Leaders of Maryland’s counties and officials from state government will descend on Ocean City this week to talk public policy, politics and cybersecurity.
The event theme, “Winds of Change,” is focused less on renewable energy and more on social, economic and demographic shifts affecting the state’s 24 major subdivisions.
Top of mind will be the security of local government computer systems and digitally stored information in the wake of a crippling attack on Baltimore earlier this year.
Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said that while Baltimore will likely be a prime example of such an attack, the session isn’t meant to be an hour devoted to bashing the city.
“What we have heard is that people want to hear about what happens after an attack,” said Sanderson. “If we assume that even with measures in place someone is going to attack us, what are the best- and worst-case scenarios for recovery.”
In May, Baltimore was attacked with ransomware that crippled computer systems and shuttered many government services.
The attackers reportedly asked Baltimore for $80,000. Baltimore, unlike a number of other cities similarly attacked in recent months, declined to pay the ransom.
In June, the Board of Estimates approved $10 million to pay for recovery efforts. Early estimates from city officials place the overall cost of the attack to the city at $18 million.
City officials estimate the recovery effort is about 97 percent complete.
As many as 3,000 state and local officials, vendors, exhibitors and observers from across Maryland are expected to attend this year’s conference — big numbers for an off-election year event, according to Sanderson.
The convention, which begins Wednesday and continues through Saturday, is an annual gathering of county and state leaders. Depending on who you talk to, the event is educational, a networking event, a political gathering, a beach junket at public expense or all of the above.
“It’s a good time to be here if you’re into politics, public policy or fund raising,” said Sanderson.
And while the beach and Thrashers and the boardwalk will certainly be an attraction, most attendees will spend hours upon hours inside the Roland E. Powell Convention Center discussing topics of importance to the governance of Maryland’s 24 major jurisdictions.
Included in that discussion will be seminars on moving 911 systems to next generation technology; tracking the opioid crisis; drones; and a crisis in volunteer firefighting.
There will also be a heavy focus on budgetary issues including — again — a discussion on how $4 billion in new spending on education proposed by the Kirwan Commission will affect county budgets.
Sanderson said nearly three of four Maryland residents live in an area that is already paying the maximum local income tax. Counties are concerned what their share of educations will be and what the state will stop paying for at the local level to cover education costs.
When the state rolled out the Thornton education spending plan years ago, counties ultimately saw cuts in state aid for roads and teacher pension costs. Those burdens were shifted back to local government.
“We’re wary of what the next 10 years will look like,” said Sanderson.
One sleeper issue getting a lot of attention at the convention will be volunteer fire companies and how declining involvement is squeezing local government resources.
“This is an issue that is a really big deal that many people don’t realize is in a crisis stage,” said Sanderson. “It’s really tough to convince today’s 20-year-olds and 30-year olds that this is a worthwhile idea.”
The result is that outlying counties experiencing increased growth, such as Calvert, Cecil, Queen Anne’s, St. Mary’s and Washington counties, are having to find ways to take over some services in their budgets.
A generous helping of politics will also be on the agenda.
Gov. Larry Hogan, House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Comptroller Peter Franchot will top the list of politicians holding fundraisers.
Hogan, who is term-limited, is raising money for his Change Maryland political action fund. Franchot’s fundraiser could go toward a 2022 campaign for governor should he decide to go that way. Jones’ event is one of a series she’s held that are part of her duties to raise money for Democratic lawmakers and candidates.
Hogan and Jones will also speak to attendees at the conference.
The newly minted leader of the House will speak during a Women of MACo lunch.
Hogan will close out this year’s session and has used the slot in the past to make policy announcements or hint at issue he’s planning to take on in the coming session.
“We’re not putting demands on it,” Sanderson said of expectations for the speeches. “This isn’t like going to Iowa and you have to talk about ethanol subsidies.”
But Sanderson said members will be interested to hear what two of the state’s top leaders have to say about issues that will affect them and their budgets.
“There’s a partnership between the state and county governments that ought to remain healthy,” Sanderson said. “If there’s a bottom line, that’s it.”