Tony Hausner’s Interview with County Executive Marc Erlich: Part 2

Tony Hausner is Founder, Safe Silver Spring and Past Chair AAII Chapter Leaders Executive Committee. He discussed with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich about issues facing the County. This is the second of a 2-part transcript of the interview. The interview covered topics of development in eastern part of the county, early childhood education and climate change.

Development in Eastern Part of the County:

Tony Hausner: Concerns have been raised about the eastern part of the county. Can you comment on what plans you have for that?

Marc Elrich: So when I got here, there were basically 4 major projects that were on the East side of the county and there was something that wasn’t yet initiated. So the first thing I did is I tackled working with Montgomery College on creating a campus on the East side. We needed a higher education facility on the East side. We need people to be able to get to these facilities. If you’re up on Colesville Road, the further you get outside the Beltway, the further removed you are from you being able to get to any college. So, we’re going to get the campus on the east side of the county, and I think that’s going to be big. It’s going to help the kids in high school programs and the college will help them link to programs in the college. I’m hopeful but I don’t run the college.

However, we have talked to them about focusing program development on areas in this county where we know we have job deficits. Particularly, with people of color who don’t have the opportunities to get jobs, and so whether it’s nurses or hospital technicians, whether it’s people who work in labs or do manufacturing. They don’t actually need graduate or college degrees. We want to be able to supply organizations like to Amazon. We want to give technical training to people who study at Montgomery College so they can get jobs. You want to do it on the east side of the county because they’ve kind of been neglected. So, I think there’s a synergy between educational development and economic development.

The other thing as to the economic projects on the East side, when I came, it was going nowhere; that’s just the fact. There’s you haven’t broken anything. They still have unresolved issues. We were told when Viva White Oak was approved that the development would happen almost instantly. There were all these people who were going to come here. It’s just the fact that people can say it’s not true, but it is true and you know this from the Council hearings. They haven’t approached us and they haven’t approached the Economic Development Corporation for any friendly assistance or anything, so I really don’t know what’s going on there. I can tell you that this week we brought them a potentially large project but I can’t say what it is. We’re going to meet next week, and if they’re interested, we may get a breakthrough in terms of a big development on their property, and that would be good because I still have $40 million sitting in the fund for the infrastructure that they’re going to need, and that’s something from the legacy from this county when Ike was County Executive.

The other projects at the Gateway and New Hampshire Avenue. When I got here that was stuck. Not going anywhere. I sat down with our folks in transportation and our planning folks and worked with the company that was doing development and found solutions that would work. Then we supported them in front end planning and their project is going forward. I was there this week for the announcement that their apartment building is going to be 100% powered by electricity, no natural gas, and one building will be entirely powered off of solar. So that’s one project with retail and other stuff because that project was not going anywhere. A second project was the Town Center on Colesville Road and they were also stuck between us and Park and Planning. I sat down again with the developer personally and worked with my staff to figure out how to resolve these buildings. They were able to solve the problem. We got a very nice note from the developer from doing that and they were able to move forward with Park and Planning.

The third project is Burtonsville, which as we all know has languished, I guess forever. Since the shopping center was allowed to move across the street, the relatively new shopping center which had been in Burtonsville. We have a developer for that piece of land that wants to build 2 apartments buildings and a structured parking garage and Edens has a deal with a grocery store building. And so that process will go forward and I was again personally involved working with the Edens to try to move this project forward and we’re now able to move it forward. So three out of four. How was it when they’re moving there was not a problem working with the developer? We’re still waiting for Jonathan to bring us something to work with. If he brings us something to work with then we will work with him like we would with everybody else.

We’re also modifying the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) which I would say the design was a low-level efficiency. It runs in mixed traffic South of New Hampshire Ave and we’re now doing the study to take BRT out of in mixed traffic south of New Hampshire Ave. I’ve got a long-term vision that actually gets it off the shoulders as well because it’s not the best place to have it running. I think we’re going to make progress on this. We’re starting to get interest from the state in helping us fund some of these projects that we’ve never gotten before. So, I think with a new governor, and hopefully if it’s a Democratic Governor, that they’ll understand the value of making investments in Montgomery County.

I always remind people, even folks from other sections of the State that you actually want Montgomery County to succeed, because a lot of the tax money in the state has come from us. so, it would be more money to report to the state treasury. The more money there is to help you with your project. And without Montgomery County money, then the whole state suffers from lack of resources to do the things they want to do, so they don’t have to do good because they like us. They should just not turn down these projects as they benefit from our success. I’m happy to have them benefit from our success. I just would like them to think less chronically and more openly about how this benefits everybody in the state. The more money they get from Montgomery County, the more the state benefits from these resources. They should not do this because they like us. It’s because we all benefit in this together. I just want them to think less parochially and more how this benefits everyone together.

Early Childhood Education:

Tony Hausner: Tony Hausner: Let me turn to another topic: what have you done about early childhood education?

Marc Elrich: So, when I ran for election, I told people it was not going to make a Christmas tree of promises. It’s not exactly the most thrilling thing to people when you run out of money. I wanted to make sure we can do two things. We can do transit forward because we weren’t far enough in design and that we would continue to invest in early childhood education. So I’m a former teacher so to me early childhood is the absolute essential ingredient in getting all kids to get to grade level by the time that they start to enter kindergarten. If they don’t start doing that, it becomes increasingly difficult to narrow the gaps for children to make up for what they didn’t learn. Especially the older they get and children who start out on a level playing field in kindergarten: who can understand letters and understand what you need to know about numbers.

I’m not talking about having them at the second-grade level but getting the basics of all of this stuff. For these kids it makes it easier for them to access information and learn. If they don’t have that, they struggle and you know I taught 4th and 5th fifth grade. I had students who were still functioning at the 1st and 2nd grade level because they had never gotten the foundational stuff in the curriculum. And there is not a lot of time to teach the foundational stuff when you are supposed to be working on the regular curriculum. So we continue to make investments. We update by $5,000,000 a year for the first 3 years despite this being a really hard time. The first year we had a budget shortfall caused by the previous budget. And then the second figure is just by providing decisions that have limits, as a result of Covid spending, we kept most of the same services so that I could continue to make those increases.

This year we put $20 million. We need to increase the number of seats in the county. We need to really think about what we’re doing. I am pushing people to work with the school system and the school system wants to go into this space. But there’s an inherent problem that you wonky people out there understand. A lot of child care providers handle both infants and young kids. Children under 2 require different ratios as to staff. So, for a lot of people, that ratio would never pay for itself. You know that you don’t get enough for the child care for an infant in order to pay for the service, and so it’s partly subsidized by the rate for the older kids. If the school system tries to provide all the early childhood slots, there is no way folks who are providing infant care will still to be able to support the infant care, so we want to coordinate it.

We need to have a balanced system so we can serve everyone. I wish we could do what D.C. did but I don’t have the $20 billion budget. I have a $6 billion budget. That’s the glory of DC being a state to get access to stuff, that we don’t get that access. I think you know we need to. We need to make this as affordable as possible. We need to make this as affordable as possible and to reach as many people as possible and we need to reach the earlier than 4th grade. Four years old is not really early enough. We really ought to be out there at one and two years old, or at least the two year old space. So, we can make sure that we can provide three years of foundational learning and help these kids be successful. So that’s something I’m committed to. I’m going to continue to work with our folks in the school and the private providers to make sure we can create a system that’s inclusive and that we don’t want to end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Climate Change:

Tony Hausner: Please tell me about your climate change plans.

Marc Elrich: You know when I was on the Council, we passed the resolution which came with no action. It was just we need to reduce by whatever by 2720 100% by 2035 but we had no way of getting there. I think all of us knew and we were told that this was an extraordinarily difficult lift. A couple of us on the council were making the point, but it didn’t start with everybody. The couple of us made the point that if you have a modest goal that you can achieve, then you may achieve that and then say, well, that’s my goal for 2027. If I make it then we can go on cruise control. And the fact is, you need to set a goal that it’s going to be very hard to achieve. You don’t set goals that you’re certain of achieving. If you are in a crisis, you set a goal to deal with the crisis. We’re in a major crisis. We set a goal to deal with the crisis and we wanted to move as far down the track as you can go to at least for part of the situation. But you can never look at what you’ve done and say well that’s enough. So, we had a very aggressive plan instead.

My first year in office, we created a Citizen Group. We went out and brought them information and asked them to help us craft goals. I am a big believer in doing that. I didn’t want to start with a professional consulting firm. I wanted to end up with a comprehensive plan and then develop an action plan. Which is what we are doing. I got criticized for taking so long and for taking funds out of the budget for the citizen group. I got criticized because I took money for things to do something called the climates out of the budget. This is a budget that I had to cut $90 million out, because of the revenue shortfall we had. And I felt that since we didn’t have any plans yet. What you need to do to is get the plan that will save money. And not hiring somebody who basically had nothing to do. And so we focused the money on things that the budget needed. But we kept this citizen working group working on the plan. They gave us their report that we went over with the consultant which we did hire at that point and they helped us prioritize and develop a plan from the first draft. I felt the fhe first draft was not as specific as it needed to be, so the second draft was more specific. It is still a very aggressive plan.

My charge to my staff has always been don’t write a plan that you think will get passed. Don’t make those compromises. Develop the plan that we need and let other people make those compromises but don’t compromise it ourselves because all that means is you’re going to get less than you need, so let’s have the full discussion about a plan. Let’s talk about what’s going to be the plan. That’s kind of been our approach. It is to not compromise things. So when we did the International Green Building code, we were already under the Green Building code. However, major compromises were made to the bill when it passed when I was on the Council and the administration sent over a bill that was much weaker than the original language. When it came to my staff, this time I said don’t weaken it. If somebody wants to weaken it, let them weaken and then everybody will know that it was weakened. But I do not want that done by our hand. And the Council passed a very strong green building bill. And we did the same thing with building energy performance standards. We put out very aggressive standards. With the same direction about no watering down. No precuts in our shop. Let them see what we needed to do and let’s have a discussion.

One of the dangers when people anticipate opposition, and you start watering stuff down. You never know whether you actually could have won the argument. This is why it is important to do it this way. So we put forward a pretty aggressive plan, and so we have the green building code we wanted for new buildings. And we have the depths building energy performance standards for existing buildings. The Council put money aside and provided some direction. Especially trying to target money for low income housing, for example, where you notice privately owned. There’s chapters in that for equity. We do not want to displace people when there is climate change. I’m not interested in, you know, fixing up the building and then as the saying goes you can’t afford to live here anymore. That would be, I think, really tragic and would be very bad for the county. So we have money in the plan to help with transitions. Both the private sector and for affordable housing nonprofits. So they can make this transition and I will say that you know technological changes have made things that we didn’t even think about 3 years ago as being possible. If you notice our climate plan, the first chapter is about equity.

Our bus fleet will basically be electrified and our vehicle fleet will be electrified. The schools took advantage of a program that involves tax credits and basically leasing buses from the company that I told them about that provide tax credits. We don’t pay taxes on the school buses so we don’t get the tax credit directly, but the bus company gets a tax credit and lowers the price to us. We’re also looking at that in principle for other purchases where we don’t need to own the asset. We just need to get a cleaner asset. I’ll do that.

Are we done or do we know some of the biggest affordable solar projects in the country? This was sadly limited to six megawatts. It could have been more than three times that today. As the state regulations is limited as to the size of the solar, they just raised the limits from 3 to 5 megawatts. So we have three sites out there. We’re going to go back, and we’re going to apply to up in all 3 sites. shower. All our new buildings will be net zero. Other buildings are being renovated to bring them up to energy performance standards. We’ve hired hydrologists to work with us in identifying our weaknesses in terms of flooding. Where the floodplains are and what we need to do. And you have got to look at this bigger than where the street that flows. You have to look at the whole watershed direction for all the water to the places that flood. Which is what we’re going to be doing, so they’re only prioritizing the areas and identifying high priority projects that could be done right away. So I’d say that we’re pretty deep into this. And what do we shut down? We are redoing our waste facility in order to shut down the incinerator. So as soon as we can, we will trigger the timeline to shut down the incinerator.

The Council and I have started this process. Hopefully the solar field can be up when the incinerator is shut down. Right now we have started a food composting pilot which I am hoping becomes the policies for private and residential. This is, we believe, has the potential to use the digester which we believe can produce a clean fuel to use to run our buses on and at worst results in high composting. And it is not just leaves and mulch but includes other organic matter. So I’m optimistic about where we’re going. Our other goals for 2027 are tough but I am optimistic. You know we’re going to get a boost from the auto industry as they shift over to electric cars and there are sectors that I’m pretty sure we can get to if we don’t achieve the goal by 2027, you can certainly get our goals by 2035. I think buildings, both residential and commercial are manageable.

I think vehicles are manageable especially if dealers only sell electric cars. However, I think the problem is the grid and the grid is only 30% of our energy.
Most of our grid is natural gas, coal and nuclear, with a smattering of solar and wind. But Montgomery County becomes the buyer for all electricity. Montgomery County the city’s the new regular group where a pilot for Community Choice Energy and we’re going to be a pilot in the state, and we’ll have the entire buying power of Montgomery County to put out there. To solicit bids from energy companies, and I’ve already been contacted by some clean energy companies, who said they’re interested in this. You know, that suffering us? I’m sure we’re going to be walking into a competitive market when you’ve got a million residents, and you’ve got almost 400,000 residential buildings and tons of commercial buildings. Somebody is going to want this business. And I think that being in this position consciously favor things that are playing to help us speed the transition to clean energy. One reason I’m motivated is I put solar on my roof less than 2 months ago. I’m already seeing that this will pay for itself which is pretty remarkable when a whole lot of rooftops could do this.

Where the county has to get involved, then we get into the cost of putting this together. I would love to have the grid go clean. And that’s what community choice energy could get us so that I could focus the money we need to invest on helping people transition their buildings. Because that’s not going to be a cheap proposition for a lot of people. And if I don’t have to build the clean energy, if I can buy the clean energy, residents can make individual choices. Which I hope they continue to do to accelerate the clean energy to their home. I think we actually have a path to getting there, so we’ll know in a year or so. While we can get on the market more clean energy is coming on the market every year, so this is far different than even what it was three years ago. So I’m an optimist. Sounds like you’ve got a not for life.

Tony Hausner: Sounds like you have a lot going reclean energy. I am impressed with your climate change program.

Marc Elrich: So, we talked about a lot of stuff we’re doing and I want to point out to people that as disruptive as COVID was. And a lot of places just weren’t able to manage it, we did manage COVID, but a lot of other things went by the wayside. We made a decision and I told people in the very beginning I told them every problem that was facing us when I got elected would be staring at us. When we get out of COVID, so I wanted everybody to keep planning and figuring out what we would do. And I would move the needle forward and whenever we have the opportunity to move the needle forward and not wait till the end of the covenant. So covid is over now, so we’re going back to work. Everybody’s job in the real world, adjusting real challenges remained the same during COVID and we continued to work as we could and still manage this miserable disease. Thank you so much, thank you.

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