Brandon Russell is a lifelong St. Mary’s County Resident vying for a seat on the Board of County Commissioners.

In 2005, he graduated from Chopticon High School. Later that year, his Dad unexpectedly died from a heart attack. Over the next eight years, he worked to pay his way through college, earning an Associate’s Degree from the College of Southern Maryland and a Bachelor’s Degree in English from the University of Maryland University College.

Russell is running in District Two against incumbent Michael L. Hewitt.

1. What policy changes or investments are necessary to encourage broader Employment?

As Commissioner, I would work with the Department of Economic Development to identify ways to promote employment across all business sectors in the county. Currently, DED offers some incentives for businesses, like tax breaks for revitalizing an abandoned space, but these incentives often require a huge upfront cost from the business itself. If we want a diverse business community, we need to look at how to attract and retain the businesses we want in our area. For example, finding ways to attract youth-oriented businesses that will provide activities and a positive outlet for our younger residents. 

I also think we can strengthen our partnerships between SMCPS and the business community to promote internship programs that can lead to career development. Our students should be able to remain local and participate in our economy instead of having to look elsewhere for a career.

2. What one part of county government would receive more attention if you were elected?

I don’t think any one part of the county government would receive more attention when I am elected. Government should operate as a nexus for resources and programs. That is, we should connect our residents with things they need. I’m determined to examine where local government is succeeding, and falling short, in this respect and then work to correct those issues.

3. Do you plan to promote any changes to existing taxes? If so, why?

The Commissioners have had the chance to enact property tax breaks for disabled veterans and public safety officers. Instead, they have let those initiatives gather dust on their desk. When I’m elected, I will prioritize the implementation of these property tax breaks. Our veterans have sacrificed so much for our country, which should not be ignored. The tax break for public safety officers would help improve housing affordability, specifically owning a home, leading to increased retention on our police force. 

4. Are county land-use regulations and permitting processes doing enough to assure the public interest, or are they too onerous?

Permitting processes have improved recently, but we can optimize them further. The county paid for the Zucker Report a few years ago, which identified changes needed to improve the customer experience our residents have when interacting with the county government. Not all of these recommendations have been acted upon, so when I’m elected, I will prioritize implementing any feedback from that report which would improve our processes for residents.

5. What do you see as the county’s most pressing needs for infrastructure or capital projects?

Our infrastructure upkeep is very far behind. Our growth rate has exploded compared to the ability of the county to provide needed services to residents. For example, there is a list of road culverts that need to be replaced by the Department of Public Works and Transportation. They only receive enough funding to replace one a year–and there are about 20 on the list. If an emergency happens (say a flood collapses a culvert), then that situation goes to the top of the list. At this pace, it will take 20 years to replace all of these culverts, even though many have already been due for replacement. This is not sustainable. 

6. Should the county be encouraging building and development?

The county’s primary income is from the tax base, which is made up of taxes paid by residents and businesses. That’s why the county government does things to encourage businesses to build and develop here. The county also relies heavily on businesses to pay for infrastructure upgrades. We need to better manage growth and development with what services we can provide for our residents. Our current pace of growth is continuing to put us behind in meeting this goal. We need responsible, smart growth that is intentionally balanced.

7. Should county commissioners write and adopt specific policies, or should the policies’ details be crafted and implemented by boards, commissions, or outside specialists?

Currently, the Commissioners hear recommendations from residents and county department directors on changes that need to be made to policies and procedures. The appropriate department will draw up the proposals and recommend a change in our ordinances or county government policy to the Commissioners. This is a solid process when people have the opportunity to provide feedback. However, there have been instances where it hasn’t worked–the commercial building in Abell is one example. 

We need a proactive mindset at county government that can identify and anticipate policies and procedures that will need updating as state law changes and/or the requirements and needs of our residents evolve.

Budgeting

A second important duty of county commissioners is to construct, approve and implement a budget. Here are some questions to establish their experience with budgeting and their stance on issues that may arise during the budgeting process.

8. What is your experience with preparing or authorizing budgets?

My past work experience has included managing budgets while I was the store manager for a national retail pharmacy chain. I was required to examine sales numbers and ensure our payroll and expense budgets aligned with what we could afford. This included managing thousands of dollars on a daily and weekly basis. I was consistently working to find ways to streamline our processes and make our daily work more efficient to provide a better customer experience. I run operations and logistics for a local, veteran-owned small business. My responsibilities include many of the same things I have experience with from past positions. 

9. What are your views on the county’s current level of public debt?If new resources were available, what one area of county services would you feel most needs additional resources?

Debt is necessary for running the government, but it should not be out of control. We need to borrow responsibly to complete county projects. I appreciate the work that has gone into ensuring we have a solid bond rating, enabling us to borrow money at a lower interest rate. However, I will note that we may not need so much debt if proper planning had been completed. The county population has quickly outgrown the ability of our government and other agencies to provide services. This includes the upkeep of infrastructure and public safety.

10. Should any part of the county budget be shielded from cuts? And if so, which area?

We should never cut the services we provide to residents unless that service is unnecessary or inefficiently administered. The budget, in general, is funded with the idea that each department provides specific services for our community. But as needs evolve, so, too, must the budget.

11. What element of the county’s government is most effective, and why?

County government is most effective at keeping people out of the process. There are several reasons for this. First, the Commissioners used to host many public forums throughout the year, and now they only hold four–one per quarter. They also hold public hearings for feedback on proposed policy changes or decisions, but these are often held during the morning while most people are at work. This does not really allow residents to speak before the Commissioners on these issues. Much information is provided online through BoardDocs, but navigating the county website can be a chore. We must explore ways to make this information more easily accessible and understandable for the people of St. Mary’s County.

12. Are county taxes too high, about right, or pleasantly low?

The county income tax is now 3% after being recently lowered by one-tenth of one percent. This rate is about mid-range when compared to the other counties in Maryland. The current Commissioner Board raised taxes during its first year, then subsequently lowered them again before the election. The Commissioners have voted to increase property taxes two years in a row. The income tax cut equals about $18 per resident, while property taxes went up by hundreds of dollars depending on the value of a person’s property. Property tax breaks are currently on the Commissioner’s table for disabled veterans and public safety officers that they have failed to act on for several years. 

I am a firm believer that we can do more for our citizens with the income we have, we need a different mindset and approach at the Commissioner table to get it accomplished.

Management

County commissioners are also responsible for the county’s workforce. Below are some questions that inquire into views about staffing priorities and public administration in general.

13. What is an appropriate ratio of local government employees to constituents?

14. When managing public agencies, is it better to have more employees at a modest wage or few employees at a wage high enough to attract quality Applicants?

15. Would citizens get more effective services at a better rate if more county functions were accomplished by contracting with private providers?

Since the three questions above are closely related, I’d like to answer them as a group.

The number of employees in government should be based on the number of services needed to maintain a functioning society and assist residents. This is why it is so important to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of government in general. I worked in retail for years, and the mindset was, “How can we do the most for our customers with the fewest employees?” In other words, pushing more responsibility on fewer employees. This isn’t the way to do things. Too few employees with too many responsibilities lead to burnout and frustration, which translates into poor customer service. As with many things, there is a fine balance to be struck in this situation.

I’ve heard Commissioners advocate for giving employees overtime so they will work more to meet the needs of residents. But let’s be real–people don’t want overtime. They want to work their regular schedule and find a way to achieve a good work/life balance. Overtime doesn’t allow you to do that, leading to burnout more quickly.

Our county government has many positions currently open, some of which have been vacant for months. This means other people have to absorb the duties of that position to ensure their needs are met. Recruitment and retention are affecting more than just county government–it’s also responsible for vacancies at the Sheriff’s office and many private employers in our area. What is the answer?

The answer is providing a competitive wage and work environment with a strong surrounding community where people want to live. We consistently lose county employees to other jurisdictions for these reasons. Stopping that loss will require investment in our future to attract professionals who will succeed in these positions.

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David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...

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