In any other year, Montgomery County’s elected officials and civic leaders would be crowding into an auditorium to hear the county executive deliver a State of the County address. But not this year.
Instead, County Executive Marc Elrich delivered a taped message seated behind a desk, and put it online. As expected, the coronavirus and the effect it has had on every aspect of life topped the speech.
Noting that more than 63,000 residents have contracted the virus, with a death toll approaching 1,400, Elrich said, “COVID has demanded that all of us change the way we do things.”
He added that the disease has been “front-and-center in our minds” and that “the steps that we have taken to protect public health have been hard on all of us.”
Elrich said, “These restrictions have been painful, but were necessary to save lives.”
The day before the speech, the county announced vaccination of residents 65 and older and essential workers had begun at county-run clinics.
Transportation, libraries, real estate
While the battle to contain the deadly virus continues, other issues demand attention as well, Elrich said.
On transportation, Elrich noted that amid the pandemic the county launched its first and long-awaited bus rapid transit line, the FLASH BRT on Route 29, which Elrich called “an important step forward for the East County.”
Elrich said the county is now moving forward with rapid bus lanes along Viers Mill Road and Route 355.
In the coming year, Elrich said, the goal will be to improve the reliability and accessibility of transit, “because access to quick and reliable transit is key to ensuring that communities thrive.”
The county has also been shifting its fleet from older gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles. The county is also looking to provide more charging stations for privately owned vehicles, he said.
The county’s library system adapted to the arrival of COVID-19, providing remote access to everything from story time for children to language instruction for adults. Fees for overdue materials were eliminated, a recognition of the fact that more families face economic pressures made worse by the pandemic, he said.
Elrich said most of the county’s workforce of 10,000 people have been able to shift to remote work, but that created increased demand on the county’s IT department — which also worked to deal with increased demand for internet access for information about other services from food distribution to rental support.
As a result of the pandemic, and the move to telework, Elrich said the county is taking a hard look at office capacity.
The county’s Department of General Services is leading efforts to “reshape the county’s real estate portfolio,” Elrich said, through both a reduced need for office space because of teleworking and by implementing “net-zero” design standards for the county’s new buildings as well as renovations for existing buildings.
Note of optimism
Elrich also said that were it not for the arrival of COVID-19, the county’s action plan to deal with climate change would be dominating the work of county government.
“The Climate Action Plan identifies 87 action items that will help us meet our goals of reducing emissions by 80% by 2027 and 100% by 2035,” Elrich said. “The recommendations reflect a future reimagined — one in which our buildings, transportation systems, government processes, consumption patterns and community engagement efforts are all realigned to meet our generation’s greatest challenge.”
Elrich also talked about plans to reshape the county’s approach to public safety and policing, and efforts to maintain the county’s affordable housing stock, even as new development continues.
The county executive capped his address with a note of optimism.
“I miss interacting with the people of this great county, but I am optimistic that if we stick together and continue to mask up, keep our distance, and get tested as we wait for more vaccines, we can win this battle,” Elrich said. “These steps will keep us safe as we continue to move our county forward.”
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