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Digital Counties Survey award considered a top measures of government technology performance

For the fifth year in a row, Baltimore County is ranked among the top ten counties in the nation according to the Center for Digital Government’s 14th annual 2016 Digital Counties Survey in conjunction with the National Association of Counties (NACo).

Among the counties that participated, Baltimore County earned the 6th place ranking in the category for counties with populations of 500,000 or more. The award recognizes counties considered to be “digital leaders” in terms of aligning technology initiatives with strategic priorities to provide significant cost savings and administrative efficiencies.

“We came in seventh place last year and have worked our way up to number six this year, thanks to our highly talented and dedicated technology staff here at the County,” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. “While the ranking is nice, it’s really gratifying that these outside experts recognize the tremendous strides we have made in harnessing technology to make our government work smarter and more efficiently so we can enhance the services we provide.”  

Enhancing lifestyle through technology

This year, the survey recognizes leading counties across the nation that focus their technologies and innovations to enhance the lifestyle of people in the county. Topics in the survey included: transparency in government, mobility and mobile application initiatives, citizen engagement, collaborative initiatives, cybersecurity, hiring and retaining competent staff, broadband and wireless infrastructure, efficiency, resiliency, and the use of innovative and best practices.

Baltimore County will be honored as a top-ranked county at the 2016 Digital Counties Survey Awards Reception during NACo’s Annual Conference & Exposition in Long Beach, California on July 23, and will receive the Digital Counties Survey Award. Additionally, winners will be featured in the Center’s best practices and thought leadership white papers.

The Digital Counties Survey is hosted by the Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies and best practices in state and local government. The organization also provides government, education and industry leaders with decision support, research and educational services to help them effectively incorporate new technologies in the 21st century. This survey is conducted in partnership with the National Association of Counties (NACo), a full-service organization that provides legislative, research, technical, and public affairs assistance to county governments.

At today’s work session before the County Council, Baltimore County Planning Director Andrea Van Arsdale delivered the following remarks in support of Source of Income legislation under consideration by the Council:

The Administration is requesting adoption of Bill 46-16 which will prohibit housing discrimination based on a person’s legal source of income.

I first want to thank the Council for its serious consideration of this legislation. I know that, like the Administration, you have received a lot of feedback regarding the bill, and your willingness to consider all of these opinions is much appreciated. The bill itself is very straight forward. It would make it unlawful for a landlord or a seller of a dwelling unit to refuse to consider the application of a tenant or homebuyer solely because the person’s income includes a public benefit such as medical assistance, a disability benefit, a housing subsidy, or a gift, pension, annuity, alimony, child support or the sale of property. That is what it is…no more, no less.

Currently, in Baltimore County is it illegal to refuse to rent or sell a home to a person because of race, religion, gender, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental or physical disability, or veteran status. With Bill 46-16, we are asking that this same right to fair housing include people whose household income may include a disability payment, a housing choice voucher, a pension, or medical assistance. We have heard in this chamber claims that this would be too bureaucratic, it’s governmental overreach, property values would be harmed, and it isn’t fair. We’ve heard those same arguments throughout this country’s history when African Americans, Catholics, women, Irish, Italians and other immigrant groups, or gay couples tried to relocate to different neighborhoods to better the lives of their families.

When we’ve met with Council members, the main point of discussion has been on the specifics of the Housing Choice Voucher program. Here are a few facts…

·         There are about 6,000 Baltimore County families using Housing Choice Vouchers. That is less than 2% of the total number of households in this County.

·         Most voucher holders have jobs and like many hard working Americans, they get up and go to work every day. The problem is they can’t get enough work or their jobs simply don’t pay enough to meet the housing costs in Baltimore County. And, just like many hardworking Americans these days, they need some help.

·         30% of the County’s voucher holders are elderly and 32% disabled

·         The Housing Choice Voucher program is federally funded, but it is managed on the ground by the Baltimore County Housing Office. There is no forced contract with the federal government. A landlord can easily pick up the phone and contact Marsha Parham, head of the County’s Housing Office, and her staff if there are any questions or concerns.

·         As Ms. Parham has said, the Housing Office screens for eligibility and landlords select for wonderfulness. Landlord may apply any normal tenant review that defines “wonderful” for them such as credit checks, references, criminal background checks, etc. I can’t emphasize this point enough. All of these landlord processes remain in place. Nothing in the bill changes that.

·         There are concentrations of poverty in Baltimore County. This is generally where housing costs are the lowest and where clusters of landlords accept Housing Choice Vouchers. There are other parts of the County where these same landlords will not accept vouchers. Without competition in the market place, people will remain trapped in the same places, areas of poverty will remain unchanged, and grinding disinvestment will continue.

But probably the most important fact is that by discriminating against poorer families, we may be denying their children the opportunity to better their lives and to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

In 2015, a Harvard study analyzing tax records from over 5 million children found that where children are raised does have an impact on their chances of moving up economically. In addition, the younger a child is when he or she moves to a neighborhood with more opportunity, the greater the income boost. Neighborhoods matter more for boys than for girls. In 2016, another Harvard study of children moving from low income to middle class neighborhoods was published. It found that children who relocated when they were younger than 13 made 31% more, on average, than their peers whose families were not given vouchers to move. The relocated children were also more likely to attend college and less likely to be single parents.

In closing, I would like to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, who said “In any moment of decision, the best thing we can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing we can do is nothing.”

Thank you very much for your consideration of this very important piece of legislation. 

Baltimore County again earns triple-AAA bond rating

In a unanimous vote on July 12, the Board of Trustees of the Baltimore County Employees Retirement System (BCERS) reduced the assumed investment earnings rate used to determine the annual required level of funding for the retirement system by the County. The rate was reduced from 6.75% to 6.375% effective immediately. This action is part of a continuing effort by Baltimore County to ensure that employee pensions are adequately funded and will be there for employees when they retire. 

The impact of this reduction in the valuation rate will occur in the FY2018 operating budget, when the County’s contribution to the retirement system is projected to increase by approximately $150 million based upon current information available from the system’s actuary. 

Bond Sale tied to reduction in valuation rate

In its most recent bond sale on July 18, 2016, the County sold $150 million of taxable general obligation bonds at 3.07%. The $150 million will be added to the retirement fund, saving the fund enough money in future payments to more than offset the cost of the bonds (a net $169 million).

“With true interest cost of the bonds at 3.07% and an expected rate of return on assets of 6.375% through the life of the bonds, the projected benefit of the bonds is more than $169 million,” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. 

“This is a good deal for employees and a good deal for County taxpayers,” added Kamenetz. “This is the fourth time that we have reduced the valuation rate in four years. We do so out of a commitment to our employees to ensure the safety and security of their pensions.” 

In 2012, the County’s valuation rate stood at 7 7/8%.

Baltimore County bonds again earn triple-AAA rating

The bonds are once again rated triple-AAA by Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s, the three major rating agencies. Triple-AAA is the highest rating possible and only 42 counties in the nation achieve this prestigious rating.

“There is nothing more important to our employees than to know that their government is working to guarantee funding for their pensions,” said Second District Councilwoman and Council Chair Vicki Almond. “I am proud that Baltimore County takes this responsibility seriously and that we continue to earn AAA bond ratings from all three rating agencies. The Council is pleased to work collaboratively with the administration on these very important issues.”

Excerpts from the rating reports

Moody’s cites the County’s following credit strengths: “very large tax base that serves as a regional economic and employment center, strong demographic profile and stable reserve levels.”  Moody’s added “The County’s currently healthy financial position has been supported by conservative budgeting practices and the maintenance of satisfactory fund balance levels…”    

In its report Fitch stated that “…the rating reflects the County’s broad and diverse economy, modest long-term liability burden, and strong control over revenues.”  Fitch emphasizes that “The County has exceptionally strong gap-closing capacity through a combination of budget control and reserve funding.”

Standard & Poor’s describes the County’s “very strong budgetary flexibility, very strong liquidity and very strong management,” indicating that “financial practices are strong, well embedded, and likely sustainable.” 

“In Baltimore County we continue to demonstrate that government can be fiscally responsible and at the same time make significant investments in public education and public safety, protect the environment, provide a social safety net for the most vulnerable among us, and rebuild our aging infrastructure. It is not an either/or choice,” concluded County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.


Revised April 6, 2016