Chestertown Wards 2 and 4 voters head to the polls on Tuesday, November 5. South Queen Street resident Tom Herz is challenging two-term incumbent Linda Kuiper. Ward 4 Candidate Meghan Efland is running unopposed to fill the seat currently held by retiring Councilman Marty Stetson, who served three terms.
The Chestertown Spy has strived to deliver thorough coverage of the candidates and the issues. Visit Election 2019 where The Spy has compiled our print and video coverage, including video interviews with all three 2019 candidates, as well as video coverage and print reporting of the League of Women Voters Candidate Forum.
As voters head to the polls, The Spy believes a great number of residents want the Chestertown Town Council to restore public confidence in the town’s financial sustainability. Spy reader Jeff Maguire hit the heart of the issue: Chestertown is taxing its residents out of their homes, and they cannot sell them because the taxes are so high.
Maguire echoes a consistent desire: Town council members need to bring meaningful accountability and reform to Town Hall operations. Maguire points to annual tax increases and aggressive assessments that have put him on track to experience a doubling of his home’s property taxes in 15 years. Shifting police duties from the town to the county may seem sensible, but the public and the Kent County Commissioners have concluded it’s “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” for which there is no apparent political will. Town residents like their local police department.
The long term picture is not so bleak. The marina renovation is now done and is beginning to meet operating expectations. Additionally, the impact of the Mayor and Council’s risk with Enterprise Zone tax benefits has resulted in substantial commercial investment, evidenced by the LaMotte Chemical facility expansion and Dixon Valve & Coupling’s decision to stay in Chestertown and build its international headquarters and industrial campus. In the years to come, the tax incentives will expire, and as Mayor Chris Cerino once said, “Ten years from now the Mayor and Council’s bank account will be flush.”
It is important to remember that when Cerino and his slate took office, they found a grim picture: empty storefronts, stagnant tax revenues, aging population, risk of losing a significant employer, and the ill-advised 2012 Marina Purchase Bond Agreement that was approved by then-Mayor Margo Bailey without public input, a council vote, or a professional advisor. The terms of the bonds prohibited commercial development and saddled the taxpayers with a $150,000 annual bond payment with no prepayment before 2032. It stifled any refinancing to accomplish critical infrastructure improvements. Sources close to the financing contend that with proper advice and council input, more favorable terms could have been secured, but questions were never asked. Fortuitously, Cerino was able to build a coalition that included the town council, a banker, and citizens to finance the marina renovations so grants could reimburse the effort.
The Spy recommends several steps that would restore confidence.
Model 10-Year Tax Revenue Impact of Economic Development Incentives on long-term revenue
Local governments cannot budget by speculating on revenue sources. Still, they can inform themselves and the taxpayers by modeling revenue projections from taxes generated from commercial investment underway as a result of Opportunity Zone investment, Enterprise Zone tax incentives, and other economic development incentives.
Maguire and his fellow taxpayers are the unsung heroes who have been footing the bill for the marina bond deal payment, as well as the tax hikes to offset the county’s withdrawal of the tax differential payment.
Prepare a succession plan for a town manager
Succession planning for Chestertown should not be the 800-pound gorilla in the council chambers. Chestertown has been well served by its Town Manager, Bill Ingersoll, for over 44 years. Ingersoll is approaching 70, which by all measures, is an outlying retirement age for civil servants. The town has not replaced a manager since Ingersoll succeeded Bill Nicholson in the 1970s. The council should study and develop a modern job description, including considering the requirement of a Masters in Public Administration or Public Accounting, experience with economic development and other best management practices.
Build a productive relationship with the county
The Kent County Commissioners and the council should work cooperatively to restore some portion of the tax differential that the commissioners rescinded, which created a $250,000 hole in the town’s annual budget. We need cooperation and resolution of this issue so that we can focus on our future. Kent County and Chestertown are close to an economic boom that could just as easily slip away. Kent County has invested heavily in a fiber-optic network, while other jurisdictions took no action. We are poised to be a high tech hub if we work cooperatively for the outcome.
Outside investors are watching to see if this small, rural county has the ability to work together work the future. The county has adopted two goals that will require cooperation: 25,000 residents by 2024 and rolling the red carpet out for business. This means our leaders must support our public school system so it is attractive to prospective employees; enact tax and zoning policies that promote economic sustainability; and commit to a unified effort to secure the future of our hospital.
We encourage all Ward 2 and 4 voters to get out and participate. We plan to have preliminary election results on Tuesday night.
–The Chestertown Spy