County priorities: Public health, broadband access, election transparency and fiscal fairness

PrintCounty leaders across Maryland have faced challenges over the past year the likes of which we’ve never seen before. We now head into 2021 with our eyes set on safeguarding public health and restoring our economies in a manner that is safe, equitable and prosperous for all. We can’t do it alone, and so counties will depend on our longstanding partnership with state leaders to bring about a swift and robust recovery for all Marylanders.

Each year, counties present to the governor and General Assembly a set of initiatives – our top issues for the year ahead. Unsurprisingly, this set of county priorities all connect back to the current pandemic and its effects on our public health systems, our ability to stay connected and community resilience.

Prioritize public health

County health departments receive support from the state – but that formula was slashed during the Great Recession and never fully restored. In fact, our local health departments receive fewer state dollars today than they did in 2009.

In 2020, we felt that squeeze, as our front line workers were left to exchange critical public health data via fax machines and to rely on federal grants to replenish depleted stockpiles of personal protective equipment and related supplies.

Meanwhile, we struggle to recruit and retain the safety inspectors that we — and state leaders — are counting on to ensure that restaurants and service establishments comprehend and follow necessary health and safety protocols. The pandemic has illustrated the pillar role played by our local health departments, and Maryland must pull together to make public health a priority.

Boost broadband access

Access to high-speed, reliable and affordable internet is more important now than ever. With the pandemic-driven shift to telecommuting, remote learning and telemedicine, the “digital divide” is top of mind.

Broadband is an essential component of a county’s economic development and the socio-economic advancements of its residents, yet no jurisdiction is equipped with the necessary infrastructure to deliver universal access. Maryland has a longstanding commitment to bridging the divide, but it is time for a unified effort. Now is the time to prioritize funding to build out broadband across the state by enhancing incentives and orchestrating opportunities for deployment. It is also time to leverage existing resources and infrastructure for broader use.

Elections: Transparency and accountability

An essential function of our county governments is to fund and oversee elections, and this too proved to be challenging amidst the pandemic. Even once health concerns improve, the state’s odd, antiquated mix of laws and practices in governing elections deserves a much-needed reboot. Too often, the state makes unilateral decisions that oblige county funds — with zero local input. counties, which provide the facilities and machines for elections, need to be at the table for major contracts and procurement decisions, as part of a true partnership with the state. We need to learn our lessons from 2020, to update our election laws with a focus on fairness, transparency and accountability.

Fiscal fairness

Lying in the background of all these policies is grave uncertainty around government revenues. We cannot maintain our front line services if our own budgets fall apart. We need leadership from the federal government, but we also need our partners at the state level to honor our collective responsibility to our residents.

Faced with a tough economy, state lawmakers must resist the temptation to shift the burden onto counties. Doing so would not solve any problems, it would only make budget pressures at the local level even worse.

The term “partnership” appears frequently here, that is no surprise. That is the way our state and county leaders should be approaching their work, especially in these troubled times. Marylanders depend on us for information, support, and relief – and together we are #MarylandStrong.

This article is featured in The Daily Record's Eye on Annapolis Summit.

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