By George Berkheimer
Howard County Executive incumbent Allan Kittleman highlighted a growing business climate in one of the first debates in the race, while his opponent Calvin Ball questioned how the county’s economy is doing compared other counties in the state.
At the Howard County Chamber of Commerce’s Candidate Forum on Sept. 13, both Kittleman, a Republican, and Ball, a Democrat and county councilman, laid out their respective visions for leading the county for the next four years.
Among the more important topics were flooding in Ellicott City, education and public safety funding, transportation deficiencies and development.
Ball, an educator and certified mediator who was re-elected in 2014 to his third term serving District 2, said he moved to Howard County with his wife to experience what he considered the best place to live in the world.
“We see that Columbia and the rest of Howard County has all the promise that we hoped,” he said. “However, we recognize that there are some things that we still have to do.”
Ball took issue with Kittleman’s claims of having added 6% more businesses to the county’s roster during his term, presiding over the creation of more than 11,000 additional jobs and achieving an unemployment rate of 3.6%, tied for the lowest in the state of Maryland.
“Right now our commercial assessable base is the third lowest in the state,” Ball said. “The state average for job growth in 2017 was 1.4%, and for Howard County it was .2%. The state average for wage growth was 3%, while Howard County was 2%. In the last year we added about 600,000 in commercial square footage, which was one of the lowest [additions] Howard County has seen in years.”
Taking place at the Turf Valley Resort and moderated by WJZ News Anchorman Vic Carter, the debate remained remarkably civil in tone, but underscored some philosophical differences in the political outlook of each candidate.
Kittleman, a former teacher and lawyer who also served on the Council and served as State Senator for District 9 from 2004 to 2014, played up his willingness to tackle tough issues that other administrations have taken a pass on, to include education, operating and capital budgets, and transportation.
One thing both candidates could agree on was the inadequacy of the county’s public transportation system.
“We have recently had budgets where [the county executive] has sent to the County Council zero dollars for road resurfacing,” Ball said. “We cannot function that way.”
Ball also suggested that Amazon did not consider Howard County a serious contender for its HQ2 expansion headquarters in part because of an inadequate transportation system.
“While other jurisdictions are investing tens of millions of dollars in transit, transportation, pathways and bikeways, we are investing less than a million,” Ball said. “That is not how we stay competitive. I think I can pull together our state, federal and private sector partners to ensure we have a viable transportation system that looks at the issues and concerns of not only today, but tomorrow.”
Kittleman acknowledged the challenges have been great, “but we have done significant work to make it better.”
Visions call for more high schools, better business policies
In terms of vision, Kittleman foresees adding the county’s 13th and 14th high schools, a stronger zoning code, and more transparency.
“I strongly believe the best way for us to foster a pro-business environment … is to invest in our communities and schools,” Kittleman said.
For his part, Ball said he would take action to ensure that complaints he’s heard from business owners, ranging from a lengthy and frustrating process to open a new business to feelings that the government is picking winners and losers, are addressed.
“That kind of perspective from an experienced business owner is not going to spur job creation or private investment,” he said. “In my vision, we don’t have business people who feel that way, we have a place where everyone feels like they’re getting a fair shake, where everyone feels that their county and government is accessible and wants to support business.”
On the eve of Hurricane Florence hitting the Carolinas, the conversation came around to flooding in Ellicott City.
“I think we need to take a different approach to not only how we build and develop, but how we redevelop, and how we invest in those issues,” Ball said. “There are projects on the books that we’re still waiting on.”
Pushing some of the mitigation decisions onto the next council as Ball has proposed, to include the removal of 10 historic buildings and widening the stream channel, is not something the county can afford to do, Kittleman said.
“We’ve lost four lives, nobody else should die,” he argued. “Now is the time.”
Kittleman stood by his administration’s accomplishments, and advised voters to visit both his and Ball’s websites to compare their records before making their decision in the general election.
“I’m excited about our future, and our campaign has tremendous momentum,” Kittleman said.
Ball, however, sees the county at a crossroads.
“This election is critical,” Ball said. “We have a school system … that is facing some serious structural challenges. We have greater need and greater challenges … and insufficient education about things when it comes to the opioid crisis and mental health. Now is the time for real leadership, now is the time for real vision.”