Md. county executives: ‘Healthy competition’ can drive local policies on climate change

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Less than a month after remnants of Hurricane Ida tore through Annapolis and inundated parts of Maryland with floods, county executives from some of the state’s largest jurisdictions met this week to discuss how local leaders can counter the climate crisis and educate residents on climate issues.

“We didn’t need Hurricane Ida to remind us of what Hurricane Isabel reminded us of: the devastation that climate change can and has affected on all of our communities,” said Baltimore County Executive John A. “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. (D) during a panel Monday evening on local government and climate change.

With homes and businesses damaged during the storm, “it’s not just a safety and well-being impact, it’s an economic impact that touches all of our lives,” Olszewski continued. “Planning for the impacts of what we’re already seeing, but also doing all we can to help prevent the storm in the first place is really critical.”

The discussion among the county executives — Olszewski, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D), Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) — was pre-recorded in Annapolis on Monday night. It will air Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on the Maryland Democratic Party’s Facebook Live page and YouTube channel.

The four leaders, who were all elected in 2018, have already faced climate emergencies during their short time in office, and all have put together comprehensive plans to confront the crisis.

Local governments may have plans to combat climate change, but there also needs to be stable funding sources to implement those plans, Elrich said. For instance, most stormwater systems were built decades ago and not prepared for the kinds of storms that are hitting the state today, but updating these systems is a major capital project, Elrich said.

In advance of the 2022 gubernatorial race, Elrich said he is looking for a governor who is committed to funding counties’ climate action plans.

Local leaders need a “strong partner” in the governor’s office to implement their climate goals, Ball echoed. Pittman said he is looking for a governor who not only has a plan to combat climate change, but who also can communicate and convince the public “to bind to that plan.”

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing local jurisdictions to set up resilience authorities, which can receive money from the state, local government and non-profit organizations, and can charge and collect fees to fund infrastructure projects, such as flood barriers, stormwater systems and green spaces.

Charles County was the first jurisdiction to set up a resilience authority; the county plans to address flooding in a hundred neighborhoods.

Anne Arundel, which has 533 miles of coastline, created its own resilience authority soon after. “I like to say that we’re creating the first resilience authority in Anne Arundel County, and then I remember that … Charles County beat us to the punch,” Pittman said.

By having a separate organization that can borrow money, climate resilience projects will not count towards the county’s maximum debt ceiling.

“We have to create these spaces … we can’t afford it in our capital budget, we have debt limits and some of these projects should be funded in innovative ways; they should be paid for potentially by the community or other businesses affected by it,” Pittman continued.

The conversation between the executives was wide-ranging, including discussion of public transportation, development and the effect of commuting on climate patterns.

On public transportation, counties can work regionally to ensure there are public transit options for residents who work outside of their county, said Ball. For instance, a third of Howard County residents commute towards the Washington D.C. area for work and another third commute towards the Baltimore area, he said.

Anne Arundel is planning development to avoid “sprawl” and encourage people to use public transportation more, said Pittman. For instance, the county found a way to make it easier for people to get to the Odenton Station, which many use to commute to Washington D.C. and Baltimore, he continued.

Local governments can also make it easier for the public to plant more trees as well as incentivize the public to buy electric cars and place solar panels on their roofs through energy conservation tax credits, Olszewski said.

“I’d say — go as electric as you can go — whether it’s your vehicle and whether it’s solar on your house,” Elrich said. “The days of people wondering when the payoff is going to be are kind of gone.”

But it is also critical to embed equity into climate policy, Olszewski said.

For instance, Baltimore County is implementing a tree equity program that not only aims to get more trees in the ground, but also considers planting in communities with a lack of trees. A recent analysis by American Forests shows that Maryland would need to plant about 5.5 million new trees to reach “tree equity,” or the number of trees required for every neighborhood to enjoy the environmental and health benefits of greenery.

Public education campaigns on environmental efforts are also critical, Pittman said. For instance, Anne Arundel regularly sends reminders to residents that plastic bags are not recyclable. The county was at risk of losing a recycling contract because plastic bags kept getting caught in the recycling center’s machines, but the public education campaign has mitigated the issue, he said.

Elrich said he is “determined to close” Montgomery County’s trash incinerator.

He envisions a “virtuous cycle” in which biogas from anaerobic digesters could help fuel his county’s hydrogen buses.

Howard County is home to an anaerobic digester, a machine that uses microbes to break down organic material into biogas (mostly methane and carbon dioxide), that is slated to begin operating by the end of this year.

There were moments of levity during the discussion as well.

Pittman offered a cheeky recycling tip for creating healthy soil: placing cotton underwear about a foot underground. After six weeks, microbes in the soil will consume the cotton and all that is left is the elastic waistband, Pittman said.

“So, soil your undies,” Pittman said.

Ball underscored that local governments working together is the right way to find solutions to climate change.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Ball said. “When we all have healthy competition about how we can do a better job of protecting our environment … that’s how we continue to make each other better and push each other.”

“Oftentimes, the most exciting and fun superhero movies are the ones where numerous heroes … come together to form a team to fight against this existential crisis,” Ball said as Pittman patted Elrich and Olszewski on their backs.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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