ROCKVILLE – In his first State of the County address on Jan. 15, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich called Montgomery County “the economic engine in the state of Maryland” and the envy of jurisdictions throughout the nation.
He praised its school system, an educated population that is engaged and good government services. However, Elrich says the county’s quality of life is not something that all of its residents share.
Moving into 2020, the county’s seventh county executive calls for major improvements to schools and affordable housing through his proposed $5 billion FY 2021-2026 Capital Budget and Capital Improvements Program (CIP). Along with tackling climate change and transportation, Montgomery County will continue being “a model of success” in the state.
In his address, Elrich recapped his first year in office and thanked the Montgomery County Council, for working together with his office during the first year and passed legislation to make the county a more “equitable and inclusive place” to live. He also praised their willingness to join him in supporting the Promoting Trust Executive Order and passed the Racial Equality and Social Justice Act.
“As leaders, we often talk about diversity and how it makes our county special, but last year, we truly embraced our diversity,” Elrich said. “… Few jurisdictions in the country have done this; it requires not just policy changes, but it requires introspection.”
Coming into the role, Elrich stated that his office set seven goals to complete every year, which include topics of improving quality of life, growing the economy, becoming a greener community, creating more accessible transportation, and making the area more affordable.
The county passed an early childcare initiative to add more pre-K programs, and through its inspection enforcement surge, more violations have been cleaned up by apartment landlords.
While the county achieved most of its goals last year, Elrich said it needs to do more in several areas, mainly in education and affordable housing. The county executive cited county data that states that residents making up to $30,000 or less to live in the jurisdiction spend up to 50% of their income to stay in the area.
“Our prosperity is not evenly distributed,” Elrich said. “So in the years to come, our challenge is to sustain and improve our quality of life while growing our economy in an equitable and inclusive way…Everyone needs to share what is good about Montgomery County.”
In presenting his CIP budget, Elrich announced that 40% of it, making up $1.7 billion, will go to the construction and renovations of Montgomery County Public Schools. The funds will also go to improving the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units as well as improving school security features.
The amount does not include additional funds that may be added by state legislation. Currently, lawmakers are proposing the Build to Learn Act that would set aside $2.2 billion for school construction projects around the state. To assure that the county receives the money it needs from the state, Elrich said he is ready to go “two-to-three times” to the statehouse to fight for it.
The CIP also including funding for enhancements at all three Montgomery College campuses as well as helping with the construction of The Catherine and Isiah Leggett Math and Science Building in Takoma Park, set to open in 2022.
The money will also go to renovating existing childcare facilities well as making sure they are ADA compliant.
Elrich turned his attention to affordable housing, calling the proposed $132 million for the next six years “a record amount” proposed in a CIP budget. The funds will be used by the Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation project to facilitate efforts to increase the number of affordable housing units through renovations and expansions of current units.
“Preserving the existing stock is the most cost-effective way with dealing with affordable housing, and if we let it continue to evaporate,” Elrich said. “You will not build enough housing to replace it or have the dollars to address it.”
Before his address, Elrich agreed with a Purple Line survey that the county continued adding funds for affordable housing and addressed his belief that the council did not do enough in addressing the issue in 2019. His budget proposal also includes the creation of a new Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund that would receive $20 million from the county and leverage $80 million in financing from public and private partners to make $100 million available for the funding for new housing.
The CIP also includes over $266.6 million for projects relate to the Vision Zero Initiative to reduce deaths and severe injuries on the county road to zero by 2030. This includes pedestrian safety initiatives, switching 25,000 street lights to LED lamps, complete the Amherst Avenue Bikeway in the Wheaton Central Business District and other sideway safety programs.
Any money for projects in the CIP or operating budgets moving forward that receives state funds or no longer in service would be reallocated to a different section of the county in need, Elrich said. Concerns about the county spending too much money and possibly raising taxes are valid, but the funding is available and should be used before it reaches that level, he added.
“Our first obligation to taxpayers is to let them know we have liberated their funds from things that are inefficient or inactive, and if we need more, we can talk about needing more,” Elrich said. “But people need to know that this government is committed to using their dollars in the best possible way.”
These goals are ambitious, Elrich said, but essential to complete to eliminate to current status quo, one he deems currently unacceptable.
“I think we sent a message to the region and the world that Montgomery County is and will continue to be a safe and welcoming place,” Elrich said.