candidates praise Elrich’s climate budget, diverge on other issues

The three Democrats running this year against County Executive Marc Elrich praised his administration’s efforts on the operating and capital budget, including issues of climate change, affordable housing and health care. other areas.

In other areas, however, the challengers gave lower marks.

Two county executive candidates – council members Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer – will have a direct role in helping shape the budget in the coming months before a final vote.

David Blair, who lost in the 2018 primary to Elrich by 77 votes, did not serve on county council but said he managed a similarly sized budget as the former CEO of the healthcare industry.

Hucker, Riemer and Blair are the only candidates to have filed against Elrich in the July 19 primary. No Republicans have filed for candidacy this year.

When Elrich unveiled his $6.3 billion operating budget plan On Tuesday, he touted several aspects, such as $140 million to support affordable housing initiatives and higher salaries for police officers to be more competitive with other jurisdictions in the Washington, DC area.

The increase in expenditure compared to this year is approximately 5%. Elrich is not proposing an increase in the blended property tax rate.

Here are the assessments of the budget plan from Blair, Hucker and Riemer:

David Blair

Blair said in an interview that he was pleased to see overall revenue increase in the budget, noting that county voters in 2020 approved a ballot question that changed the property tax limit in the county. He said he spent “a lot of personal money” to get it through, and it created a fairer and more progressive tax structure.

The electoral question known as Question A, proposed removing the cap on the additional amount of property tax revenue that can be collected from year to year. Previously, the cap limited the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index in the Washington, DC area. From now on, the annual increase in the property tax can be higher than this ceiling.

Blair also supports the effort on affordable housing initiatives, but said it wouldn’t make much difference if there weren’t enough jobs near those apartments or homes.

There needs to be more investment in workforce development, he said, and an effort to connect high school students and other residents to technology and entrepreneurship programs.

One concern Blair mentioned about the current budget is that it has dramatically increased the number of staff. He said that in 2018, during Ike Leggett’s final year as county executive, the county had 10,301 full-time employees. Elrich has proposed 10,900 staff in next year’s budget, Blair added.

Blair said the county needs to be smarter about its spending.

“There is a big difference between a job in the private sector and a job in the public service,” Blair said. “And the difference being that the work of the public service, obviously, the taxpayers have to fund it. And so presumably we have to see our tax base increase to cover that, and we haven’t seen that.

Elrich said in an interview that the coronavirus pandemic has delayed conversations and moves about streamlining certain positions, including in management. He added, however, that state law and increased demand for services require more staff in county government and schools — like more school nurses, police officers and health care workers and social.

Tom Hucker

Hucker said he’s glad Elrich has decided to fund climate change initiatives, like allocating $18.6 million to the county’s Green Bank to support building upgrades to make them more energy efficient. .

He was also happy to see investments in workforce development and job creation.

However, Hucker said he was “alarmed” that Elrich had decided to offer $1 fares for Ride On buses, which he said would directly affect low-income families and minority residents.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, county officials agreed to suspend Ride On fares to help low-income residents. They are usually $2 each way.

Elrich has extended this until January 2022, then offers rates of $1. The county council decided to extend free rates until July 2, 2022. Elrich again offered $1 fares in his new budget.

Elrich said in an interview that he doesn’t think $1 is too much for many county residents. He said people who have the option of driving or taking the bus can save money by traveling by bus instead of driving and paying parking fees.

But he added that he and his staff were discussing making Ride On free, to help residents in need.

Hucker also objected to Elrich relying on state money in the capital budget for the I-270/I-495 widening project championed by Governor Larry Hogan. The budget includes approximately $182 million to relocate water and sewer lines due to roadwork along the highway.

Hucker opposes the use of taxpayer dollars — county or state funds — for this work. He said he would prefer it to be used to repair sidewalks and build bike lanes, among other infrastructure needs.

Members of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said Thursday they were unsure whether the money would come from state funds. Hucker thinks it might, however, if lawmakers and state officials see Montgomery County approving it in the county’s capital budget.

After much discussion, the council’s transportation and environment committee — chaired by Hucker — decided on Thursday to postpone a vote recommending approval of the $182 million for sewer and water relocation infrastructure until a later date. the water.

“I am appalled to see Mr. Elrich proposing nearly $200 million in public funds for the Beltway/270 widening project,” Hucker wrote in a text message. “Governor. Hogan and the Council are committed that no taxpayer funds will be used, and Mr. Elrich should support that.

Elrich pointed out in an interview that the $182 million in the budget is state funds, not county money. He doesn’t think taking the money out of the capital budget would be effective.

He added, however, that he would consider changing the line item so that Hogan and the state Department of Transportation would have to select a concessionaire for the I-270 project before the county finalizes the money in its budget. .

“I would be more than happy to suggest an amendment to tie it up,” Elrich said.

Hans Riemer

Riemer said he appreciates many aspects of Elrich’s budget, including the money for affordable housing.

But he doesn’t think about $140 million is enough to deal with the crisis. In an interview, he said the $40 million natural affordable housing fund was a good start, but he offered up to $100 million to preserve affordable housing along the light rail project. Purple Line.

The way to do that, Riemer said, is to leverage the cash the county offers with private financing or other options.

In response, Elrich said there’s a limit to how much the county can get for certain projects. He added that the $40 million is in cash and not borrowed money. There are also other options that Elrich said he is considering regarding affordable housing projects.

Specifically, the county has been asked to fill gaps in funding for some affordable housing projects, Elrich said.

“One of the things we could do … is we could provide low and improved rents with loan guarantees, so the lender knows the county will be the [financial] security net [to projects]”, Elrich said. “It has a certain cost, but far from the amount of money you would have to invest in loans for these [housing] organizations, so I can grow my money.

On climate change, Riemer said the money earmarked for these initiatives is a good start, but there isn’t enough attention to shift the county away from fossil fuels to alternative sources.

“I think a solar strategy is missing,” Riemer said. “So I think there are some things here that are helpful, but I think we’re missing the big picture here, which is how is this county going to generate enough solar power to do our hand, to stop fossil fuels? And I think it’s really, really important to have targeted funding towards that.

Riemer said he was happy to see funding to increase police salaries and money to increase emergency health services. But he thinks the county needs to hire more people to fill vacancies and increase the total number of officers to meet demand. The size of the force is small compared to other jurisdictions, Riemer said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at [email protected]

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