Wicomico council facing big decisions in coming weeks

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The stretch from February through June is normally the busiest time for Wicomico’s County Council, as the seven members make hard decisions about spending on big-ticket projects, prepare for the fiscal budget that begins July 1, work with state legislators on local bills in Annapolis and decide whether to put their own imprint on the funding of the public schools. 

All of this occurs while council members are also reacting to initiatives put forth by the County Executive and deal with a long list of pending challenges that have seen internal divisiveness. 

Capital spending

Decisions about what exactly to put at the front of the line in the Capital Budget Plan are perhaps the most challenging. Projects including a new Public Safety Building, improvements at the county’s regional airport, and funding construction of a new middle and high school in Mardela Springs lead the list.

How much to borrow and spend on each project over the next few years is the debate. With Wicomico’s tax and fees revenues likely to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, county officials can’t easily project how full the county’s coffers will be in the short term.  

A complicated formula based on tax receipts currently limits the county’s capital borrowing to about $232 million. The county is already carrying a capital debt of $116 million.

Throw in projects already approved this year -- $7.7 million for schools, $5.2 million for Phase 1 planning of a new Sheriff’s Public Safety Building and $800,000 for airport improvements -- and the borrowing capacity as of June 30 will be $133 million.

Among the biggest projects being requested for the coming fiscal year:

  • $19.6 million for the Public Safety Building, on which the county will have spent $30.8 million by 2026.
  • $5.4 million for an Applied Technology Training Building at Wor-Wic Community College.
  • $16.4 million for school buildings, including $4.7 million to complete construction of a new Beaver Run Elementary and $10 million for the first stage of a new Mardela Middle and High School (on which the county will have spent $28.8 million by 2026.
  • $15.3 million for a runway extension at Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport (various airport projects are slated to require $63.9 million by 2026).

The council traditionally makes its capital spending decisions in February so that the County Executive, Finance Director and County Attorney can meet with bond traders in the spring. Recently, however, the council agreed to delay its capital spending approval until June 1.

Airport water

The much-misunderstood initiative to deliver municipal water to the county airport recorded yet another hiccup in recent weeks.

The council had to agree to move $200,000 from contingency funds to further finance the $4.7 million project.

Routine engineering change orders were the primary reason for the infusion, but $45,000 was attributable to work suspension caused by the council’s hesitancy to give ultimate approval to an agreement with the city of Salisbury.

Unfounded concerns about a possible city annexation of properties adjacent to the airport caused a political backlash, which took several weeks to sort through and forced the project’s contractor to halt construction.

Horizon Project

Salisbury’s City Council has already approved a new program that offers tax incentives for Downtown apartment and hotel projects; the city is hoping to win county support to ease the program’s sign-off in the General Assembly.

Called HORIZON – which stands for Hotel Or Residential Incentive Zone -- the up-front property tax break is intended to stimulate new development by offering city property tax abatements that lower the amount of taxes owed for a specified period of time. City officials hope it will help spur development in the city’s core.

Developers of several Downtown projects, including Nick Simpson, who is building the multi-story The Ross on East Main Street, have expressed their support for the tax incentives. In addition to Simpson, Bradley Gillis, who is developing a mixed-use project on a former city-owned parking lot near the Wicomico Public Library, and Bret Davis who is planning to build apartments and a beer garden along the Wicomico River on East Market Street, have also supported the new program.

During the first five years, developers would receive a 100 percent city property tax credit. In years six through 10, the credit would be 80 percent. After that it would gradually be reduced to 40 percent in year 20.

In return, the city would recoup taxes from a boost in Downtown commerce, as the city’s center adds residents to its inventory of private office buildings and municipal complexes, including the two courthouses, the Government Office Building, old post office and Health Department.

The county could implement its own tax breaks, but that seems unlikely, at least at this stage. The council spent portions of two different meetings arguing whether to even provide a letter that state Delegate Carl Anderton could submit to legislators so he could introduce enabling legislation.

A tense 4-3 vote finally allowed the letter to be sent, but the discussion revealed a council made up of members with a significant range of views on how to both define taxes and encourage economic development.

Sewer Study

Taxes aren’t the only area in which Wicomico council members have disparate viewpoints and competing levels of vision.

The county is facing a full-fledged crisis concerning resident sewer hookups -- and there is little consensus from the county’s legislative branch on what to do.

The situation is most dire in neighborhoods off Old Ocean City Road, extending east from Salisbury. Homes in those neighborhoods were mostly built in the early 1960s; in-ground septic systems are failing and can’t easily be replaced under updated environmental regulations. Some homeowners have had to switch to sewer holding tanks that have to be regularly pumped out.

Residents have asked county officials for help, which could mean construction of a county sewer system.

Many of these residents have also made clear that they don’t want to tie in to the city of Salisbury wastewater system, and then face annexation and be subjected to city taxes.

While so-called “package plants” providing sewer might work for planned developments far from a municipal hookup, those who live within adjacent wastewater service might have no choice other than to become part of the city.

Salisbury’s recently expanded, upgraded, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant has ample ability to handle more effluent from residential tracts adjacent to the city lines. State environmental officials -- who have made significant financial investments in Salisbury’s plant -- likely won’t approve new sewer facilities when one exists nearby and has capacity.

The county has already contracted with engineers from George, Miles & Buhr to develop a master plan for countywide water and sewer. The sewer study, about the council was updated in detail last month, is expected to be released later this year.

It follows a county feasibility study of four years ago that specifically addressed homes along the Old Ocean City Road corridor.

During the GMB presentation in January, several council members still seemed confused about what the possibilities are for a sewer resolution and seemed to lack a strategy for public buy-in. 

County wine sales

A residual issue from last year concerns wine sales at county liquor dispensaries.

Some members see county wine sales as an intrusion on private businesses.

While liquor is strictly controlled by the dispensary system, wine and beer are sold across the county at retail businesses that have received the proper license.

A divided council agreed in November to send a letter to the county dispensary overseers, requesting that they stop selling wine. The council has no control of dispensary operations.

Dispensary officials appeared before the council in January to explain that wine sales are crucial to income, and eliminating their sales would affect the county’s revenues from alcohol sales.

While some council members argued that the loss of revenue didn’t matter as much as the government competing with private enterprise, other council members said the revenue losses would be too impactful on the county’s coffers.

There is some precedent for the dispensary conforming to a council request -- in 2008, the dispensaries agreed to stop selling beer after council members complained.

Profits from the stores amounted to about $900,000 this fiscal year.

Wicomico is one of only three counties in Maryland that still have county-run dispensaries that were established at the end of Prohibition. Somerset and Montgomery counties still operate dispensaries. Worcester County phased out its county stores in the past few years.