Ulman stays with `green' plans despite budget worries

December 28, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Despite worries about tighter revenues next fiscal year, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is pushing his environmental initiatives forward, including a solar demonstration project at the East Columbia library and the purchasing of hybrid vehicles.

But expectations of less revenue growth for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will limit staffing at his proposed Office of Environmental Sustainability to one person, Ulman said, and could also curb his hopes of expanding a pilot program to boost recycling by giving residents larger, wheeled bins.

Ulman is requesting County Council approval of a restructuring of county government to include the new office.

Originally, a residents commission recommended that the environmental office have up to seven workers. But now, if approved, the office will have one - Joshua Feldmark, who is now director of a 13-member environmental citizens advisory board.

Ulman, Feldmark and Jim Caldwell, the former director of Montgomery County's environmental agency, said Feldmark can still move the green agenda forward alone, working with existing county employees in various agencies.

"I really do feel strongly [that] we need to institutionalize this in county government," said Ulman, who added, "I really do believe we've got really good people doing really good work, but it's uncoordinated."

Caldwell, who will serve on the Environmental Sustainability Board, said a slimmer agency can be effective by concentrating on key issues without getting bogged down in the kind of daily bureaucratic functions that larger offices handle.

"The bigger you get, the more operational responsibility you get," which can slow progress. That's why, he said, the environmental committee Ulman appointed in February recommended creating a small office to act as a catalyst and coordinator, with a minimal staff.

Feldmark, Caldwell said, can work with employees in public works, recreation and parks, planning and zoning, and other agencies to move Ulman's environmental agenda ahead.

"It means an office will exist," Ulman said, and it is clear to department heads that "this is a priority."

"I see an opportunity for it to grow," Feldmark said.

Under county law, Ulman must submit his request to change the structure of county government 120 days before submission of the next budget in April, to be followed in 60 days by legislation to create the new office, the executive said. He requested the change in a letter dated Dec. 21.

If he could afford one more position, Ulman said, it would be for someone to help get the public involved in learning about environmental issues.

"It's an incredibly valuable part of the program," Caldwell said, because governments can't force changes. Communities of citizens must be invested in making things different, he said.

In addition, the November promotion of Mark DeLuca from traffic engineering division chief to Deputy Public Works director was done partly to help handle all of his projects, Ulman said.

The solar demonstration project was funded in the current year's budget adopted last spring, as was money for replacing fleet vehicles with electric-fuel hybrids as the opportunity arose. Ulman said Howard County now has more hybrid vehicles than even state government does.

The library will have a display in the lobby showing patrons how the system works and spreading the word about alternative energy sources, Feldmark said.

Similarly, the Robinson Nature Center, due for construction in the next several years on Cedar Lane near Route 32, will contain numerous interactive displays, Ulman said, including one that allows a person to tilt a model landscape to see how water in Howard's rivers and streams go toward the Chesapeake Bay.

The key, he said, is that both the library and the nature center projects will provide education about environmental issues to the public.

One opportunity he's not so enthusiastic about is building an expensive county office complex - another issue the county council is awaiting details on.

"I don't want to do it, but I don't have a choice," he said, referring to the cost of the project and the obsolete George Howard building where he has his office.

Despite that, Ulman said he's hoping to build green structures that will provide lots of natural light.

"I do believe that having a professional work space is conducive to getting the job done," he said.


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