Weekly Message From the County Executive: 2023 Ending in Positive Economic Direction for County

Courtesy montgomerycountymd.gov

Per Montgomery County:


“Dear Friends,

It is encouraging to see all the news stories centered around Sergeant Patrick Kepp’s recovery. He is the Montgomery County Police Department officer who suffered serious injuries while trying to stop a driver going dangerously over the speed limit along I-270 in October. Sgt. Kepp lost parts of both legs, but still aspires to walk and run again on prosthetics. It is good to see him doing physical therapy at Walter Reed and sharing his thoughts as he begins his long recovery.

Here are links to some of those stories from NBC4 WashingtonThe Washington Post and WTOP radio.

I know Sgt. Kepp’s goal is to serve the community again in a similar role to what he was doing before, taking dangerous drivers off the road. His fortitude and drive to put his experience as a patrol officer to use again for Montgomery County is inspiring.

It is also important to share that my office has been in contact with Maryland lawmakers about following through on efforts to make dangerous driving a more serious offense. We need to crack down on excessive speeding and people who use their cars as weapons. This is reckless behavior that puts our community at risk. These are the kinds of things that need to be criminal offenses and not just ticketed as traffic offenses.

I want to thank Sgt. Kepp for his dedication to our community and wish him and his family the best as he continues his recovery. I also want to thank everyone who works so hard to make our public spaces safe for all.

Big Moves by Big Companies    

We had the good fortune of celebrating two big announcements over the span of a week. The first is a partnership with biotech company United Therapeutics to enable the company to grow its presence in Silver Spring and allow the County to improve its infrastructure. United Therapeutics currently employs 230 people in its Downtown Silver Spring location and this will be a significant expansion. United Therapeutics is doing amazing research and work in life sciences and is now planning to grow its campus by 40 percent to include a new organ production facility.

This partnership allows United Therapeutics to expand its vision to address rare and underserved diseases while also ushering in a new era of economic growth in Silver Spring.

The agreement with United Therapeutics swaps out an old County parking garage that will be used for United Therapeutics expansion. In return, the County will get a new parking garage with state-of-the-art fiber hub, new retail space and, eventually, affordable housing.

United Therapeutics is a homegrown company that also was also the first conversation of a publicly-traded biotech to a public benefit corporation. Its presence adds to the vibrancy of Downtown Silver Spring. This agreement is great news for the community, for the company and for patients. The deal represents an investment of more than $100 million by United Therapeutics with no public money involved.

I know many members of the County Council share my enthusiasm for this project. I look forward to working with them on this and other improvements to Downtown Silver Spring. The area continues to be a vibrant hub of cultural and economic activity throughout the year. Right now, it is drawing people for ice skating, shopping and more. Visit silverspringdowntown.com to learn more about upcoming events or planning a night out.

We had many State leaders in North Bethesda this week for another big opening. Governor Wes Moore, Comptroller Brooke Lierman and several members of the Montgomery County Delegation to the General Assembly joined me and members of the County Council in welcoming Choice Hotels International into its new home. 

One of the first Choice hotels was built in Montgomery County by the Bainum family more than 60 years ago. Choice helped make us a global hospitality epicenter. The 400 employees working at its new headquarters at Pike and Rose are in a space and location designed for collaboration and innovation.

North Bethesda is already a regional destination to live, work, shop and dine. Having another major company there will enhance that. I look forward to eventually seeing how the proximity to the future University of Maryland -Institute for Health Computing will help Choice and our other hospitality companies.

Message to the Committee for Montgomery  

The Committee for Montgomery recently brought together Federal, State and local leaders, community groups, businesses and nonprofits for its annual meeting in advance of the Maryland General Assembly session, which begins in January. It is one of several meetings held in the last few weeks in which we are updating the community on what we have done and what lies ahead.

I told everyone gathered about the biggest challenge we have moving forward, which is funding for transportation. Currently, we are expecting solutions to come from the State. As I have mentioned before, counties across Maryland must have the authority and ability to create their own solutions to some challenges, similar to what has been done in Northern Virginia.

State money is still needed and appreciated for large infrastructure projects, but we have to do more because transportation infrastructure is an investment in our future and an economic development imperative.

The changes Virginia made to its tax structure have enabled it to garner hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues through special taxing districts that have been used to build critical infrastructure. Its ability to do this and to provide the infrastructure it needs to support new development is an ability we do not have. Virginia’s tax revenues come from commercial development and result in higher taxes in Virginia than development pays here. Those revenues are invested in infrastructure that spurs development.

We also must continue to make positive progress on affordable housing. Since 2019, we have produced 1,300 affordable units and preserved another 1,850 despite the impact from the pandemic. While that is progress, it is not enough.

We are trying to address a problem that has been around for more than 40 years. We have continually seen more affordable housing lost in a typical year than replaced. The word “lost” does not mean it disappeared. It means that rents continually rose until much of the housing is no longer affordable. Or affordable apartments were replaced with luxury housing without requirements to replace the affordable units that were there before new development. We are working with community partners and finding creative solutions to ensure that we can put ourselves on a better and more equitable path. We are protecting and preserving existing homes and also producing new ones.

Going forward, we are in a strong economy and our reserves are now at 17 percent, well above our target of 10 percent. This is good news and gives us more flexibility as we put together the FY25 operating budget and our Capital Improvement Projects outlook.

Planning for Fiscal Year 2025 Operating Budget and Six-Year Capital Improvements Budget

After many community meetings throughout the County, my staff and I are working on our recommended Fiscal Year 2025 operating budget and the six-year Capital Improvements budget. To watch discussion about our priorities and how we met some of our goals, you can watch these interviews from the last few weeks:

Just this month, we learned that the revenue we anticipated having at this time back in the summer was underestimated by $225 million. You can watch the update given to County Council on the fiscal plan by following this link.

There also was encouraging news from the Federal Reserve last week. It indicated that it is likely not to increase interest rates and offered a signal that they might be lowered in the new year. The interest rate is going to be critical to our Capital projects and to the revenue we receive from housing transactions.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight last week proposed a budget to the Board of Education that is $150 million over last year’s approved budget. Once we receive the full proposal from the Board of Education, we will have a better idea of the tough decisions to make during the budget process.

Our Office of Management and Budget has a tool to help answer questions about this year’s budget and to see what is in store for large projects in the future.

Community Health Update   

There is little change in COVID-19 from last week. We are in a two-week stretch that is seeing about 10 percent of every COVID-19 test taken across Maryland come back positive. These numbers, along with the County’s wastewater surveillance report, show elevated levels of COVID-19 in our community, but nothing that would takes us out of the “low-risk” category.

More concerning is the growing number of flu cases locally and statewide. Combined with COVID-19 cases, these impact our emergency rooms. Too often, demand on emergency rooms or urgent care facilities leads to long waits for patients, exposing those who are not sick to respiratory illnesses. When hospital beds are at or near capacity, seriously ill patients have to wait in the emergency room until a bed opens, creating more of a log jam and longer ER wait times.

Our health team encourages everyone to know when to visit one of these facilities. Flu and cold symptoms are not life-threatening emergencies and do not require a visit to the ER or to an urgent care facility. The first call should be to a primary care physician. A telehealth visit could be all that is needed. It could also save time and money.

Over the holiday break, more people may show signs of being sick. Keep a facemask with you to protect yourself or others. Remember to wash your hands frequently and isolate yourself if you do feel sick. This is the time of year when we start to see more respiratory diseases, so be careful.

Maryland Minimum Wage Increases in 2024 

Raising the minimum wage is something I have been working on for many years. I was proud to lead two successful efforts to raise the County’s minimum wage, as you can see at How D.C. and 2 Maryland Counties Coordinated a Minimum Wage Hike (governing.com) and here. On Jan. 1, the State of Maryland will raise minimum pay to $15. .

Maryland’s Fair Wage Act of 2023 requires all employers to pay their non-exempt employees a minimum of $15 per hour. In Montgomery County, it means small businesses with less than 10 employees will have to raise their minimum pay from $14.50 per hour starting Jan. 1. Under the County’s law, they would have had to increase the wage to $15 beginning July 1. The State law accelerates the timeline by six months. All other businesses in Montgomery County already are required to pay $15 minimum or more per hour. Additionally, County law indexes the wage for inflation, so the minimum wage will continue to increase in the County.

A statewide $15 minimum wage is an important milestone, but not nearly all that is needed to bring equity to our region’s workforce. In the 1960s, my family was able to take a $6,000 income and handle the house mortgage of around $122 a month. That tells you how far we have come from what is expected today.

Affordable housing is not just a house pricing problem. It also is a wage problem. That is one of the reasons we have indexed the County’s minimum wage to inflation so it does not stagnate like the Federal minimum wage. I am encouraged by the progress made through our efforts and the Fair Wage Act. I support further increases to take the minimum wage over $20 per hour to help more residents earn a livable wage and remain here for the long term.

Eco-Gifting for the Holidays  

We are encouraging everyone to “gift outside the box” this holiday season. Trash piles grow by about 25 percent during the holidays. When you consider all the food that is also thrown away, it adds up to 25 million tons of garbage nationally.

For anyone still left on your list, consider greener gifting by visiting County businesses and purchasing items made locally. This helps reduce the fuel used by cross-country deliveries and improves our local economy.

A recent One Poll survey, reported on here, found that more than 40 percent of those surveyed are starting to change their minds when it comes to eco-friendly gifts. You can also consider charitable donations in honor of friends and family. And if you have the means, consider giving to those less fortunate.  By purchasing a donation gift certificate, you are ensuring a family will not have to worry about how they are going to feed their family this season.

You could also consider experiences like tickets to a show at Strathmore, the historic Olney Theater Center or the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

The holidays are a time of giving, and what better gift to give than a promise to protect the environment while supporting and promoting businesses in our community? By working together, we can reduce waste, conserve energy and promote a resilient local economy in the new year and for many decades to come.

Follow some of our efforts through social media @MyGreenMC on Instagram, and X and My Green Montgomery on Facebook.

Christmas and Kwanzaa are both next week. However you celebrate, I hope it is a wonderful holiday season for you and your family.

As always, my appreciation for all of you,

Marc Elrich
County Executive”

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