Transition advice offered

9 subcommittees detail recommendations for changes in county

February 04, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

The advice to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman from his nine transition-team subcommittees seems endless.

Appoint a planning ombudsmen and hire more planners. Provide more drug treatment and do more for seniors and the homeless. Pay teachers, social workers and corrections officers well enough to attract and retain the best. Hire more police, and train firefighters faster. Fill 35 vacancies in the Department of Public Works and start fixing $1.5 billion worth of unglamorous, neglected infrastructure. Improve computer communications for all county agencies. And on and on.

"They represent the impressions and educated opinions of some very significant individuals in the county," said Del. Guy Guzzone, the transition team chairman who presented the reports to Ulman on Friday. "What they are not is an exhaustive study."

Guzzone said the 200 volunteers who worked for three months to examine county government and recommend changes identified several themes that came up repeatedly.

First is the need to support the government's "human capital," what Guzzone called "a great group of employees," with adequate pay and training and by filling vacancies.

Another is a new emphasis on one of Ulman's oft-stated goals - paying more attention to the environment with environmentally friendly, or "green," buildings and "new ways of thinking" to make the county a national model.

Guzzone said social workers and employees of nonprofit human agencies, who help vulnerable, sometimes fragile people, need help, too.

"In some cases, they're getting paid at a level where they're almost the vulnerable people themselves," he said.

Ulman said he had not read any of the reports, but he wants to do more to help the environment and is considering creating a separate environmental office.

"One thing I know clearly is we have to elevate the profile of the environment," he said.

Ulman said he will take every recommendation seriously and went out of his way to praise his predecessor, former County Executive James N. Robey, now a state senator, who was the subject of some implied criticism in the report on planning and zoning and housing.

After Robey

"Jim Robey left this county in great shape," Ulman said, adding that he was "blessed" to inherit a government from Robey.

The transition report said planning and zoning officials have lacked "direction and guidance" from top county leadership, and that the county housing agency "seems to function devoid of specific goals or strategies."

The subcommittee on planning and zoning and housing also recommended limiting to "exceptional cases" the construction of subsidized housing "off-site" or in locations away from a builder's primary development.

The County Council unanimously approved a law in June last year - with then-Councilman Ulman's support - allowing the arrangement because builders complained that high condominium fees and property taxes make it economically impossible to sprinkle identical moderate-income units among the expensive homes they are building. The county has used the flexible system to get more affordable units.

Several subcommittee reports recommended providing more affordable housing, however.

C. Vernon Gray, chairman of the planning and zoning and housing subcommittee, said Friday that builders originally agreed to provide moderate-income housing in their projects.

Help on fees

Gray said the county Housing Commission could pay the condominium fees to help make the former arrangement work.

Many of the report's recommendations would require new county spending, and Ulman bemoaned what he said are recent state revenue estimates showing that real estate tax revenues are down.

"Clearly, we've got challenges ahead," Ulman said.

Some recommendations have a harder time gaining approval than others.

A suggestion from the human services subcommittee, headed by Howard County General Hospital President Victor A. Broccolino, is to elevate the county Office on Aging to a full department - the same recommendation made to Robey in 1999 by his transition committee.

Reports on Web site

Kevin Enright, the county communications director, said the reports would be available on the county's Web site (www.howard countymd.gov) tomorrow.

However, Ulman added a caution.

"We've got a lot of great stuff on our Web site, but it can be hard to find," the executive said.

Improving the Web site to make it easier for residents to use is another recommendation that Ulman said he intends to pursue.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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