Jim Walsh's Howard County Chamber of Commerce Questionnaire

Jim Walsh, Council District 5
May 2018

Howard County Executive and Council Candidates

1. Please share your vision for fostering a pro-business environment, spurring job creation, and private investment.

The highest priorities for County government are education, public safety, roads and
infrastructure. Specifically for the business community, the best things that County
government can do for business are (1) provide adequate infrastructure, (2) impose clear, reasonable, consistent and universal regulations, and (3) get out of the way. To achieve these objectives requires fiscal responsibility. Howard County already has the highest average property tax bill in Maryland, and our local income tax is at the highest level allowed by law. I recommend allowing more commercial development by re-zoning more land from residential to commercial. Commercial and industrial development does not add to the burden of our schools, while providing a lucrative tax base. Additional funds can be directed towards the infrastructure improvements and enhancements necessary to attract additional business development via private investment

2. What do you envision being your most significant accomplishment during your four-year term to enhance Howard County’s business environment?

Keeping the lid on government spending and, in turn, taxes. Revising (and hopefully, simplifying) our zoning regulations and hearing procedures to provide those clear, reasonable, consistent and universal rules I mentioned earlier, and speed up our review, hearing and appeals processes.

3. This past fall, the County Council passed an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance that many believe will hinder and stifle future development.

a. Do you think this legislation should be revisited before it goes into effect in July 2019? In certain circumstances, described below.

b. If so, what would be the objectives of any revisions you would pursue? If not, why not?

I supported most of the changes effected by CB 1-2018. Some provisions that were included (e.g., amendment #3, relating to the affordable housing loophole) I opposed because the process it allows seems quite subjective and has the potential to open a huge loophole to the other growth limitations of CB 1-2018. I supported another amendment (#2), allowing higher capacity limits in over-capacity school areas where neighboring schools were under-capacity) that was not included.  Recognizing that APFO only stops development for a limited number of years, I think we should look at allowing some development in “barely closed areas” to be allocated by a free-market auction, so that the County can garner the true market value of development fees up front from an area that will be re-opened to development in a few years anyway.

c. In light of this legislation, how will you promote economic development and still address the County’s plight of limited affordable housing?

Unfortunately, residential development consumes more in services than it generates in revenue. This is even more so the case for affordable housing units. As the explosive growth in density, particularly in eastern Howard County, has shown, seeking to provide more affordable housing has unintended, but inevitable, consequences that adversely affect our roads, schools, and our ability to provide other County services. Again, this illustrates why it is so important for the County to encourage businesses to locate and stay here. There is only so much that the County can do to make housing affordable without (1) discouraging private investment, and/or (2) spending a lot of our tax money to subsidize such housing. I favor continuing County programs to assist our elderly and residents with disabilities find affordable housing. I would also favor enlisting the assistance of local charities to help fill the gap.

4. Going forward, what is biggest challenge for the County budget and how do you to plan to address these fiscal constraints?

Howard County already has the highest average property tax bill in Maryland, and our local income tax rate is the highest allowed by law. A county as wealthy as Howard should be spending less per capita than other jurisdictions to address residents’ needs, so we shouldn’t have such high tax rates. Given that we do, this tells me that there is room for re-directing spending without adversely affecting the quality and level of service that the County provides. With my background as a CPA, I understand budgets, finance and taxation, and I will be vigilant in protecting the interest of Howard County taxpayers.

5. Do you share the concern that our road and transit infrastructure is inadequate to accommodate the jobs and development coming to Howard County and the region?

Yes, as anyone who has sat through three cycles of traffic signals to get through an intersection (such as Snowden River Parkway at Broken Land Parkway) can attest.

a. What are your top priorities for transit, transportation, infrastructure and public   facilities investment in the County?

Improving roads while still preserving the character of the community; e.g., installing turn and bypass lanes, and  directional signals at certain intersections, widening other roads where necessary. A good example of a corridor in need of such improvements is Route 99 between U.S. 29 and Marriottsville Road. Within the corridor, I have seen a  vehicle attempting to make a left turn at 5:00 p.m. without a left turn arrow from the single lane of westbound Route 99 onto Woodstock Road generate a one mile backup on westbound Route 99. Reviewing our transit routes (as the MTA did in Baltimore) and revising them as appropriate to more effectively move people from place to place. We should also consider partnering with private ride-sharing services (such us Uber or Lyft) to address the transportation needs of residents who are not adequately served by public transit. Expanding bicycle routes and lanes.

b. How you would work with neighboring counties, state and federal authorities to address these deficiencies and secure the resources needed to improve these public facilities?

With our location, growth is inevitable for the foreseeable future. I would encourage the next administration to co-ordinate more with neighboring jurisdictions to develop a truly regional transit system.

6. How will you support Howard County’s educational standards while balancing the needs of our residents and businesses?

The Council needs to make sure that the HCPSS is spending its money well, and stays focused on its core function of classroom education. The school board needs to scrutinize all HCPSS spending, not just spending increases. We are already spending about $14,800 per student per year to operate our schools.

a. Do you believe that the Board of Education has used its County funded budget responsibly?

In the past, certainly not (e.g., the $50 million shortfall in the HCPSS health care fund). HCPSS has certainly improved under the current superintendent and school board, but there is room for further improvement. For example, this year the superintendent proposed a total operating budget of $850.7 million, $594.5M from the County (both a 3.9% increase from the total $819.1M operating budget and $572.9M County contribution from the prior year). That proposed budget addressed a projected 2% growth in the school population and added 68 special education teachers. The Board instead
approved a whopping $906.8 million operating budget (up 10.7% from the prior year’s $819.1M), including $645.1 million from the County (up 12.6% from the prior year’s $572.9M). The Board’s budget comes in around $1,000 higher PER STUDENT than the superintendent’s proposal.

b. Do we need to institute changes that require the Board of Education to better use existing school capacity?

I hope it would not come to that. My hope instead would be that we elect quality people to the school board, who will continuously do some minor redistricting (e.g., about 2% per year) rather than get to the current situation where no redistricting had been done for 10 years and then HCPSS considered redistricting 20% of our students in one fell swoop.
This failure to re-district was a major factor in requiring the County to enact its recent APFO revisions. When I am a Council member, I intend to work closely with school board members so that we can be proactive regarding school capacity in order to minimize the impact on schools and families.

c. What changes in the HCPSS budget process are you considering?

I intend to look at all spending, not just budget increases, as a Council member. I intend to emphasize the core functions of County government. I would encourage HCPSS board members to do the same. 

7. What challenges do you anticipate coming up in the long term that require a different approach than today?

As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” With that disclaimer, at some point there will be no more land in Howard County available for development (and hopefully we will have preserved enough open space to preserve the feel of our agricultural roots). We will then have to focus on re-development  rather than development.

As online shopping becomes even more popular, there will be even less need for brickand-mortar retail locations, which will adversely impact our retail centers, including the Mall in Columbia, village centers, and big box stores. We will then have to face the challenge of re-purposing many of those structures.

8. The re-writing of zoning and land-use regulations will affect the county for generations. 

a. How prepared are you to address the many issues that will confront you in this process?

Extremely well prepared: By profession, I am an attorney in private practice, as well as a CPA. I served on the Howard County Board of Appeals for ten years, where I learned a lot about zoning and land uses issues, both substantively and procedurally. That experience, and insight into the need for improvement, was a major factor in my decision to run for County Council. I also served on the last Charter Review Commission, and there learned the mechanics of County government. Because of term limits, we will have at least four new Council members in December, because four (of five) current Council members are ineligible to run for re-election. This year in particular, it is imperative that at least some of the new Council members have experience in local government. I have the unique combination of legal, finance, tax, and local government experience that makes me “Ready on Day One” to serve the people of Howard County.

b. Please share your zoning and land use philosophy:

I think that all our regulations (including land use and zoning) should be clear, reasonable, consistent and universal. Many of our existing regulations bog down into the micro-management of development, which often result in appeals to the hearing examiner and Board of Appeals to seek relief. Our processes for review and appeals are too long, and impose burdensome costs to developers. 

c. What do you want as the end result of this process?

I want a clear, predictable and efficient process for both developers and residents, and a level playing field for everyone. I want not just to preserve, but to improve, the high quality of life that we enjoy in Howard County.

MDGOP Candidate