The candidates running to be the next Montgomery County executive all expressed optimism for the county’s future, albeit through different economic development strategies, during a Wednesday debate hosted by Bethesda Beat and the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce.
Independent candidate Nancy Floreen said she was pleased about the pace of construction projects happening in downtown Bethesda, including the future station for the light-rail Purple Line.
“When the dust settles, we’re going to have more employment and more affordable housing,” she said, in response to a question from moderator and Bethesda Beat Editor and Publisher Steve Hull.
Floreen and her County Council colleague, Democrat Marc Elrich, along with Republican Robin Ficker of Boyds are the three candidates running in the Nov. 6 general election. Roughly 75 people attended the event, which was held at the B.F. Saul Company’s headquarters in downtown Bethesda.
Floreen said the main challenge going forward would be coordinating construction in a way that didn’t interfere with pedestrian access.
Elrich said the county needs to create more mechanisms to stage development in a way that takes traffic into account, while Ficker accused his two opponents of pursuing policies that encouraged high-density projects. Ficker said he would push for more environmentally friendly practices in places like Bethesda.
“We’ve been building buildings too high that place our neighbors in the shade in the day,” he said. “My campaign signs are green. I want a green Montgomery County.”
The candidates were then asked about increasing impact taxes, which the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services imposes on new residential and commercial development to help fund transportation, school capacity and social service agencies. When asked whether the candidates would support increasing impact taxes on developers, Floreen said there is a “delicate balance” between providing the right incentives for developers and “having players contribute to the right infrastructure.” She said the bigger priority for county leaders is to expand the tax base.
Elrich, who has consistently said developers need to help pay for more infrastructure, said impact fees wouldn’t be the ultimate answer when it comes to helping lower taxes, noting that such policies had been tried under former County Executive Doug Duncan.
“You’re not going to get economic development in order to offset taxes … . That was the era [under Duncan] in which we spent the least amount of money on infrastructure in that time period,” he said.
Elrich, who has proposed restructuring government in order to save money and prevent a tax increase, elaborated Wednesday on his proposal by saying he would consolidate park and county police forces.
“I thought we could be more effective in using county police around the parks. That would get us more officers on the road without having to hire more officers,” he said.
Later Floreen criticized Elrich’s proposal by stating that “rearranging the deck isn’t going to change things.”
“This is not restructuring the deck chairs of the Titanic … . I have every intention of doing this differently and seriously,” Elrich replied.
Floreen also claimed Elrich’s proposal would lead to a 20 percent to 40 percent reduction of the workforce, which Elrich responded was a “flat out lie.”
When the candidates were asked what they would do to close the achievement gap in Montgomery County Public Schools, Ficker expanded on his previously stated idea of increasing the amount of time students spend in their school libraries by proposing “English Saturdays” for non-native speakers.
“To be successful in the United States, you’re going to need speak good English,” he said.
Elrich said he would expand early childhood education in the school system, while Floreen responded by saying that her first priority as county executive would be to make sure there is enough money in the budget for school construction.
A rare point of agreement for Floreen and Ficker was when the candidates weighed in on whether the sale of liquor in Montgomery County should be privatized, as opposed to continuing the Department of Liquor Control’s monopoly.
“There’s no reason for the government to be still in this business,” said Floreen, adding that she had evolved on the issue.
Ficker added he made an effort at privatization in the county when he was a member of the legislature in the 1980s, but was unsuccessful because he was told the change would have to be made at the state level.
Elrich said he opposed privatization.
“It would be nice for the county to have a source of revenue that did not come out of taxes,” he said.
Floreen, who entered the race in August after shedding her Democratic Party affiliation, was asked later in the debate why she continued to tout her experience as a “lifelong Democrat” in TV ads, despite now being registered as unaffiliated. She doubled down on her previous statements that Elrich and Ficker are too polarizing to be effective leaders.
“We’re all a little chagrined about this. Nobody thought I was going to do this this summer … . But the choices are too extreme, and that’s how people feel.”
Floreen said that if elected, she would re-register as a Democrat.
[Bethesda Beat’s 2018 General Election Voters’ Guide includes information about candidates running for Republican and Democratic nominations and in nonpartisan races in the Nov. 6 election]
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org