911 service and cell towers improvements on agenda for Maryland counties

By Diane Rey

For Maryland Reporter

The Maryland Association of Counties is pushing for improvements in the state’s 911 system, among other priorities, while the Maryland Municipal League has just one goal during this General Assembly session: to protect local authority in deciding where small cellular towers will go around the state.

Both groups pushed their legislative agendas at a briefing before the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday which also included an overview of state aid to local governments by legislative analysts.

MACo wants to see the state move to the Next Generation of 911 service (NG911) to enable the public to transmit text, images, video and data to emergency call centers.

“The system (in Maryland) has really not changed in 40 years,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, president of MACo this year.

Reviving funding for local health departments in the face of the opioid epidemic is another MACo priority. According to their briefing paper, local health department funding is 23% lower in FY2019, at $51.4 million, than it was in FY2008, at $67 million.

“Our needs have increased substantially in the last 11 years, but our funding is significantly less than it was,” said Sharon Green Middleton, a member of the Baltimore City Council and MACo first vice president.

Besides increasing public funding of local health departments, MACo is advocating targeting drug treatment funding to where it’s needed most.

“More people die from overdose than homicide” in Baltimore City, said Middleton. “Opioid overdose is a public health crisis.”

Impact of Kirwan

MACo Executive Director Michael Sanderson encouraged them to continue the state’s commitment to education, another of the organization’s legislative priorities.

“The 2016 Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education will recommend major shifts in the relative role of state and local funding in each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions. At the same time, the 21st Century School Facilities Commission and its legislative outcomes recommended an increased annual State contribution for capital projects and required ongoing study of school construction project funding and priorities,” according to MACo’s briefing paper.

In response to a question about the Kirwan Commission report and what counties may be asked to contribute, Glassman said they met with House and Senate leaders last week. With some analysts forecasting a coming recession and talk of a $1 billion state budget deficit next year, he said, “We’re waiting for the details… We are quite concerned.”

CORRECTION: Bill Jorch, MML’s manager of government relations for Maryland Municipal League, lobbying voice for Maryland’s 157 incorporated cities and towns, said this was the only year the organization has come to Annapolis with just one priority – to preserve the ability of local jurisdictions to determine where small cellular towers can be installed.

MML’s briefing paper states that recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission threaten existing local authority, and a bill introduced last year (SB 1188/HB 1767) sought to streamline and make uniform the local permitting and installation of small cell facilities.

In reality, the bill preempted local governments in almost every aspect including important safety and aesthetic components such as zoning and right-of-way access.”

MML anticipates following two bills this session, one he said that gives the wireless communications industry the power to circumvent local municipalities’ rights-of-way in setting up these small cell facilities and another supported by MML “that preserves local land use authority and encourages partnerships with industry on these small cells.”

Jorch said expanding wireless service is a priority as local governments compete to attract new businesses.

“Wireless connectivity is a real selling point,” he said.