Managing the Pandemic
We all remember the early days of the pandemic, when Montgomery County was in the worst shape of all the counties in Maryland – we were the first hit by COVID – and the guidance on how to manage it was not really there. I don’t have to remind you how scary it was: We had no idea how far it would spread, how long it would last and how it would affect us all. From the beginning, I made a decision that we would put protection of people’s lives first. That is why I supported the Governor in his early decision to close businesses and activities and why I criticized his later reversals. It is also why I decided that we would follow strict masking guidelines, shut down many activities, get testing out as far and wide as possible, and communicate the need for all those measures. We also got assistance out as quickly as possible to businesses and residents in need. We formed hubs that delivered food, fresh produce, and essentials like diapers and formula. We distributed $35 million in rental relief to more than 6,000 households. Some people thought my decisions were too strict but we stuck with the science and most of our residents understood the need to make these difficult decisions.
Because you listened, we went from having the highest case rates in the state to some of the lowest. I remember watching in horror as Ocean City opened up too early, too quickly, and likely cost lives as a result. Meanwhile, here at home, our County staff developed an innovative COVID Corps summer youth employment program, in which high school and college students helped facilitate COVID testing and food distribution. Later, the communication and outreach networks we had built during the height of the pandemic to encourage people to get tested became a model for quickly and equitably pushing out vaccinations (which at the beginning was not as fast as we would have liked because the state, not the counties, controlled the vaccine distribution process). Our Latino Health Initiative, Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar, which was developed in conjunction with community partners, has done an outstanding job of outreach to our Latino population, whose vaccination rate is now higher than that of our White population. This success was partially due to our award winning character, Abuelina, a cartoon Latino grandmother whose personality successfully touched Latino residents. We also worked with community partners in the African American Health Project on outreach for testing and vaccinations. On the whole we now have the highest vaccination rate in the country for jurisdictions with more than 300,000 people! You can check out how we’re doing on the CDC website and at the County’s Covid-19 dashboard.
Early Childhood and K-12 Education
Early Childhoold Education
When I ran for office in 2018, I didn’t make a lot of promises for new programs, because I knew that the County’s funds would be, and still are, constrained. I felt that new programs had to represent important, game-changing investments. To that end, I promised to increase funding for early childhood education, which is our best investment for the future. As a former educator, I understand the importance of foundational early education.
Since I've taken office, we’ve increased funding to extend early childhood education to about 1,500 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and we’ve expanded eligibility for families. We also have trained - and are training - more providers because quality early childhood education builds a strong foundation for children that can last a lifetime and supports working parents as well.
During the pandemic, we have provided $1.2 million in supplemental child care payments for essential employees, $10 million COVID relief grants to 441 child care programs and $7.4 million in grants for school-age programs and tuition subsidies for school age care.
We have one of the best public school systems in the country: our schools are an important reason why people want to live here. That is why as County Executive, I have fully funded the budget for the Montgomery Public School System in each of my budgets. I understand that our excellent school system is an important asset of our county and we cannot waiver in our commitment to maintaining its excellence.
EARLY CHILDHOOD and K-12 EDUCATION
The arrival of Covid-19 was an unexpected challenge to all of us and I'm proud of how our County responded. We were able to move from having the highest rate of infection in the state at the pandemic's start to having one of lowest, and now we have the highest percentage of residents vaccinated. We're not out of this yet, but the County's employees, working with community groups, the state and federal health agencies, the private sector, and our citizens, have been nothing short of incredible during this difficult time.
The pandemic did not stop us from working on the priorities I laid out when I was elected. We have pushed ahead on climate, housing, racial equity, homelessness, economic development, early childhood education, better government, and other fronts. Read more below on the progress we've made in the last two and half years.
Racial Equity and Social Justice
When I ran for County Executive, I pledged to bring a racial equity lens to decisions, policies, staffing, and programs of the county. That was before the events of 2020 that awakened much of our society to the pervasiveness of institutional racism in the nation. One of our first steps was to begin training the county government in how to apply a racial equity lens – to evaluate impacts and be transparent in documenting whether, using well-researched metrics, our policies are matching our words. We have an obligation to recognize the legacy of the impacts of past actions of the County.
To help us going forward, I established and appointed the first ever Chief Equity Officer and provided her with a staff to advance this important work. An example of how we are incorporating racial equity and social justice in our planning is documented in the Climate Action Plan, in which we held a workshop with over 20 organizations that work with vulnerable communities to consider how climate affects these communities and how our proposed responses would impact them.
The pandemic has highlighted the longstanding inequality in our community. Our vulnerable populations have been hit hard – by high rates of sickness and death, by unemployment, and by housing loss. We have provided rental support, emergency housing, food assistance and legal aid. We have placed vaccination clinics all around the county and we are taking vaccines to populations that don’t have the time or resources to come to us. We have prioritized equity and social justice and we have done so with multiple partner organizations.
More recently, I vetoed legislation that created a Business Improvement District (BID) in Silver Spring that would impose mandatory taxes and be controlled by the wealthiest property owners, most of whom are White. In my veto message, CE Memo to Council President - Bill 3-21 Veto - August 9, 2021, I explain that the BID does not meet the county’s goals for racial equity and social justice and that an urban district corporation, like the existing Bethesda Urban Partnership, would be a better and more equitable choice for Silver Spring. I will continue to stand with the small business owners in Silver Spring – many of whom are people of color – to oppose this effort.
Preserve and Create Affordable Housing
We know there is a shortage of affordable housing, and there’s no one “magic” solution. A variety of strategies are needed. We need to be intentional and innovative about both preservation of existing affordable units and production of new units.
We currently have 20,000 households whose annual earnings are about 30% of the area medium income (AMI), or around $35,000, and who are spending half or more of their income on housing. And there are many thousands of others earning between 30-60 % AMI who are in a similar predicament. Moreover, some studies predict that two-thirds of new households expected to come here in the next 10 years will need a subsidy of some sort. Some of those households with income between 60-70% AMI will qualify for a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) but the earning of many others is expected to be closer to 30-50%. (The AMI for our county is about $108,000.)
Compounding the affordable housing shortage is the fact that we are projected to lose up to 11,000 existing affordable units by 2030 – less than 10 years from now – as a consequence of redevelopment and growth in the County.
This is why we need to preserve existing affordable units, particularly in areas near transit like along the route of the Purple Line. And all redevelopment of residential properties need a “No Net Loss+” policy, meaning that a new housing development does not displace existing residents, preserves the supply of existing affordable housing, and provides additional new affordable units to accommodate the additional residents who will need such housing.
This outcome is what we have already successfully negotiated at Halpine View Apartments in the Twinbrook neighborhood of Rockville. This agreement with the property owners requires that, for any new redevelopment of the property, existing residents will have access to the new units at affordable rates, and that all 564 existing affordable units at Halpine View will continue to be available and include two- and three-bedroom units. It also creates some “deeply affordable” units for people earning 30-50 % of AMI. This project is a win for all of us. I truly appreciate the willingness of the Halpine View property owners to work with us to preserve and improve access to affordable housing.
In addition to preserving, we also need to produce more affordable housing. In a different project, on a county owned site, we are redeveloping six acres to produce almost 200 housing units. The vast majority will be larger than 1-bedroom so they can accommodate families. 98% of the units will be for households earning less than 60% of AMI. The other 2% is for households under 70% AMI. And the project will include ownership opportunities, including 24 units for households earning under 50% of AMI.
Ownership is where we need to go. This affordable housing crisis reflects an underlying social problem of a wealth gap. Perpetual renting leaves people perpetually poor and without a chance to build capital. Additionally, individual mortgages represent a tool for buying out development financing provided by nonprofit and for-profit developers, freeing up funds to support additional investments in affordable housing. Ownership produces a social good and also allows us to use our money more effectively.
We’re also creating a new Housing Opportunity Fund. I have been meeting almost monthly with housing developers since I’ve been elected, and this fund helps solve one of the problems that they’ve discussed with me. The fund will gives them access to fast, flexible funding to respond to unplanned opportunities; this is short-term gap funding that gives them time to put long-term financing in place. And we are creating this fund with private partners –Community Development Financial Institutions – to leverage even more funding.
The fund will help us preserve existing, naturally-occurring, affordable housing and to offer additional ownership opportunities. We know that not every tenant is instantly ready for ownership, but the fund will allow us to preserve the units over a 3 to 5 year period while we prepare tenants to be home owners.
We also have an obligation to make sure the affordable housing crisis does not worsen. That is why I joined with elected leaders and organizations around the state asking the Governor to extend the pandemic moratorium on evictions for another 90 to 120 days to give renters time to get back on their feet. With enormous help from our Congressional team and state leaders, we have programs to fill in for COVID-related income loss. We continue to work with landlords and tenants to distribute that funding. In fact, we have already distributed more than $36 million to more than 6,300 households in need. Allowing evictions to proceed does not make sense.
Preventing rent gouging
I also support extending the current limitation on rent increases that was imposed during the pandemic. County Councilmember Will Jawando has introduced Expedited Bill 30-21 to extend the existing limitation on rent increases to last until one year after the expiration of this public health emergency. It would also prohibit charging late fees during this period. I support this bill because, even though we are getting COVID-19 under control in this County, our economy has not fully recovered. Thousands are out of work and many are struggling to pay rent. This legislation will help those desperately in need.
What doesn’t work?
Subsidizing the bottom line of developers who are only producing the already required amount of affordable housing. That is why I vetoed the Council’s legislation (Bill 29-20) that allows some developers who use WMATA owned land to pay zero property taxes even though neighboring property owners had to pay the same tax and even though these giveaways would not produce any additional affordable units beyond the minimum that we normally get. The impetus for the bill stemmed from the poor planning of one private developer who wanted a bailout that I didn’t think was in the public interest. You can read my veto message here.
Addressing Climate Change
Climate change is the existential crisis of our time. Before the pandemic, I convened working groups of our residents with expertise in science and the environment, focusing on issues of energy use, transportation, climate change mitigation and adaptation and more. You can review their work here. We continued those conversations virtually during the pandemic and looked closely at their recommendations to produce a Climate Action Plan that provides short, medium and long-term goals and steps to take. It is one of the most ambitious plans in the country. Our Climate Action Plan identifies 86 actions that the County must address to eliminate greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2035 and increase climate resilience. Work to implement 75 of those actions has already begun. The strategies outlined in the plan also focus on those in our community who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and identify opportunities to enhance racial equity while reducing emissions.
Addressing energy emissions from the built environment:
Almost half of the County’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the building sector. In the spring, my staff and I sent two major items to the County Council that could result in significantly reduced emissions from existing and new buildings. You can read more here about our Building Energy Performance Standards for existing buildings and here about our proposal to adopt the 2018 International Green Construction Code for new buildings. These two initiatives are critical to reducing our carbon footprint - I hope that the Council will take these important steps soon.
While these items are pending at the Council, some of the County's own new buildings already demonstrate what is possible. For example, the new Wheaton Library and Recreation Center is certified as "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" (LEED) Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for its energy efficiency and use of recycled and locally sourced materials. And the new Parks headquarters in Wheaton, also housing multiple county departments, is the first government-owned office building in Maryland to receive the USGBC's LEED Platinum certification. The building includes rooftop solar panels, a gray water reuse system, a living wall in the lobby, energy-efficient lighting, natural daylight, locally sourced building materials, recycled materials, and a geothermal well system for heating and cooling.
We are also installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels at County sites and pursuing innovative environmental design concepts such as the use of solar PV glass. Microgrids, which provide resilience in the face of power disruptions, have already been constructed at the Public Safety Headquarters and the Clarksburg Correctional Facility. Additional actions we've taken to promote clean energy use include the following:
Converting County-owned vehicles to clean energy use:
School buses. I connected the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) system with businesses who will lease electric buses to MCPS at a much lower cost than what would be spent on continuing to purchase polluting diesel school buses. This is one of the largest projects of its kind in the country, in a school system with more than 1,400 vehicles, 200+ schools and 160,000+ students. The pollutants from the existing buses are bad for air quality and for children - this change is a huge win for our residents and the environment.
Police cars. We have begun using electric vehicles (EVs) for our police cars and other vehicles in the county fleet.
Electric Ride-On buses. We are developing a smart energy bus depot at the Brookville Bus Maintenance Facility with a first-of-its-kind integration of microgrid and EV charging infrastructure, which will begin with 44 buses as we transition the transit fleet from fossil fuels to electric power. Because Ride-On routes are longer and more complicated than school bus routes, the transition will take longer than for school buses.
Oaks Landfill Solar Photovoltaic Project. We are in the midst of installing a large scale ground-mount solar energy system on top of a former landfill. The solar power is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 1,740 cars off the road.
Bringing solar to low-income communities. Together with the Montgomery County Green Bank, the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission and Groundswell, we have launched the County’s first community solar project for low- and moderate-income families. The community solar project is the first in Montgomery County to fall under the Low- and Moderate-Income (LMI) set aside by the Public Service Commission’s community solar pilot. This project will save these residents $500 annually on their energy bills, and this project is intentionally designed to bring improvements that do not result in the displacement of tenants. For far too long, equity has been missing from our energy reduction goals. I am proud of our efforts to make policy decisions and investments through both an 'equity' and 'sustainability' lens. Projects like this will be a model for more to come. You can read more about this project here.
Community Choice Energy (CCE). This has the possibility of being another game changer in our energy use. I worked hard in Annapolis in 2019 and virtually in 2020 to support Delegate Lorig Charkoudian’s and Senator Brian Feldman’s CCE bill, which is central to our climate efforts. CCE would allow the County to be the bulk purchaser of clean energy for most county electricity users. Passage of that bill was an enormous accomplishment. We are now preparing to actively engage with the Public Service Commission (PSC) as they develop their required guidance and for implementation once the guidance is released in about 18 months.
Managing waste. We are working to identify and adopt Zero Waste strategies that will allow us to shut down the incinerator, reduce our food waste and divert more of our waste for reuse or recycling. Toward that end, we have begun implementing a program for commercial composting and are researching improvements to recycling processes.
Other pro-environment measures: I am proud that the legislation I sent to the County Council to ban the use of plastic straws passed unanimously. I will soon send legislation to the Council to ban the use of gas leaf blowers, which create more air pollution than a pickup truck and produce unreasonable noise levels. You can read more about the problems with leaf blowers here.
An effective and efficient transit system is good for residents, good for the environment, and good for businesses.
That is why I have been a long-time champion for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and now we are advancing design on BRT all around the county - on Route 355, Route 29, Veirs Mill Road and the Corridor Cities Transitway. In the interim, we have launched the faster Flash Bus service on Route 29 in the East County. While this service is not yet BRT, the buses are designed for a BRT system--with entry doors that open to landings at the same level as rider platforms, for example. For now they are still operating in the same traffic lanes as cars but are positioned to take advantage of future dedicated bus lanes that will give bus riders an advantage in heavy traffic that will encourage people to leave their cars at home and ride the bus.
To make transit more accessible and appealing, last year we instituted the first phase of Ride On Flex, a new, on-demand transit service in areas of Rockville and Glenmont/Wheaton to connect riders in these zones to transit hubs, commercial centers, public services and home. The Ride On Flex service, modelled on successful on-demand programs elsewhere, helps bridge a commuter’s “last mile” to their homes so they can make their journey without a car.
I continue to try to work with the Governor and the Maryland Department of Transportation to revise their plan for the I-495 and I-270 corridor. Their plan is overly expensive and will not solve the traffic problem - it will simply shift it up I-270 so that residents in Germantown and Clarksburg will continue to sit in even worse traffic and neighborhoods near the existing road are threatened with further encroachment. Additionally, the toll lanes benefit the wealthy few who can afford the tolls, which will be designed to be so high so that most drivers who cannot afford the tolls will continue to be mired in heavy congestion. The plan uses a financing plan that has never received the required independent scrutiny by the State and risks leaving taxpayers with an expensive bill. Instead of using expensive private financing, the state could finance construction itself at low interest rates and paid for in part by the Federal Infrastructure legislation. My proposal for reversible lanes and rebuilding the American Legion Bridge would have a major impact on traffic congestion, especially in light of increases in telecommuting and be much more cost effective. You can read the letter I sent to the Board of Public Works outlining the problems with the current plan.
In addition to early childhood and K-12 education, I have also supported funding for our community college, Montgomery College, which together with the Universities at Shady Grove, creates a pathway to a four-year degree all in Montgomery County. However, we are missing opportunities for advanced research. Montgomery County is home to a robust, public and private sector life sciences community. The pandemic spotlighted the county’s position as a leading vaccine hub (two local companies received $2.5 billion for Covid-19 vaccines) and many companies in the life sciences and high tech fields are choosing to locate in Montgomery. We need to leverage those assets. To that end, I recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the County, the University of Maryland System (including the Universities at Shady Grove), and Montgomery College to form the Montgomery/Maryland Life Science Education and Innovation Partnership. The partnership will facilitate research and education collaboration between industry and academia, providing opportunities for students to gain workplace experience and participate in cutting edge research. Strengthening the presence of higher education in the county is needed to develop a workforce to meet the needs of life science employers, both in private companies and nearby federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. With this MOU, we will support the creation of a talented workforce, and support life sciences organizations who want to locate here.
I have also initiated the process to bring a Montgomery College presence to the East County. The Board of Directors of the College along with their administration is reviewing the options and working with our staff to determine possible options.
Business and Economic Development
The county needs to grow our tax base by attracting high quality businesses to provide good jobs to county residents. Soon after I took office, I began a listening tour with my good friend, Councilmember Sidney Katz, and we heard from businesses all around the county. We knew that there were many unhappy with the business climate here and we asked the business community to be blunt about the problems and challenges they faced in working with the County. As a result of those and other conversations, my administration implemented the following:
Created the Business Advancement Team to be a resource for businesses in the County.
Increased speed to market. Our Department of Permitting Services has implemented changes to streamline processes and improve customer service, including:
- a free pre-design consultation,
- a point of contact for all permit application,
- dashboards for commercial plan review managers to intervene if project reviews are being delayed,
- business processes for our inspectors and plan reviewers to communicate effectively and not change plans after they are approved and helping our clients resolve issues to help avoid rejecting inspections.
Additionally, we have held regular public forums and webinars to educate our clients and resolve their questions while also maintaining real opportunity for resident input.
Created a preference for local, county businesses in the procurement process.. We have increased spending with local businesses by 20 percent in just one year. Keeping more purchases for County goods and services in the county helps the local economy.
Increased transparency and clarity in the procurement process so that businesses can better understand how they can bid to supply the county with services or products. In fact, my procurement director (I convinced him to leave his private sector job and join my administration) recently won an award from the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce for the outstanding work of his department. And the procurement department has won multiple national awards for their work.
Many high tech and life sciences firms, including Novavax, BioNTech, TCR Therapeutics, and Qiagen, are locating or expanding here in the County. We have a strong cluster of companies that are working to improve health outcomes in a variety of areas. Additionally, we are home to major federal institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Food and Drug Administration, among others. We are leveraging these assets as we work aggressively to locate more companies here - companies that strengthen our life sciences and tech clusters and provide a good return on our investment. These strengths are also important to both the partnership we have with WMATA on a new development plan for the White Flint Metro to bring life sciences and advanced technology to that area and the agreement we have with the University System of Maryland to bring advanced research and training in the life sciences to the county. The partnership will facilitate research and education collaboration between industry and academia, which will provide opportunities for students to gain workplace experience and participate in cutting edge research. These are truly transformational opportunities for the county and critical to advancing economic development activities in sectors where Montgomery County is well positioned.
We have recently issued a request for proposals on some county owned land in order to help stimulate commercial development in the Burtonsville area, and to reactivate a nearly abandoned shopping center in the heart of the community.
BUSINESS AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Reforming Our Approach to Public Safety
Like many communities across the nation, we are taking a close look at how we carry out policing in Montgomery County. In my first year in office as part of the effort to select a police chief, I convened meetings to hear from the community about their thoughts about our police. That was the beginning of the efforts to learn and to reimagine policing in Montgomery County.
Not long after I was elected I began working with our police union and our Police Chief to develop a new policy requiring officers to intervene if they witness misconduct, which was a great example of the union working with us to improve policing in the county. In May of 2020, I asked the County Council to approve the first civilian Assistant Police Chief position to oversee the Community Resources Bureau within the Police Department and with the Council’s recent approval, we quickly filled that position.
In June 2020, I convened a Task Force consisting of more than 40 residents, representatives of 14 county departments, 4 labor unions, and 6 municipalities and county offices to discuss institutional racism in public safety and explore reforms in policies and programs that affect communities served by the police; examine how the County can respond more effectively to community needs for health and social services where police are currently filling the void; and provide input to an independent and comprehensive audit of the police department. The Task Force delivered a report with a number of recommendations we are now examining. The audit of the police was carried out by an independent non-profit firm that looked at training, supervisory and other practices. As a result of the audit group’s report, we are in the process of reviewing and implementing numerous changes to police practices. To monitor progress, we’ve created a dashboard to track approximately 280 actionable recommendations from both reports. There is more work to be done but the department has been willing to undertake critical self-examination of its culture, the way it trains officers, and its relationship to all the members of our community.
We also worked out an agreement with the Montgomery County Public School system to remove “School Resource Officers” (SROs) from the schools while still providing adequate safety to our schools. SROs were police officers detailed to school buildings; going forward, there will be Community Engagement Officers assigned to neighborhood communities , but not present in the schools on a routine basis. We are also working to provide a broader range of services to students and their families for mental health support and conflict resolution.
REFORMING PUBLIC SAFETY
Efficient, Effective and Transparent Government
Montgomery County Government is getting more efficient, effective, and transparent all the time.
We have received multiple awards from the National Association of Counties (NACo) for our efforts. For example, our Department of Procurement has received four national awards in the last two years, including one for the development of a web-based tool to facilitate internal compliance with purchasing policies and another for a public-facing website providing full transparency to the County's bidding and procurement process at every stage.
Faced with the pandemic, the County government responded with innovation. For example, our Department of Technology and Enterprise Business Solutions (TEBS) won a NACo award for adapting Senior Planet Montgomery to an online edition, Senior Planet: Home Edition. As the health crisis emerged, staff members gave interviews to local morning TV news shows to promote awareness of the shift to a virtual program. They produced “How to Zoom” videos and lined up county summer youth workers to give individualized tech support for seniors. TEBS also earned “Achievement Awards” for its "311 Customer Service Improvements" project and the "Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide" program.
Other programmatic innovations included “Curbside Mystery Shopper” that allowed off-site alcohol sales while also ensuring that alcohol was distributed responsibly; “Curbside Recycle Right” program lets customers know whether they are properly recycling; and, “Watershed Restoration Suitability and Equity Assessment Mapping Tools” to improve stream health and water quality in an equitable manner throughout the county.
Importantly, we continue to review existing jobs and classifications as part of a collaborative effort with the county unions, which is crucial to right-sizing our county positions. As one part of that effort, we have worked with the union to restructure the jobs in the Silver Spring Urban District to allow more flexibility and productivity. The review of jobs is of central importance to the long-term sustainability of County government.
Putting Our Fiscal House in Order
Two days after taking office I was told that our revenues were short by more than $40 million, which required immediate mid-budget-year cuts. Not long after, guidance by the state required us to make further cuts in the budget that we were in the midst of preparing. I am proud that 2 1/2 years later, our county is in strong financial shape. Not only have we maintained our longstanding AAA bond rating throughout the budget crisis and pandemic, but for the first time in almost 30 years, the growth in our tax base yielded increased revenues because of a change in the county charter that I championed. I proposed, and the Council and county residents supported – via Charter amendment A on the ballot in November – changing the arcane way we calculate our revenues. The previous method created a system that unfairly distributed the tax burden and did not capture the value of our growing tax base. We are on a better financial foundation going forward because we’ve made steps to increase the cost-effectiveness of our government and because you, the County voters, passed Charter Amendment A.