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Nathanson: Looming issues demand regional focus

While the recent mid-term election provided a dramatic shift in the political dynamics of the nation’s capital, subtler shifts of power rippled across the Baltimore region.

Baltimore County Executive-elect Kevin Kamenetz, a veteran of 16 years on the County Council, will be joined in Towson by five newcomers to the council along with two returning members. Similarly, in Anne Arundel County, re-elected County Executive John Leopold will be dealing with five first-termers on the seven-member county council.

Howard County will have returning County Executive Ken Ulman, along with all of the current council members. There was a similar result in Harford County, where County Executive David Craig, who first took office in 2005, has been elected for a second full term and is now the dean of the region’s chief elected officials.

Carroll County will be operating for the first time with its five county commissioner system. Only one of the new commissioners previously held elective office.

This combination of veteran and novice suburban leaders will be joining Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (who faces re-election in 2011) in charting the future of the Baltimore region in the years ahead. They all face the challenge of governance in a time of fiscal austerity.

While campaigning, these officials focused their attention on the local matters of most immediate interest to their constituents. This limited the amount of discussion of inter-jurisdictional or regional issues. One exception to this was Kamenetz’s concern early in the year about the region’s water supply system.

Baltimore supplies fresh drinking water to about 600,000 Baltimore County residents and to 1.8 million residents in the metropolitan area. With an aging infrastructure, the water distribution system has been plagued by a number of serious water main breaks, including one that flooded a major area of Dundalk and caused the collapse of a section of Broening Highway a year ago.

With such disruptions occurring more frequently, Kamenetz has recommended that a regional authority have responsibility for responding to these emergencies.  The city’s Department of Public Works now has that responsibility.

At Kamenetz’s urging, the Baltimore County Council approved a nonbinding resolution in June calling for the state and neighboring jurisdictions to “investigate the feasibility of creating an independent water and sewer management authority to handle the region’s needs.”

Regional engagement

The water supply issue highlights one of a number of governance issues on which the new and returning leaders will have to work across jurisdictional lines on matters ranging from transportation funding and development priorities to air quality and solid waste disposal. And matters could become contentious as the revenue pie for various initiatives shrinks.

By virtue of their offices, the region’s chief elected officials constitute the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. Along with the mayor of Annapolis and state partners, they sit on the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, charting the investments of billions of dollars in highway, bridge and transit funds.

More visionary than nuts and bolts, the new leaders on the council and the board will have a say in completing Vision 2060 — a look a half-century into the future of the region’s development.

Putting on their economic development hats, the elected officials will sit at the table with area corporate leaders on the board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Together they have a role in assuring the smooth accommodation of new military and civilian workers, as the Base Realignment and Closure process reaches a key milestone in 2011.

Vanishing federal dollars

It may turn out that the greatest impacts of the recent election on the region will be from the shifts in power on Capitol Hill. The return of the Democratic Party to minority status in the House and the reality of a much diminished majority in the Senate are almost certain to reduce the flow of discretionary federal dollars to states and localities across the country.

The new political configuration in Washington presents particular economic risks for Maryland and the Baltimore region. The state and region have been less seriously impacted by the economic turmoil of recent years because so much of the area’s economy is fueled by federal dollars flowing into the region. Johns Hopkins alone, with its many endeavors at the university, the hospital and the Applied Physics Laboratory, receives over $1 billion in federal research grants annually.

It’s not hard to imagine that the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Science and Technology, and other agencies subject to discretionary appropriations will see funding on a downward trajectory as a result of deficit cutting, if only at the margin.

To assure that this region is not hurt over the long run, area leaders in government, business and in major academic institutions must build on past collaborations, including the leveraging of corporate and private foundation resources to advance the economic strengths of the region.

Indeed, the fostering of these initiatives would seem exactly the type of mission for which the Economic Alliance was created.  Here’s hoping that local leaders see the upcoming challenges and respond collaboratively.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.