Weekly Message from the County Executive Marc Elrich: Maryland General Assembly Has Opportunities for Major Actions in 2024 Session

Per Montgomery County:

“Dear Friends,

I was in Annapolis for the start of the 2024 Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday. More than 500 bills between the House and Senate have already been submitted for consideration. It was great to have a chance to talk with a number of legislators about our shared interests and needs. and their desire to find solutions is encouraging. Here is a link to pictures from my visit.

We have a great delegation representing Montgomery County, including many key leaders on important committees and caucuses. I look forward to working with our 35-person delegation, which is the largest in the State, to advance our County’s agenda. You can keep up with its committee work on behalf of Montgomery County by following this link.

This year also marks the second General Assembly session of the Moore and Miller administration. This week, I was able to meet with Governor Moore and discuss our County’s legislative priorities, as well as the need to modernize the State’s system of financing transportation infrastructure projects.

I believe that the greatest budgetary challenge our State faces is funding our transportation infrastructure. This is not a problem that we can expect the State to resolve alone. We have to invest in our transportation infrastructure, especially transit. Our lack of good transportation infrastructure makes us less competitive in the region. We need a commitment to address congestion and provide quality transportation As I have said before, the way to address this revenue challenge is for Maryland to give counties the authority and ability to create their own solutions.

Virginia started down this path around a dozen years ago. They created local taxing authority at the county levels as well as a broader multi-jurisdiction taxing authority. The taxes are primarily levied on commercial properties, and they raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Just so you know, Northern Virginia’s taxes are far higher on commercial property than the taxes are in Maryland. The same is true for the District of Columbia.

Raising money through these special development districts enables Virginia to make massive investments in transportation. A good example of the opportunities they have created can be seen at Tysons Corner. It has grown by leaps and bounds in a little over a decade, but actually, every jurisdiction in Northern Virginia has benefited.

The special district taxes were tied to paying off loans to pay for specific infrastructure projects, so the developers knew the money was being invested to improve the business climate. The investment in transportation drove economic development. They took the long view that these taxes would build an economy that grew, created jobs, new business and success.

In Maryland, we have been unable to do the same because any big project is totally dependent on State funding. Any decisions to fund big projects are made by legislators, the vast majority of whom do not live in the counties asking for money. In a way, the result is not surprising at all–and the result is bad for Maryland and bad for Montgomery County.

State money is still needed and appreciated for large infrastructure projects, but we have to do more. In Montgomery County, a decade of planning has not been able to produce any real Bus Rapid Transit that is still needed to connect residential areas to job centers, relieve congestion and reduce greenhouse gases. We continue to be hampered by a transportation infrastructure that is not competitive with our neighboring jurisdictions. In Virginia, if they are recruiting new investment projects and if the company asks when the infrastructure in a master plan will be put in place, Virginia can tell them when and how they will build it. Ask that question in Montgomery County and we cannot tell you when or whether we will get the funding and when the project will be built. It makes us uncompetitive, and we intend to work to change that.

I got into some of these issues and more during a few of my recent media interviews. Here are links to two of them:

During the upcoming session, we also will be advocating for legislation that will support our efforts to combat climate change, improve education through additional “blueprint” funding, extend health care access in our communities and support our work and investments to create more affordable housing.

We will be going after funds for our Bus Rapid Transit network and other transportation links. We also support legislative efforts to create opportunities for the State to increase the volume of housing production to help address the County’s affordable housing crisis. We have encouraged Maryland leaders to increase access to housing funds for developments that support ownership, rather than just focus on rentals. This is a fundamental racial equity issue, the barriers to homeownership are barriers to building wealth. I am glad this was mentioned specifically during opening session as a priority by House Speaker Adrienne Jones. It gives me hope that we are on the same page as many State lawmakers and leaders in working toward a better Maryland for everyone.

MCPD Recruitment Efforts

Police departments everywhere have been hampered by the same problem: low recruitment. For the Montgomery County Police Department, that has impacted staffing. MCPD was down 102 sworn officers to end 2022 and short 175 officers to end 2023. While we are filling the gaps with our existing police force through overtime work and other strategies, we do want to increase our recruitment.

I was glad to see that this issue is one of Governor Wes Moore’s legislative priorities. His “Growing Apprenticeships in Public Safety” (or “GAPS”) Act is focused on making sure that Maryland is training and supporting highly qualified law enforcement professionals to protect our communities.

The bill proposes short- and long-term actions to help address the hiring and retention challenges that law enforcement and public safety agencies face across the State. The bill leverages existing resources and models to expand the use of registered apprenticeship as a pathway to law enforcement jobs. It also requires the establishment of a model policy for law enforcement officer wellness programs to ensure that police officers receive the support they need in their line of work. The bill would also establish a commission to do a deep dive into policies that can help recruit, train, and retain the next generation of law enforcement officers.

I support this effort and hope this legislation will pass this session. This statewide legislation is in sync with efforts that we are conducting locally. I am glad that Chief Marcus Jones was able to join me for my weekly media briefing to discuss how we are approaching this challenge.

The Chief and I know that one way to get more officers on the street is to provide them proper compensation, benefits, training and wellness support throughout their careers. Last year, we implemented $20,000 signing bonuses and that did increase applications, but we still must do more.

We are working on adopting new policies that would make it easier to rehire retired officers in supportive roles. This is something we feel can make a big difference because as of now many of our recently retired officers go to work part-time for other departments. We are not taking advantage of this potential source to help our department.

Policy changes are also under consideration that align with new State laws regarding recreational marijuana. Right now, State law requires that we confirm that candidates have not used cannabis for at least one year, and if they have, they are not eligible to work in the state. This makes no sense especially that cannabis use is now legal in Maryland. We are working at the state level to modify this requirement.

We are also going to use outside expertise to help us reach potential candidates. We have seen other area departments have success going this way and believe we can benefit as well. It is time for out of the box thinking to help keep our department ready to meet the needs of the community. If you know of anyone interested in joining our public safety team, have them visit this MCPD website.

MLK Day of Service on Monday, Jan. 15

On Monday, Jan. 15, we will mark the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday with the County’s annual Day of Service. It is meant to honor the civil rights leader and encourage the community to listen to his call to help make the world a better place. There will be a total of eight locations across the County where service projects will be taking place. Follow this link to the find out more about activities at each location and, in most cases, sign up to help.

Volunteers are still needed to help on many of these projects which range from assembling craft kits for children in hospitals, packing to putting together boxes to help homebound seniors when bad weather makes it difficult to reach them. I want to thank our wonderful partners, including local fraternities, sororities and Americorps, for working together to help meet these needs.

At 4 p.m. on Monday, the Strathmore Music Center will host the County’s annual birthday MLK Jr. tribute and celebration. This year, it will feature music from the Grammy Award-nominated Sweet Honey in the Rock as well as many other professional and amateur performers. The theme for this year’s show is “Where Do We Go From Here . . . We Choose.” The program will focus on Dr. King’s positive impact through courage, compassion and perseverance.

We are asking those attending this event to help out a neighbor by donating items like toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant. These items will help homeless shelters as they experience a surge in demand because of the winter weather. We hope to fill a truck with toiletries, new towels and wash cloths–all while celebrating Dr. King and aspiring to meet his dream of choosing how to make this world a better place for everyone.

I remember the impression that seeing Dr. King had on me when I was still a teenager. I took the bus to the March on Washington and felt the excitement he created among the crowd. Far more beneficial was the spark it created in so many people like me to think about their community, justice and, frankly, to open our eyes regarding the extent racism had pervaded society for far too long. In this week’s media briefing, I discussed some of my experience – you can listen here or on my video message above.

As I discussed, America had even figured out a way to extend slavery through an agricultural policy called “debt peonage” that was still around in 1960. It stuns me today–frankly horrifies me–to see Americans who lack any understanding of slavery, its impact on people and how ongoing and unending discrimination made it impossible for the country to genuinely be a land of equal opportunity. The expectation that the Black population should have succeeded in the aftermath of the Civil War reflects the ignorance of people who cannot comprehend the struggle to emerge from poverty when the institutions of society fundamentally put a foot on your neck and tie your feet together. To me, racism has always been wrong, slavery was always wrong and denying a people’s humanity is always wrong. That is why I fought as a college student to desegregate the University of Maryland. Years later, I spent 17 years as a teacher and saw first-hand how the impacts of slavery and racism manifested themselves into policies that impacted families for generations.

Poverty is a crippling burden on families. When children grow up in poverty, they can feel like there is no way for them to succeed. I have been in classrooms with 10- and 11-year-olds who have told me they do not think they will live to see 25. When hope is gone, that contributes to some of the things we work so hard as a society to address, like drug use and crime.

Instead, we need to continue to push for Dr. King’s goals of equality to help give everyone a chance to create their own path forward.

Health Report

In our health update this week, cases of COVID-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses continue to climb. The burden on our hospitals statewide is up 30 percent from last week. Visits to all outpatient centers in Montgomery County are as high as they have been since last January.

For nearly four years, the Montgomery County health team has stayed on top of COVID-19 issues. We no longer serve the same role as we did through the pandemic and our shift has focused to helping the medically uninsured receive their COVID-19 vaccines. The County is still sharing test kits and facemasks with the public and our community partners. The State health department is recommending the use of facemasks at all medical settings for staff and visitors because of the wave of infections.

I encourage everyone to get their flu and COVID-19 vaccines. You can find a nearby pharmacy or doctor’s office through vaccines.gov. For younger children and the elderly, an RSV vaccine may also be needed. This surge in illnesses is something we have come to expect every January, so there is no need to panic. Just take care of yourselves as we weather this latest wave of respiratory illnesses.

Radon Testing

January is Radon Action Month. Radon is an invisible, radio-active gas created below ground. It can seep into homes that are built on soil heavy with uranium. Unfortunately, Montgomery County is one of several counties in Maryland with high levels of radon in the soil and where indoor radon levels can rise to dangerous levels.

Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it accounts for roughly 21,000 lung cancer deaths nationwide each year.

Last summer, a new law went into effect in Montgomery County requiring building owners to provide radon testing for new rentals and lease renewals in homes, apartments and condos. The law applies to units on the ground floor and in the basement of buildings.

If you are a renter who has been in a low-level unit since before July of 2023, you have the right to ask your landlord for a radon test. You may also be able to hire a professional that your building owner would pay for. You can get more information about what is allowed through our website, including the right to break a lease if a situation is not appropriately mitigated.

The impact of this law could be huge with renters potentially having the right to break a lease and get their security deposit back if readings are high. High readings would also start the clock on landlords who would have three months to start mitigation to address high radon levels.

Radon protections for homeowners have been in place since 2016 with testing required before all home sales.

Radon testing devices can be purchased at local home improvement stores, online or directly from radon testing companies. Many are priced under $25 and can provide short-term or long-term readings. Building owners are required to go through a licensed radon professional for testing.

As always, my appreciation for all of you,

Marc Elrich
County Executive

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