County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater and state Sen. Michael Hough outlined their visions for Frederick County growth during a county executive candidate forum on Wednesday.
Fitzwater and Hough were granted two minutes to respond to questions on topics that included their first 100 days in office, housing, and property and recordation taxes.
“The biggest barrier in Frederick County is access to safe and affordable housing,” Fitzwater said. “It is a crisis.”
Fitzwater, an elementary school music teacher finishing her second four-year term on the County Council, said the county must increase the number of affordable housing options for residents.
Fitzwater has sponsored a trio of bills, working their way through the County Council’s legislative process, that she said will increase the number of moderately priced housing units in the county.
The bills, she said, will incentivize developers to build more housing options that “people can actually afford.” One bill would exempt developers from having to pay one of the county’s development fees for moderately priced dwelling units they build.
Hough, who since 2015 has represented Frederick and Carroll counties in the state Senate and was a one-term delegate prior to that, said Fitzwater’s bill would simply increase costs for potential home buyers and make neighborhoods more densely populated.
Hough, the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R–W.V., said the county government is at fault for shortages in affordable housing.
“The property tax burden is greatly affecting residents here,” Hough said. “You can’t talk about affordable housing and then turn a blind eye that you’ve been raising people’s property taxes.”
The county’s property tax rate has remained $1.06 per $100 of assessed value for the last eight years. Hough has said he would lower the county’s rate to the constant-yield rate of $1.02 per $100 of assessed value.
The constant-yield rate is the real property tax rate necessary to generate the same revenue from year to year. If tax revenue is expected to rise because of higher property assessments, the tax rate would drop to reach the constant yield.
Lowering to the constant-yield rate for this fiscal year’s budget would have decreased revenue by $13 million, according to the county’s staff. Fitzwater said during the forum that Hough has not made clear where he would cut funding to make up for lost revenue.
The Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, the Frederick County Building Industry Association and the Frederick County Association of Realtors hosted the forum at The Arc of Frederick County at Market Street.
The general election will be on Nov. 8.
Hough said the county must concentrate development in the municipalities and areas outside Frederick, which he said would lessen the burden on roads and schools.
He said the county should no longer direct a portion of the recordation tax toward an initiative for affordable housing.
Fitzwater pointed to services that the recordation tax has helped the county pay for.
Most of the county’s recordation tax revenue is used in the next fiscal year’s general operating budget, but a portion goes toward building schools, preserving farmland, buying open space and park land, and housing initiatives to construct more affordable units, Fitzwater said.
The two candidates also differed on changes they would make to the county’s adequate public facilities ordinance, which ensures that development doesn’t overburden resources like roads, schools, and water and sewer infrastructure.
Hough said that he wants to add funding for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office to the ordinance.
Fitzwater said she supports a review of the ordinance, but she did not outline any specific change she would seek.
If elected to the county’s top public office, Fitzwater said her first 100 days in office would include budget listening sessions in each of the five County Council districts to get input before drafting the county’s budget for the next fiscal year, which is among the first tasks the next county executive will undertake.
Fitzwater said she would also create an online dashboard to monitor progress the county has made implementing the Livable Frederick Master Plan, which the county adopted in 2019 to guide growth and development.
She said she plans to add a small business navigator to the county’s Office of Economic Development to guide small business owners looking to expand or locate in the county.
Hough said that, in his first 100 days, he would implement an immediate hiring freeze for county government employees as part of a larger effort to slow the rate of growth of the county’s budget.
The county’s budget for the fiscal year that began in July is 10% larger than last year’s. The budget grew 8% in 2021 and 4% in 2020.
He also said he would look at the county’s $20 million purchase of a 26-acre property along Himes Avenue, which includes a 209,000-square-foot facility currently used for COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
Frederick County officials have said the acquisition will help accelerate large projects, like relocating the county’s 911 call center and adding a library to the west side of the city.
It remains unclear whether a library will be constructed at the property. Frederick city officials have proposed three different sites for the library that they say will better serve residents.
Hough said that reevaluating how the county should use the space at Himes Avenue would be among his first moves as executive.