Montgomery County Council approves measures on housing, health and voting by mail

The Montgomery County Council met virtually on July 29, 2020/ (Courtesy YouTube/Montgomery County)

The Montgomery County Council held a marathon legislative day Tuesday with action on more than 19 items, including a plan for the Maryland county to pump funding into a health initiative aimed at tackling the spread of COVID-19 and calling for a vote-by-mail election in November.

The council approved $72 million in cuts to the fiscal year 2021 budget, part of the impact of the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

During discussions, council members referred to the move as a “savings plan” designed to blunt the effects of a possible shortfall of $600 million in tax revenue.

More than $43 million was slashed from the operating budget, while another $28 million was cut from the capital improvements budget.

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Funding for a $5.9 million program called “Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar,” or “For Our Health and Well-Being,” would provide COVID-19 testing and public health and education services to the Latino community, which the coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted.

Council members Nancy Navarro and Gabe Albornoz championed the effort, with Navarro pointing out that every council district is home to Latino residents who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“It is so important that we zero in on the needs of our most vulnerable community because it has an effect — when we talk about public health — on the entire county,” Navarro said.

The council also approved $395,000 to increase mental health services through a county hotline that provides crisis intervention and mental health resource referrals. Services are offered by phone, text and chat.

Council members noted the coronavirus pandemic has increased stress on residents who are dealing with financial pressures and social isolation, along with concerns about exposure to the virus.

Albornoz, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, stated his support for expanding the hotline program and said, “No one should suffer in silence.”

Another council item receiving approval: $20 million in rental assistance and an additional $355,000 for services to aid veterans facing homelessness.

Council member Evan Glass said county leaders are “committed to ensuring that all residents have a safe place to call home during this health and economic crisis.”

“Today’s vote provides much-needed, additional support for the people of Montgomery County,” said County Executive Marc Elrich, who devised the rental assistance plan, in a statement after the vote. “It is imperative that we use our resources to support tenants during these difficult times and this funding will enable us to assist renters in working with landlords to avoid eviction.”

“Now that the courts have lifted the stay on evictions, we want to be prepared for the hearings of rental nonpayment cases that will likely take place after August 31,” he added.

Council members also approved a resolution calling on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to change his position on how voting should be carried out in the upcoming general election Nov. 3.

The nine members of the county council — all Democrats — are calling on the Republican governor to send ballots with prepaid postage directly to eligible voters.

The council also said touch-free drop boxes should be provided so that voters can cast their ballots “to make voting as easy and safe as possible.”

Hogan has directed the Maryland State Board of Elections to send out absentee ballot applications to eligible voters. He also wants all polling places open Nov. 3 for in-person voting.

When the governor issued that directive, he pointed out the failures in the June 2 primary that resulted in thousands of voters getting the wrong ballot or no ballot delivered to their homes.

Council member Tom Hucker said lessons learned from the June 2 primary should be applied to avoid similar problems.

“Substantially changing the procedures for the general election now will confuse voters, undermine confidence, add costs and create unnecessary health risks for voters, staff and volunteers,” he said. “We urge the state to reconsider.”

Watch the council meeting:

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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