Almost half of Frederick city families didn’t earn enough to afford basic necessities in 2014, according to a recent report published by the United Ways of Maryland.
Helping those families succeed was a common goal cited by candidates running for Frederick mayor and Board of Aldermen. But when it comes to accomplishing this mission, and how to pay for it, solutions varied.
The plight of residents who struggle to make ends meet served as the basis of a forum hosted by United Way of Frederick County and the League of Women Voters and moderated by Michael Powell, a political science professor at Frederick Community College.
Thirty-two percent of Frederick County’s 89,084 households — about 28,507 — in 2014 fell below the ALICE threshold, the report stated. That’s any person who earned less than $31,536, or combined earnings of $75,732 for a family of four, based on the report’s “survival budget” calculated using market conditions, growth rates, demographic realities and the cost of living in individual states, counties and even municipalities.
The prevalence of ALICE was even higher within the city limits: 43 percent of the city’s 27,209 households as of 2014.
Shrinking the gap in affordable housing that plagues the city and county was one solution shared among a host of candidates, and given a particular focus during the mayoral portion of the forum.
Mayoral candidate Michael O’Connor, a Democrat and current alderman, emphasized housing as the most basic human need, and one where the city falls short. He suggested density tax credits as one way to incentivize the development community to create more affordable-housing alternatives.
Mayor Randy McClement highlighted more projects like Sinclair Way, a workforce housing project developed by Conifer Realty with financial support from the city through revenue from fees charged to developers that don’t build the required affordable housing in new projects.
Increasing education options — both two- and four-year colleges and alternative skills training — was also a common answer among candidates for both offices, as was public transportation, senior citizen services and economic development.
As a person who has for much of his life earned below the $30,000 ALICE threshold, Republican Hayden Duke, a candidate for alderman, spoke of the solutions that would have helped him — expanding the MARC train system that connects Frederick to jobs in D.C., for example.
Fellow Republican aldermanic hopeful Bryan Chaney also drew upon personal experience. He suggested establishing a help desk to connect people in need to services, similar to a component of the business he and his wife own.
Maryland’s 211 call center service is one such centralized resource, responded Alderman Kelly Russell, a Democrat seeking re-election. Russell maintained that the city has a strong relationship with charities, although she suggested more pedestrian friendly transportation paths and incubator spaces for startup businesses as improvements that could also help ALICE families.
In addition to partnering with local charities, connections with the county, state and federal government were also crucial, according to Roger Wilson, a Democrat running for alderman. As an example, he cited expanding the state’s earned income tax credit program, which helps families who earn below a certain income recoup a portion of their income taxes.
Aldermanic candidates of both major political parties recommended tax credits for senior, a disproportionate number of whom fall below the ALICE threshold. Party divisions emerged more clearly in terms of funding for service agencies and programs, though.
Republican hopefuls leaned toward tax credit and tax reduction programs, while Democrats called for increasing program funding. Alan Imhoff, a Republican, also suggested revenue from the city’s parking decks as a source of funding for public transportation programs, while Chaney stated a preference for public-private partnerships.
Republican Nate Power called for eliminating pension taxes as a way to help struggling seniors.
Wilson, however, questioned the logic of tax cuts, noting that demand for services will only increase. And Ben MacShane, a fellow Democrat running for alderman, emphasized the importance of not leaving people behind.
MacShane referenced contacts in his cellphone, people he will never be able to call again because they have died from drug overdoses as example of what happens when people fall through the cracks.
Democratic incumbent Donna Kuzemchak suggested restoring a city shuttle between downtown and Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium, as well as the Golden Mile in west Frederick. It would come at a cost, she warned, although she also said the cost for public transportation would pay for itself in the long term.
Derek Shackelford called for the city to take a leadership role in working with other government and charitable organizations to accomplish these lifesaving services. Shackelford, a Democrat, suggested establishing a living wage and an innovation center to foster younger generations’ creativity as ways to bolster economic growth.
Political ideology was not as clearly a source of division between McClement and O’Connor as the difference between an incumbent and a challenger.
McClement defended many of the services currently provided, such as those under the Frederick Community Action Agency. He also highlighted the constraints of the city charter, which limit his ability as mayor to enact change in programs outside the city’s purview, such as the Frederick County TransIT program.
O’Connor, while acknowledging the limits of power and resources, spoke to the benefits of change and new ideas. While the city might not control the TransIT program, it can add public transportation via bicycle and pedestrian paths, he said. And it might be time to expand the Frederick Community Action Agency’s food bank program beyond a single location.
Shelley Aloi, a former alderwoman who lost to McClement in the Republican primary and has since launched a write-in campaign, also spoke in between the aldermanic and mayoral discussions. She highlighted the relevance of adverse childhood experiences in people’s need for social services later in life. Since city code does not require write-in candidates to file, voters can write in anyone’s name on the ballot to be counted.
Republican candidate Katie Bowersox did not attend the event.
The general election is Nov. 7, with early voting on Oct. 27 and 28. All registered city voters are eligible to cast ballots.