Spy Eye: GOP Candidates for County Commission Speak in League Forum

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Five Republican candidates for seats as Kent County Commissioner met Monday night at a League of Women Voters forum. The event, at the Kent County Public Library in Chestertown, drew a full house.

On hand for the debate were incumbent Commissioner Billy Short and new candidates Aaron Bramble, Bob Jacob, Jim Luff and Tom Mason. They are contending for three slots on the Republican slate in the November election, to be decided in the June 26 primary. The top three winners of the primary will appear as Republican candidates on the November ballot. Only three candidates have declared as Democrats, so that party’s November slate is essentially set.

Following a brief introduction by League moderator Lynn Dolinger, the candidates gave opening statements outlining their backgrounds and qualifications for the office. The order in which they spoke was chosen by lot.

Short emphasized his experience as a commissioner, noting that he has been in office six years. During his term, the county has kept the tax rate unchanged while balancing the budget every year and reducing debt service, he said. It has supported the public schools, kept the hospital in the community, supported the creation of the Chestertown Arts & Entertainment district and encouraged job creation by establishing the Enterprise zone and the county-wide fiber-optic network.

Mason said he is a farmer, a graduate of the University of Maryland who moved to Kent County in 1971 and has run a 1,500-acre dairy farm near Kennedyville since 1977. He is a state director of the Maryland Farm Bureau. His four children all attended county public schools.

Jacob, who was born and raised in Rock Hall, graduated from Kent County High School. He has lived in Galena and now lives and runs his business, Chesapeake CNC Manufacturing, with 25 employees, near Worton. He said the company, which he began in his garage, now has metal components on orbiting satellites. He said he would encourage ways to attract new residents as a way to raise county revenues and support the schools.

Luff, who lives near Chestertown, has experience in business management and administration. As a member of the county’s Economic Development Commission, he said he has the skills, experience and drive to move the county forward. Education and economic development are closely related, he said. He favors attracting business to invest in the county, bringing in new families to expand the tax base. He also sees transportation and retention of the hospital as key issues.

Bramble attended Washington College, with a degree in economics, and now manages the Tolchester Marina, which his family owns. He is also a member of the Economic Development Commission. He said his goal is to fight the image of “Can’t County,” which sees the county government as hostile to change and new business. He would favor reducing regulations that deter new business, taking a proactive approach to building the economy.

The candidates were then given the first of two set questions, which the League gave them in advance. The question noted that Kent County has very little accessible public transportation, and asked what they would do to address the problem.

Short said there are actually a number of available options, but the public is either unaware of them or unwilling to use them. He mentioned Delmarva Community Transit, Key Lime Taxi, and HomePorts’ ride service to take seniors to medical appointments. He said the commissioners were open to supporting those services if they applied for support during the budget negotiations.

Mason said the county is very rural with a limited population and can’t fund commercial transit systems. He supports DCT, which he said faces challenges because people don’t use it enough. He said a “neighborly” approach, in which residents made the effort to help out those they knew needed rides to do shopping or other errands, would solve many of the problems.

Jacob said the situation is challenging because a number of people can’t drive or can’t afford a vehicle. He said DCT is the only current provider, and that the problem is endemic to the Eastern Shore as a whole. He said he would look for ways to upgrade DCT, including making some of the routes shorter so residents would not have to spend more time than the can afford getting to and from their appointments.

Bramble said government can’t sustain a public transit system, but suggested a public/private partnership with government subsidy might be able to fill the need. He said a car service on the model of Uber or Lyft might help expand the options.

The second League question focused on the county’s low rank in positive outcomes for patients fighting substance abuse, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental health issues. It asked what efforts the candidates would support to help citizens get the care they need and how they would recommend paying for them.

Bramble said he hoped to keep the hospital open – “it needs to be full service.” He said it might be time to find a new owner for the hospital who would commit to serving the community’s needs. He said it was also important to upgrade EMS services in the county.

Luff said it was important to keep an “in-bed hospital” – “it’s always been there for the public,” he said. He said legislation and possibly a new owner might be needed to ensure its continued service. He cited a United Way study of the community’s health care needs that addressed the issues. “We need to work with them and capitalize on what we have,” he concluded.

Jacob said the state’s Rural Health Care Commission had identified issues of health care on the Shore. He said Shore Regional Health is promoting wellness programs that should benefit residents and reduce the need for acute care. He said the county commissioners should collaborate with them to promote the programs, but the overall issue is more a state problem than a county one.

Mason agreed that it’s necessary to keep the hospital here. He said addiction and mental health issues were significant on the Shore. He said the schools were the first place to address the problem by giving young people accurate information on health issues. He said he was disturbed that a medical marijuana dispensary has opened in the county, saying that studies show that marijuana is addictive, causes brain damage, and leads to abuse of other drugs. He said he supports the county Health Department’s efforts.

Short said he had worked with state Sen. Middleton and local advocates on the Rural Health Care Commission to save the hospital. He said keeping the hospital in the community would also affect the health of the schools, Washington College, and local businesses. He said the effort to save the hospital was just one of the “big fights” that local government had to engage in to keep the community alive. He also noted that the county’s fiber-optic initiative will help make the delivery of health care more efficient.

A series of audience questions followed. The first asked whether the candidates would support an independent third-party audit of its finances and procedures to see whether they could be made more efficient. Bramble, Jacob, Mason, and Luff all said that they would agree in principle, with Jacob noting that every business owner tries to examine efficiencies on a daily basis. Luff said that government can benefit from business-like practices to identify ways to cut waste. Mason said the auditing entity would “need to know what it’s looking at.”

Short said the county does an excellent job of addressing efficiency, noting measures the commissioners have taken to save money, such as their decision to lease county vehicles rather than purchase them outright.

Robbi Behr, who has been active in the Support Our Schools group, said she was unwilling to vote for any incumbent commissioner because of their decisions on the school budget. She asked the others what they would do to encourage young families to support them.

Bramble said the declining population created a form of recession for the county’s economy. He said the schools were one of the most important parts of the county budget, and that it should be possible to fund them fully by increasing efficiency. He said the financial officers for the county and the school system should sit down together and work out ways to improve funding. He said it was also important to educate people on the quality of the schools to combat the poor public image which has become prevalent.

Luff said education is the number one issue for economic development. He said people are leaving the county because of the perception that the schools are inferior. He said the county commissioners should be “cheerleaders” for the school system.

Jacob agreed that investment in education should be a top priority. He said people in the county “voted for no change” ten years ago, and it is now obvious that change is needed and that population growth is the only way to raise revenue.

Mason said he was all for the schools, pointing to his four children who graduated from the county system. He suggested a series of articles in local media to point out the success of graduates – not just those who went on to college, but those who were successful in other lines of work, such as plumbers or farmers.

Short defended the commissioners’ support of the schools, noting that they had funded the schools above the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” standard every year. He said the declining enrollment posed problems, but the county’s per-student allocation of $16,000 was among the highest in the state. He also noted that the county had saved the school district more than $1 million by consolidating and closing two elementary schools.

Chestertown Councilwoman Linda Kuiper asked whether the candidates would restore the tax differential formerly extended to town residents, in view of the duplication of services such as road maintenance and police services.

Short said the issue was a big topic in the commissioners’ budget hearings, and they hoped to restore it within five years or so. He said the preferred method would be a reduction of taxes for in-town residents by $.03 to $.05 rather than a direct grant to local government. He also said that the county does provide both police protection and road maintenance to the towns, questioning whether Chestertown’s $1.7 million budget for the police department is justified by need.

Mason said he didn’t see why the town and county couldn’t cooperate, but that the town would need to make certain it was spending its money wisely.

Luff noted that the tax differential was discontinued during the 2008 recession. He said the county’s other towns also deserve consideration. He noted that the bathrooms at Betterton Beach were not funded in the current county budget, throwing that cost on the town’s taxpayers.

Bramble said the duplication of services between towns and county offered an opportunity to find new efficiencies.

The candidates also responded to questions on their plans for the Route 301 corridor, which has been designated an industrial growth area for the county; on the relationship between economic development and environmental conservation; on property tax assessments; and on how President Donald Trump’s image and policies affect local issues.

The forum concluded with each of the candidates summarizing his positions and qualifications. The session ended at 8:30.

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