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2021 State of the County Address 

 

 

By Steuart Pittman

Thank you for tuning in, whether you are an elected official, a county employee, or a payer of the taxes that fund local government services. Thank you.
 
The State of Anne Arundel County is strong. We are outperforming both the state and the country by most measures.
 
The financial condition of county government is more stable and resilient than it has ever been, with new reserves and tax rates lower than any other central Maryland county.
 
Violent crime is on the decline, even while it’s increasing across the region and the country.
 
Contracts are in place to relieve our worst traffic on the state roads that connect us.
 
Wages are up and jobs are available, while opportunity is being expanded to more residents than ever.
 
And within county government, you have a team of public servants who have proven - through political chaos, pandemic, tornado and flood - that they can and will deliver not just for some of our residents, but for all.
 
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But let’s be honest. We share a feeling of uncertainty. What’s coming next? The Omicron COVID variant? A major storm? A surge in violent crime? A dismantling of the institutions that exist to protect us?
 
The wedges of politics have been driven so deep that we don’t know who to trust anymore. Or who to blame for what worries us.
 
I ran for this job because, even in 2018, I shared with you this concern about our future. I didn’t like the state of our politics or the direction of our county.
 
I believed that my 35 years of running organizations had left me with the skills to not only fix what is broken, but to provide stability in local government, the same kind of stability and steady progress that we seek in our own lives.
 
Our work is far from done, but I will update you on the progress we have made.
 
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Our first challenge upon taking office three years ago was to confront a reality that both political parties agreed on. `
 
Our county’s population had outpaced our infrastructure and our services. We needed a correction.
 
You’ll hear a lot this coming year from people who’ve never run an organization or a business, but want to run county government.
 
They’ll say we should not have approved a budget two years ago that brought in new police officers, firefighters, and teachers.
 
They’ll say we should not have created the new infrastructure program that is funding construction of new schools, and that allowed us to leverage state money for corrections to our worst traffic bottlenecks, lifting six county transportation projects into the top ten for state investment scoring.
 
But we listened to our residents, and we made these hard decisions. That’s why we’ve achieved the success that I will report on today, success not only in service to our residents, but also in long-term fiscal health.
 
Our pay-as-you-go capital projects, our increased funding of pension obligations, and our highest-ever balance in our rainy day fund will protect us from future economic downturns. Our conservative budgeting practices have left us with a surplus at the end of each budget year.
 
When we report next month to Moody’s, I will make a strong case for a triple A bond rating. We have earned it.
 
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The most fundamental obligation of government is public safety, so that’s where we’ll start.
 
Violent crime in Anne Arundel County is on the decline. While data across the region and the country show steep increases, ours is down 11% for the first 11 months of this year.
 
Why is that?
 
It’s because our health and human service agencies are coordinating housing and other support for more residents in communities that have lacked opportunity, using creative and performance-tested programs funded with federal, state, and county dollars.
 
It’s because we have a thriving private sector providing more livable wage jobs, building on grants and training programs offered by our economic and workforce development teams.
 
It’s because we engage with a network of churches and nonprofit organizations that deliver positive guidance and support.
 
And, it’s because we have outstanding police officers, with a higher percentage trained in crisis intervention than any other department in the state, who are led by an outstanding command staff and an outstanding chief who insists that they have the technology and the resources to do their jobs effectively.
 
We raised their pay, increased staffing levels, and provided them with the tools they needed to build trust in communities and prevent violence.
 
Our body worn camera program is the newest and probably the best in the state of Maryland. It’s a game changer in the courtroom and on the streets.
 
These investments were costly, so I want to thank the four County Council members who voted to support this increased police funding in each of our three budgets.
 
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Ask any of our firefighters, particularly the paramedics, and they’ll tell you just how much harder COVID has made their work.
 
But they’ll also tell you that this administration and our four public-safety conscious allies on the County Council have made the tough decisions that delivered fifty desperately needed new firefighters, brought pay to the level of neighboring counties, staffed the mobile integrated community health program, funded the training of 43 new paramedics, invested in new stations, and improved rural water supply.
 
That’s how we’ve managed to maintain outstanding service to our residents at a time when call volumes just keep rising.
 
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Our public safety progress was not only the result of investment in those departments. It also resulted from a deliberate shift in the attitude from my office and from the chiefs we brought in to lead those brave men and women.
 
Instead of continuing the last administration’s efforts to weaken the unions at police, fire, and detention, we listened to them, resolved grievances with them, and found common ground.
 
Instead of paying lawyers to represent us in arbitration, we are paying first responders a fair wage and improving conditions so that they can improve service. That saves lives.
 
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Our Health and Human Service agencies are doing more and better work than ever in the past.
 
Their COVID response has been both exhausting and heroic, saving hundreds of lives and giving us the third-highest vaccination rate of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions.
 
At the same time, we expanded our response capability and services in anticipation of a pandemic-driven behavioral health crisis, including an opioid epidemic that continues to destroy lives.
 
We started with a massive marketing campaign to inform residents about mental health, addiction, and crisis services available through our Warm Line.
 
That delivered what we wanted - more people reaching out for help, averaging over 3,000 calls per month in the last quarter of the year, a 31% increase over the previous year.
 
Our world-renowned Crisis Intervention Teams - the ones that put counselors with CIT-trained police officers - increased their activity 28% year over year, and that’s why we added four new positions for them in our most recent budget.
 
The warmline and crisis response are the entry portals to the larger systems of care that is the providers themselves. It is this complete system that is responsible for the significant progress we have made this year in reducing opioid overdoses and deaths while numbers in the state and the nation have gotten worse.
 
For the first ten and a half months of this year compared to the same period last year, Anne Arundel County saw an 18% decline in opioid overdoses and a 12% decline in opioid deaths. That’s 168 fewer overdoses and 21 fewer deaths.
 
That’s the kind of progress worth celebrating, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough in the battle against addiction, and it’s not enough for behavioral health in general.
 
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Crownsville Hospital Center, a 544 acre state-owned facility that closed in 2004, sits at the geographic heart of our county and reminds us everyday that we as human beings must do better.
 
I said when I took office that we needed to accept ownership of that land from the state and create a place where healing is practiced and promoted in the presence of nature.
 
I spoke to Governor Hogan recently, and we are ready to move forward. Anne Arundel County’s Crownsville Hospital Memorial Park will soon be established. Upon transfer of the land, my administration will convene community residents, healers, and our team at Recreation and Parks to begin planning the place where this good work and all of our residents can thrive.
 
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When I first became your County Executive, I knew we needed to change how land use decisions get made. I said I’d empower local communities, and I said we needed smart growth rather than the kind of suburban sprawl that costs us all, financially and environmentally.
 
Plan2040 passed on May 3 of this year and clearly marks our path to deliver on those promises.
 
It won the Maryland Department of Planning Sustainability Award, and it created a system of diverse stakeholder groups that will drive and monitor progress in nine communities.
 
But we can no longer ask our residents to volunteer their time on plans that get overridden by misguided modifications or bad rezoning decisions. These region plans will be the backbone of our county’s planning work, and comprehensive rezoning must only take place in areas where these region plans have been approved.
 
Asking the county council to transfer that power to residents was not easy, so I want to thank the forward-thinking four on the council who voted yes on Plan2040.
 
Implementation is underway already. Developers are shifting focus toward transit-oriented development and affordable housing, and we’ve launched a green infrastructure plan to protect 30% of our county’s land by the year 2030.
 
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None of these successes came easily, because every step of the way - despite the challenges of a pandemic and an unhealthy political environment, and despite our desire at times to retreat from the noise and the chaos - I insisted on staying true to my roots as a community organizer. I insisted on community engagement. And you engaged.
 
You dug into our new OpenArundel website and looked at our performance metrics. You attended our town halls - on budget, land use, and most of our major legislation. You followed our Community Engagement and Constituent Services newsletter and kept informed. You told us what you thought, and we listened.
 
Our best ideas aren’t mine. They’re yours. They’re the ones that have been through the public engagement process and been strengthened by the diverse and sometimes conflicting voices that make up this county.
 
So I will end by saying what I said to hundreds of you at my swearing in person three years ago. Please continue to organize. Continue to advocate. I’ve taken the heat before, and I can take the heat again. It’s your county government, and it’s your job to guide it.
 
But as you go about your work in the coming election year, I leave you with a warning.
 
Look out for political wedges. Look out especially for attempts to instill fear in you.
 
If the message you hear is that efforts to uplift some of us will cause harm to the rest of us - if that’s what you’re being told by your leaders or wannabe leaders - please, whatever your political persuasion, take the time to check in with your moral compass.
 
Civility, respect, and empathy toward one another truly are the paths to making our county the best place for all, so all of us must practice them.
 
My commitment to you in this coming year and beyond is that whatever challenge gets put before us, as county government and as a community, my team and I will deploy all of the strength, the experience, and the careful analysis that is born of the challenges we have endured together.
 
Yes, we face an uncertain future, but I am certain that we can and will make the best of it.
 
God bless you, and God bless our teachers, first responders, and public servants.

Posted: 12/13/2021

 
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