Candidates court older voters

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Robert Friedman

Republican Allan Kittleman and Democrat Courtney Watson will face off in the election for Howard County Executive on Nov. 4. Both have platforms that include expanded services for older adults, from transportation to continuing education.
Photos courtesy of Allan Kittleman and Courtney Watson

If Democratic candidate Courtney Watson is elected Howard County executive, residents 65 and over will get free transportation on regional buses, the county’s six senior centers will be transformed into centers for lifelong learning, and new programs will ease the burden on caregivers for the elderly and disabled.

The election of Republican Allan Kittleman as county executive will see the Office on Aging promoted to a cabinet-level department, the bus system expanded to include a “senior’s route” specifically going to health and community service agencies, and efforts being made to expand property tax credits for seniors.

Those are some of the salient points in the platforms for seniors being pushed by the candidates hoping to replace current county executive Ken Ulman, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket headed by current Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Both county council member Watson, 51, of Ellicott City, and state senator Kittleman, 54, of West Friendship, say they realize the major importance of the older vote.

Some 30 percent of the county’s 290,000 residents are 50 or older, according to Census figures. The 65-and-older senior population is expected to double by the time the 2030 elections roll around. And something the candidates keep in mind: A higher percentage of 55-and-older voters turn out to the polls than younger voters.

Both have records of service

GOP candidate Kittleman is not put off by the fact that about 48 percent of the county’s voters are registered Democrats, with 29 percent registered as Republican and 21 percent listed as unaffiliated. He noted that he won more than 60 percent of the vote in his last two elections in a district split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

“The voters of Howard County have a tradition of voting for the person rather than the party,” he said in a recent interview.

“They will vote for the best qualified for the position,” he said, pointing out that he has served in Annapolis as state senator for 10 years (2004-2014), and also as a Howard County Council member for six years (1998-2004).

Kittleman said that talks with county residents have convinced him that “they want elected officials to put away partisan politics and do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

He added, “I have relationships with, and a very good understanding of the working of, both the state and county governments.” This, he said, is of special importance because of increasing pressure by the state to get local governments to conform to its wishes.

Watson, meanwhile, told the Beacon that as a member of both the county council and the board of education she has helped make decisions “that have led to the wonderful quality of life we enjoy in Howard County.”

She added: “In contrast, my opponent has...a long history of conservative Republican votes, and has repeatedly voted against state dollars coming to Howard County for education and other critical services.”

On his website, Kittleman is described by a supporter as “a fiscal conservative who leans to the left on many social issues.” 

In 2011, he resigned his post as minority leader in the state Senate after fellow caucus members voiced discomfort with legislation he had pushed to recognize same-sex civil unions.

“I’m a social moderate, and I wanted to stand up for what I believe in,” he said at the time. “It is more important for me to stay true to my beliefs than it is for me to be the minority leader.”

Both candidates pledged to look long and hard at the Aging Master Plan being drawn up by a county advisory committee. The plan is being devised to meet the increasing needs of the county’s fast-growing older population by 2035.

Howard County Office on Aging Administrator Dayna Brown said the plan is expected to address five priorities that have been proposed and discussed by the Advisory Committee and Working Group that have been our community partners in the process: expanding housing options, improving transportation, making a healthy life “the default,” strengthening support for caregivers, and providing “civic education” (financial and retirement planning, long-term care, aging in place, etc.).

The plan will be released sometime in early November, Brown said.

Watson’s senior agenda

Expanding on her platform for seniors, Watson said that under her transportation plan, buses on the well-traveled Red route — with stops at Howard County Community College, the Columbia Mall, the Department of Social Services, and the Howard County office complex, among other places — will run every half hour on the hour, instead of hourly, the current schedule for all the area’s bus routes.

The free fares, which she proposes to have available to seniors from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and all day weekends, will only cost the county $15,000, she said.

Considering the comparatively very low cost, why wasn’t such a program put in effect before? Watson replied: “Sometimes things don’t cost as much as we think. I will be looking at using existing resources differently.”

Watson further noted that her plans to make senior centers lifelong learning hubs could include, among other things, higher-learning courses beamed in from local colleges, job opportunities for 55-and-older residents, as well as possibilities for volunteer work.

“Only 10 percent of our seniors go to the centers now. The centers need to be more relevant. I want to broaden their mission,” the candidate said.

Watson said she would also concentrate on affordable housing for seniors, and try to expand the tax credits residents are given for improving their homes.

“Support for caregivers also is a very big issue for me,” said Watson, who grew up in Clarksville and graduated from Atholton High School. She said her administration would make strong efforts to forge partnerships with faith-based organizations for caregiving needs. She would also make special efforts toward getting respite for caregivers.

Kittleman’s proposals

For Kittleman, raising the Office on Aging to cabinet level is a major priority. The new Department of Aging would be empowered to give more and better services to seniors as it coordinates its efforts with other cabinet-level agencies.

“This new department will have an equal seat at the table with other cabinet agencies,” enabling it “to give our aging community the attention it deserves,” said Kittleman.

He said another major item will be how to meet the “lack of affordability” concerns of seniors.

“Seniors fear their property taxes are too high, which is preventing them from being able to stay in the home in which they raised their children,” he said. “They want to reside near their children and grandchildren, but not enough affordable senior housing options are available to them. They also cannot afford the maintenance updates their home requires that would allow them to age in place.”

In a platform paper, Kittleman said that, among other things, the new Department of Aging would look for ways to expand property tax credits for seniors, let more middle-income seniors get tax credits for making age-related home modifications, and begin programs involving volunteers and local contractors “to assist elderly homemakers with essential home repairs at lower costs.”

Kittleman also vows to improve the county’s transportation system. He said if elected he “certainly” would look at the idea of free fare for seniors, but more important for him is to revamp routes so that the buses “make sure to go where the people want to go.” This would include devising a “senior route” that would stop at the various government, community and medical centers frequented by the county’s older residents.

Another plank for seniors in the candidate’s platform calls for new workforce training programs in the county’s community college and public schools “for young people pursuing careers in gerontology and care for seniors.”

“In my administration, the aging community is certainly going to be a high priority,” candidate Kittleman promised.