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By Neal Earley @neal_earley
SILVER SPRING — East County residents got their first opportunity to tell Montgomery County Executive-Elect Marc Elrich what their top concerns are.
Residents who spoke at the public town hall event at the East County Community Center on Tuesday said a few things troubled them about living in the East County. They said the region lacked jobs, homes are in poor condition and not up to code, and schools are behind those in the wealthier parts of Montgomery County,
As far as those who spoke at the town hall were concerned, many of the questions and comments could be drawn back to one theme – that leaders have neglected the East County.
For Elrich, his answers were about reassuring residents that will change.
Elrich responded to several questions about the conditions of homes and apartments in the East County. One woman, a resident of the Aspen Hill-Wheaton area, spoke of homes with cars parked in their yards, overcrowded with tenants beyond capacity and rising crime that have hurt her home’s property value.
Another resident spoke about how her apartment complex is filled with black mold that has made her sick. In both cases, the residents claimed the County has done almost nothing to fix the situation.
“This is one of the reasons why the housing department needs new leadership,” Elrich said.
For Elrich, who will be sworn in as County Executive on Monday, Tuesday night’s forum in Silver Spring was the second of an ongoing tour of the County, as he continues the transition from his position on the County Council to the County Executive’s office.
While the outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett is a resident of Burtsonville and has made a concerted effort to bring more development to the East County, Elrich on Tuesday night expressed some skepticism about how some development in East County has been managed.
Notably, Elrich said that the County has failed to promote enough development on U.S Route 29, the main corridor throughout the East County, in lieu of development on MD-355.
In October, the County broke ground on VIVA White Oak, a mixed-use development that will eventually be next to the future sites of the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters and Washington Adventist Hospital.
While Leggett has given special attention to development in the East County, parts of Northern Silver Spring and Burtonsville still lack the jobs and resources of Bethesda and Rockville.
Elrich said that Bus Rapid Transit, an idea he pushed for on the Council, will help attract employers to the U.S Route 29 corridor, as the needed transit infrastructure will be for future employees.
“My concern has always been that we just get retail and lots of housing and you don’t get the jobs you need on this side of the County,” Elrich said.
Tight fiscal pressures are limiting the County’s budget, with no political will to raise taxes, a growing achievement gap in Montgomery County Public Schools and stagnant economic growth.
During his campaign, Elrich promised that, if elected, he would restructure County government to make it more efficient. After being asked to find new streams of revenue without raising taxes, Elrich reiterated his promise, but did not specify how he will restructure the County government or how it will become more efficient.
According to County staff, compensation for County workers is rising, and projections indicate that revenue is not keeping up with the rise in County wages. Elrich has talked about finding efficiencies in County government as a way of identifying programs he wants to expand, now made more daunting as the County continues a period of fiscal uncertainty.
“I did not mean rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – because that’s restructuring, too – I mean actually changing the way departments run and running this County government more efficiently,” Elrich said.
One of the top priorities for the County Council in January will be finding a way to fund universal pre-kindergarten education. For many in the County, universal pre-K is the key solution to fixing the County’s racial and regional achievement gap in public schools.
One parent noted the lack of educational programs that are offered to students in the East County, saying there is a noticeable difference between the knowledge base of a typical student in the East County versus that of one in the wealthier parts of Montgomery County.
Elrich suggested that solution begins with universal pre-K.
“The more kids we get started at kindergarten at the same level as everybody else, the easier it’s going to be to keep those kids on level as they move through school,” Elrich said.
Elrich conceded that he and the County Council will be limited on what they can do for education, saying he can only “write a check,” but promised he would be more active in Annapolis, pushing the General Assembly and the Kirwan Commission, which will eventually determine the formula for state funding for public school throughout the state.