Navigating Multiple Priorities: Counties and the Challenge of Limited Resources

This article is part of MACo’s Deep Dive series, where expert analysts explore and explain the top county issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Deep Dives.

Local autonomy is a core principle of Maryland’s political system. At its most basic level, local autonomy means empowering county leaders to solve county problems. This empowerment lends counties a unique and, at times, misunderstood perspective. Often, advocates and stakeholders have noble but singular goals: saving the bay, classroom sizes, housing for all, etc. While the goals listed (and many more unlisted) are virtuous, they are frequently in competition. Advocates sometimes use “local autonomy” as a guise to push competing goals through, arguing that the role of counties is to work through any complications and to produce locally crafted solutions. While counties can find a middle path in many circumstances, some of the most vexing issues cannot be solved quickly. Not every decision is a zero-sum game, but successful policy must be developed with externalities in mind and a recognition that, on occasion, certain priorities will naturally need to win out over others.

Real-World Policy Competition

Economic Development & Environment

Economic development and environmental goals are prime examples of goal competition. Nearly every elected leader, from Congress to County Council, would love to tout a strong economy. Development leads to more population, more investment, and more amenities. However, development policies of the past did not consider the environment. This has led to a loss of forests, an unhealthy Chesapeake Bay, environmental justice concerns, and an overall less healthy ecosystem – all of which hurt future economic development.

One prime example of this competition is the question of how quickly to adopt building energy performance standards (i.e. local policies that create energy efficiency standards for buildings). These standards will likely add some cost to new construction and retrofitting existing structures, but higher energy performance means reduced fossil fuel use and a healthier environment. To add an extra layer of complexity, counties are also competing with other jurisdictions and regions. If counties make the cost of doing business more expensive than their neighbors, they risk losing out on future investment.

There are also questions about whether to restrict investment along some coastal regions due to sea level rise. The market economy of the moment typically values waterfront property, but what public resources should be invested in areas that may be underwater in future generations? While development in these at-risk areas will drive growth, county leaders must consider how long the boom will last and the cost of relocating residents and businesses when sea level rise eventually threatens to make these areas uninhabitable.

Adequate Public Facilities Ordnances (APFOs)

Another example of a push and pull between stakeholders and counties is adequate public facilities ordinances or APFOs. APFOs are policies that limit growth in certain areas to prevent straining public services. Counties exist to provide certain core functions, primarily infrastructure development, public safety, public health, education funding, and land use. The theory behind APFOs is that when growth outpaces a county’s ability to provide services, the quality and effectiveness of those services are significantly reduced. Certain advocates will counter that higher growth means more resources to expand services. The major problem with this counter argument is that it fails to consider externalities – if a community cannot hire enough police, fund wastewater treatment upgrades, and/or build more school capacity now, there is no guarantee that the growth from removing APFOs will be enough to ensure an adequate expansion of services.

Housing is among the hottest topics in the statewide, and national, policy debate. And the desire for affordable or achievable housing is usually the main reason APFOs and similar growth-pacing laws are debated. According to some projections, Maryland will need to generate roughly 120,000 units to meet anticipated housing demand. The question for many counties is not just where to develop new housing stock, but after that stock is established and the population grows, how will that community function? Housing advocates focus on one part of the problem – housing development. Counties do not have that luxury of single-focus and must, by design, consider many other factors. Both goals are noble: homes for everyone and quality public services. But there will be times when tradeoffs will need to be made. Does a community value unchecked growth over classroom ratios, emergency service response times, hospital capacity, sewer capacity, and a whole host of other services that will likely be diminished due to increased demand?

Two Things Can Be True at Once

There is often a narrative that counties are against “x” when the reality is much more complicated. Maryland’s political system gives counties an outsized role in policy and service delivery, and this empowerment gives counties a unique perspective. The goals outlined above are all noble, as are an infinite number of other causes and objectives. But the reality for all of Maryland’s 24 counties is that money, time, and staff capacity are finite. This reality is also true at the state and federal levels. These limitations are not to be taken as excuses not to do the hard tasks of governing, but they are realities that must be considered. To meet the challenges of today, we must be more holistic and aware of externalities. That is the cornerstone of sound policymaking, and the challenge that faces the leaders of today, and tomorrow.