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As Long as We Remember...

February 7, 2011

Groundhogs and Promises

Michael Kurtianyk

Well, it’s been an interesting week here in Frederick County. We had a little bit of snow plus ice in some areas. And the Board of County Commissioners was hard at work fulfilling promises made during the campaign.


The groundhogs were pulled out in their sleep by serious men in serious black suits and serious black hats, with pronouncements as to whether we’d see more winter or less winter. Crowds formed at sunrise to look for a sign from a rodent to see what the meteorological future holds for them.


There is a famous one: Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, PA. He, or some version of him, has been around for 125 years. For the record, including his forecast last week, in which he did not see his shadow, Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow 98 times since 1887. According to legend, this groundhog celebration is a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on February 2nd, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend states that spring would come early that year.


I don’t know. There’s something about this groundhog that’s a bit pessimistic – only 16 early Springs in the last 125 years. Maybe it’s not the groundhog that’s pessimistic; maybe it’s the serious men in serious black suits and hats who see shadows at every turn.


There is a second groundhog that, though it hasn’t been around as long, is starting to gain traction: Mountain Maryland Murray. Do we take this rodent seriously? Murray is in Cumberland, a couple counties north and west of us. Unlike his cousin Phil, Mountain Maryland Murray saw his shadow last week.


This led me to think how we as people search for signs that could foretell our futures. We consult consultants; are advised by advisors; and are coached by coaches who help us read the signs that will take us to the next place. How is it working out?


The county and state budgets are like these searches for signs. What will the governor pass down to Frederick County? What will the county commissioners do? And then, what will the county’s departments do after that?


I don’t know. None of us knows yet. But in our search for meaning, the signs themselves are conflicting. It’s going to be a tough year, that’s for sure. But how bad? What do the signs say? Are things going to get worse? And when will things get better? What will be the signs that our economy is improving? No one agrees.


I mean, even the two groundhogs can’t agree: Murray saw his shadow. Phil didn’t. If these two rodents can’t agree, then what hope is there for us?


In Frederick County, we have our own signs. The new Board of County Commissioners seems to be doing what they said they’d do: usher in a business-friendly climate. On the day after Groundhog’s Day, the Board issued a press release, which said, in part:


“With the goal of improving the ‘business friendly’ atmosphere in Frederick County, the Board of County Commissioners today reviewed fee reductions and changes to rules and regulations that have been identified by the business community. The recommended changes are the start of a process to consider over 200 proposals to reduce, alter or eliminate rules and regulations to help improve county processes.


“Board President Blaine Young said, ‘Our initiative to work openly and collaboratively with businesses will help ease regulatory burdens during difficult economic times while at the same time making sure basic government oversight is maintained. Let it be known that we are “open for business” in Frederick County. We appreciate your business and want your business.’


“The board also approved an expedited commercial permit process, extension of development approval dates, plumbing code amendments and storm water management ordinance amendments.


The changes coincide with the Board of County Commissioners’ proposed strategic goal of providing improved predictability for businesses.”


Maybe the current board didn’t see shadows the morning before because it is trying to encourage businesses to come here. Maybe the board is optimistic that they can, as a government entity, bring more businesses here. This will take some time, but the decisions so far are a good first step.


In the board’s efforts to reduce government, it decided to consolidate the Planning, Economic Development, and Permitting and Review Divisions, as well as the Office of Environmental Sustainability into the Community Development Division. That agency will be headed up by Planning Director Eric Soter. He has been told to eliminate all deputy director positions. Six jobs will be eliminated, and is expected to save the county $630,000.


In addition, the Interagency Information Technologies Division is being reorganized, with two management positions to be eliminated, and six other jobs declassified. That means their salaries will be reduced to help the county save $320,000.


It’s not going to be an easy Spring for many, but times are tough. To their credit, our leaders have stepped up to reduce and reorganize. Most of us on the campaign last year told whomever would listen that cuts would need to be made. In the business community, the signs were there years before.


The county government is catching up now, acting on the signs they saw. They didn’t need rodents to help them read them.



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