Early Voting Open through Thursday

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Candidates’ signs outside the Kent County Public Library, the polling place for early voting — Photo by Peter Heck

Do you plan to vote in this year’s primary elections? You can avoid lines and that last-minute rush to vote before the polls close by taking part in early voting at the Chestertown branch of the Kent County Public Library. Early voting is open through Thursday, June 21, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Polls are in the meeting room near the High Street entrance to the library; voters may enter from High Street or by the side entrance after regular library hours.

Voters can choose their party’s candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, U. S. Senate and House of Representatives, Maryland state Senate and House of Delegates, and a slate of local offices including County Commissioner and State’s Attorney. For the primary election, voters may only vote for candidates of the party they are registered in. Unaffiliated voters, often called “independent” voters, meaning those who have registered to vote but have chosen not to affiliate themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, cannot vote in the primary, whose purpose is to select party candidates. Other political parties, such as the Libertarian or Green parties, do not currently hold primaries.  These voters can vote in the general election on November 6.

What if you’re not registered to vote at all?  You can do that at early voting, too, and then cast your ballot the same day.  To register to vote, you will need to bring ID and proof of address. According to the Maryland Board of Elections, “To register and vote during early voting, go to an early voting center in the county where you live and bring a document that proves where you live. This document can be your MVA-issued license, ID card, or change of address card, or your paycheck, bank statement, utility bill, or other government document with your name and new address. You will be able to register to vote and vote.”  So your Maryland driver’s license should do it.

US citizens who are residents of Maryland can register to vote as early as age 16 though they must be 18 before they can vote in a general election.  However, seventeen-year-olds may vote in this June primary to help chose their party’s candidate as long as they will be 18 before November 6 and thus eligible to vote in the General Election.

The date for regular voting in the primary election is Tuesday, June 26, when polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. You must be registered before June 26 in order to vote in the Primary Election on June 26. For a complete list of polling places and other information, see the Maryland Board of Elections website.

The general election takes place Nov. 6. The Chestertown Spy will bring you more election news and analysis throughout the election season.

Commissioners Enact FY2019 Budget; Residents Criticize School Funding

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Kent County Commissioners Ron Fithian, William Pickrum and Billy Short listen to a report by County Administrator Shelley Herman at their June 12 meeting.

The Kent County Commissioners, meeting Tuesday, June 12, passed the FY 2019 county budget by a unanimous vote.

There was no discussion before the vote, and there were no adjustments to the budget as presented at the previous week’s meeting, despite considerable public criticism of the allocation for public education – both at the June 5 meeting and in 93 pages of written comments submitted to the commissioners. The budget leaves the county’s property tax rate unchanged at $1.022 per $100 of assessed value. The income tax rate is 2.85 percent, also unchanged from last year.

At the end of the meeting, when the commissioners opened the floor for public comment, several audience members came forward to express their disappointment that the budget fell short of the school district’s request for funding.

First to speak was Robbi Behr of Chestertown, representing the Support Our Schools group. She began by addressing remarks by Commissioner Ron Fithian at the June 5 meeting, when he stated that the SOS group’s efforts had been choreographed by some outside group, and implied that the mothers who organized the group didn’t have the skills to organize a FaceBook campaign. Behr summarized the credentials of the founding group, who are “smart and capable women who can do these sorts of things all by ourselves.” She also addressed Commissioner Billy Short’s characterization of the group as “rude” after she and some others walked out of the June 5 meeting and for allowing “a censored swear word” to appear on their FaceBook page.

Behr apologized, saying, “We were rude. But we’ve been hammering at this for two years and your response has consistently been and continues to be that we’re too stupid to understand this stuff so we need to sit down and be quiet.” She said that misogyny frequently characterizes the commissioners’ remarks. However, she said, the focus should be on “addressing the myriad problems this county has at hand, from flat-lining revenues to the opioid crisis to the hospital to emergency services and so on.” If the commissioners had listened to the SOS group’s ideas about marketing the county and its schools to families and serving the families who are already here, “We wouldn’t be here wasting everyone’s time,” she said. “We would be working together, doing good for this county.”

Behr noted that none of the commissioners had, “as far as I can tell,” responded to Rock Hall Elementary School Principal Kris Hemstetter’s plea for them to visit the school and see the problems for themselves. She said the commissioners should take up the challenge and visit all the county’s schools and see the ways they could help the teachers and administrators improve them. “It’s too late to revisit your budget now, but it’s not too late to actually support our teachers and schools,” she said.

Commission President William Pickrum responded to Behr, correcting her statement that he doesn’t use FaceBook and noting that he is professionally involved with internet and IT. He said he had offered Behr the opportunity to review and make suggestions on the whole county budget. “Every citizen has that opportunity,” he said. He said the commissioners struggle every year “to balance the needs and desires of the citizens of this jurisdiction.” Government, unlike business, exists to deliver services to its citizens, not out to make a profit. He said the county had been unable to meet the requests of many of the nongovernmental organizations that asked for funding this year. Pickrum noted that the county roads were considered by the State Highway Administration to be some of the best in the state, even though the county lost some 90 percent of its funding for road maintenance. “We do the best we know how, we do listen,” he said. He cited examples of the county adopting ideas from other jurisdictions to improve services and efficiency. He said the commissioners are here to try to satisfy everyone, “but because of the financial realities, that may not be possible.”

Carla Massoni of the Greater Chestertown Initiative distributed copies of a Baltimore Sun article, “Education Status Quo Unacceptable in Maryland,” which summarizes the conclusions of the Thornton Commmission and the Kirwan Commission, both of which addressed the condition of Maryland’s schools. Massoni said it was time to “move on,” with the budget set for the next fiscal year and SOS intent on continuing its efforts on behalf of the school system. She cited a speech by Trish McGee, president of the Board of Education, saying that the board will continue to work to make the schools successful, and praised Superintendent of Education Karen Couch for “giving her all.”

“There are some things I think we can do,” Massoni said. She noted that the article she distributed encouraged people to reach out to gubernatorial candidates to see if they commit to support the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. She asked the commissioners “to take a leadership role in making Kent County schools the best schools in the state of Maryland.” She said it would require them to take an active role in the state, using their influence and connections to push state officials into fuller support for local schools. “There is a great deal you can do to take a leadership role,” she said, encouraging them to “share the story” of what county schools have accomplished and what they still need to reach their potential.

Darran Tilghman of Chestertown asked the commissioners to try to harness the energy the community had shown in support of the schools. She asked them to be reasonable, for example in resisting the temptation to accuse the schools of “playing a shell game” with their funding. She said the commissioners need to take ownership of the fact that the county’s contribution to the education budget is among the lowest in the state, measured as a percentage of the overall budget. And she asked them to visit the schools to have a clearer idea what the needs are. “Please let’s keep talking, let’s keep moving forward,” she concluded.

Jennnifer Baker, president of the Downtown Chestertown Association, said she had attended the Board of Education meeting the previous evening, where she learned “just how desperate the situation is over the next several years.” She said it’s necessary to start planning aggressively to bring the schools up to potential. She said businesses in the county are having trouble finding qualified staff, which affects the likelihood that other new businesses will locate here. To attract “the next Dixon and LaMotte,” she said, the county needs to think about how it markets and recruits new businesses. She said her decision to locate to Chestertown and open a business here was a result of the town’s having a comprehensive strategy and plan to attract businesses. “It had strategies that let us know that it was working really hard at being something incredibly great.” She said the county has similar assets, and with a coordinated effort it ought to be able to take the next step.

Pickrum thanked everyone for their comments. He said the commissioners had always worked to make the county the best it can be. He said when he is in other areas, he always praised the Kent County school system as “the best not only in Maryland but on the East Coast.” He said citizens sometimes misinterpret the commissioners’ questions of the schools as hostile, whereas it is a necessary part of governing. “We have to look at things with a critical eye. It does not mean that any one of us is opposed to that entity. But we have to ask those critical questions to ensure that your dollars – and my dollars, too – are spent appropriately by every particular governmental organization.” He said he believes that the county’s educational staff is the best around, and expressed the wish that they were better paid. “I think it’s a shame that we do not value, as a society, our educators,” noting that many teachers have to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets and that they work many hours after school. “But that said, it is incumbent upon our elected school board to allocate the funds they have available to get the best bang for the buck,” he said. “Personally, I think you pay the people first – but that’s not my job. That’s the school board’s job.”

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Pippin at Church Hill Theatre: a Review by Peter Heck

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Cast members – Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” Photo by Jane Jewell

Pippin, now playing at Church Hill Theater, is the story of a young prince in his quest to find a meaningful life – a timeless story that resonates as clearly now as it did in its original 1972 Broadway production.

Directed by Sylvia Maloney, the musical deploys a large cast of singers and dancers in a high-energy spectacle that revolves around a troupe of performers who tell Prince Pippin’s story. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, with a book by Roger Hirson.

The original Broadway production, partially financed by Motown records, was highly successful, running on Broadway for almost five years.  It opened in October of 1972 and closed, after 1,944 performances, in June of 1977. Most Broadway shows open and close within a year.  More successful ones can run a few years.  At almost five years, Pippin, as of February 2018, is the 34h longest-running show in the entire history of Broadway. That’s pretty impressive.  Directed by the internationally famous director and choreographer Bob Fosse, Pippin won five Tony awards – two for Fosse, as director and choreographer, one for Ben Vereen as leading actor, and for Tony Walton (scenic design) and Jules Fisher (lighting design). It also won four Drama Desk awards – two for Fosse, one for Walton, and one for Patricia Ziprodt (costume design). And unusually enough, a 2013 Broadway revival took another load of awards – including a Tony for Patina Miller in the same role as Vereen – the only time the award has gone to a man and woman actor playing the same role.

Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times”      Photo by Steve Atkinson

The plot is centered on the title character, Pippin, the son and heir of Emperor Charlemagne, the French ruler who created the Holy Roman Empire by conquering much of western Europe. But beyond the characters’ names, the historical element is largely irrelevant, giving an essentially mythological plot a perfunctory grounding in the world of the Middle Ages. The story sets up a prototypical generational conflict, with the king neglecting his bookish son, and the son rebelling against what he sees as his father’s outmoded,  ways. The entire story is presented as a performance by the strolling players who make up the ensemble – taking the parts of soldiers, peasants, courtiers, and others needed to fill in the subsidiary roles of the play.  It’s an example of the classic technique of  “a play within a play.”

Ater finishing his education at the University of Padua, Prince Pippin visits his father’s court and decides to take his place as a warrior, emulating his younger half-brother Lewis. But he shows no aptitude for strategy or leadership, and after his first battle and discovering that he dislikes killing, he flees to his grandmother’s court. Renouncing the life of a soldier, Pippin turns to a life of leisure and pleasure–wine, women, and song!  But that ultimately proves unfulfilling, too. When the leading player suggests that he rebel against his father’s autocratic ways, he enthusiastically takes on that role – only to learn that overthrowing the government doesn’t necessarily lead to replacing it with something better. The young prince continues to search, eventually coming to a recognition that the road to happiness doesn’t necessarily require extraordinary accomplishments.

Maloney has brought together a cast including both CHT regulars and some young newcomers, particularly in the ensemble where it seems as if half the players are sophomores at Queen Anne’s County High School! The energy of the production gets a definite boost from all the young people on stage.

Leading the “youth brigade” is Mackenzie Campbell, who is outstanding as the Leading Player – a sort of ringmaster who conducts the entire performance. Singing, dancing, or simply standing at one side of the stage, she is a dominant presence. She has a number of credits with the Tred Avon Players and the Avalon Theater, but this is her CHT debut. Hard to believe she is only 17 years old; if she stays active in theater, it’s easy to foresee a bright future for her.

Mark Wiening as Pippin in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

Mark Wiening, who has appeared regularly both at CHT and at the Garfield Center, brings a strong singing voice and solid acting chops to the role of Pippin. A good performance in a role that demands a wide range of emotions and no small amount of physical schtick.

The role of Charlemagne is played by Bob Chauncey, who brings an appropriately regal bearing to the part. At the same time, he brings out the character’s comic side as a typically distracted father who has little time to talk to his son or understand his concerns.

Fastrada (Lori Armstrong) encourages her son Lewis (Bryce Sullivan) to show his warlike qualities in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Jane Jewell

 

Lori Armstrong is outstanding as Fastrada, Lewis’s scheming mother. She brings a good singing voice and a deliciously wicked persona to the role. Armstrong is returning to the stage after directing many student productions in her role as a Theater Arts teacher at Kent County Middle School. Let’s hope a taste of the spotlight encourages her to take part in more local productions.

Debra Ebersole is well cast as Berthe. Pippin’s grandmother. Her solo number, “No Time at All,” is one of the highlights of the first act; a nice performance by one of the long-time stalwarts of CHT musical productions.

Debbie Ebersole as Pippin’s grandmother & Mackenzie Campbell as The Leading Player in Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times”      Photo by Steve Atkinson

Pippin’s love interest, the widow Catherine, is played by Becca Van Aken, another CHT regular. The character is central to the play’s ultimate resolution, and Van Aken gives her a solid reality that makes the prince’s relationship with her seem natural and credible.

Bruce Sullivan a recent Queen Anne’s High School graduate, plays Lewis, Pippin’s half-brother – a more athletic and warlike (and considerably less intellectual) prince. And Cullen Williams, a Queen Anne’s freshman, does a good job as Theo, Catherine’s son.

Fastrada tells Pippin her motto: “Spread a Little Sunshine” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

The costumes are an integral part of this production – kudos to Tina Johnson, Erma Johnson and Liz Clarke for the spectacular look of the players. Interestingly, while most of the other characters are elaborately costumed, Pippin himself is dressed very plainly – a subtle way to emphasize his “Everyman” status, despite his official position as a prince and heir to the throne.

The choreography is also outstanding, thanks to Calvin Moore. Whether it’s a slow-motion battle scene (almost a “soft shoe” performance) or a formal dance at the emperor’s court, the swirl of motion is almost constant, and the cast does it without a misstep.

Despite the participation of Motown Records – several of whose stars recorded songs from the show – Pippin doesn’t feature particularly memorable music. Other than the main character’s signature song, “Corner of the Sky,” most of the songs are vehicles for clever words rather than melodies the audience is likely to find themselves humming the morning after seeing the show. On the whole, the CHT cast does a good job of making the songs work within the context of the play, and the orchestra, led by Ray Remesch, accompanies them in idiomatic style. Remeshch’s smooth work on guitar was notable at several spots in the performance.

Theo and Pippin pray for a duck – Church Hill Theatre’s production of “Pippin: His Life and Times” — Photo by Steve Atkinson

As Maloney notes in her director’s notes, it is easy to see the play as an echo of the doubts and dissatisfactions of the early 1970s, a time of political turmoil and social experimentation. The young prince’s search for meaning in his life is, of course, a quest that almost every generation finds itself embarking on. With its energetic young cast and a sprinkling of canny veterans, the CHT production should have a natural appeal to the young — and to those who remember what it was like to be young at a time when the world seemed full of possibilities and challenges.

Pippin runs through June 24, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students. Reservations are strongly recommended; call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org to get your advance tickets.

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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.

Hard Talk: Residents Press County Commissioners to Increase School Budget

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Residents crowded the Kent County Commissioners’ hearing room Tuesday, June 5, to weigh in on the county’s proposed budget. The discussion grew heated as many of the crowd registered their disappointment with the education portion of the budget, which fell short by approximately $600,000 of the school district’s funding requests.

The above video contains most of the public comments made by audience members after the budget presentation.  Each person wanting to speak had to sign up at the beginning of the meeting.  Each was limited to three minutes and a loud buzzer indicated when the three minutes had expired.  Speakers were held fairly strictly to the limit.

The budget portion of the meeting began with Pat Merritt, the county’s chief financial officer, giving an overview of the budget’s provisions. With help of a PowerPoint presentation. Merritt showed that 65 percent of the county’s revenue, nearly $31 million, derives from property taxes. Another 28 percent, or nearly $13 million, comes from income tax. With over 93 percent of the revenues tax-based, Merritt said, the only way to increase revenue is to raise taxes.

Merritt went on to say that Kent County’s property tax rate, at $1.022 per $100 assessed value, is second highest on the Shore and seventh in the state. The income tax, at 2.85 percent, is fifth highest on the Shore and 16th in the state. Raising the income tax rate to the maximum allowed by law would produce another $3.3 million, she said. Meanwhile, growth over the last five years has been essentially flat, with property tax revenues up by some $700,000 and income tax down by roughly the same amount.

In response to the flat revenues, the county has taken steps to reduce its expenditure, including retiring $21.5 million in debt, roughly 52 percent of the total owed. It has also reduced its insurance costs by joining the Local Government Insurance Trust, and it plans to reduce vehicle costs by moving to a lease plan instead of owning its vehicles outright – a plan that will also reduce the age of the county’s fleet, Merritt said. Several departments have undergone cuts, including a $238,000 cut for county roads, $215,000 cut for parks and recreation, and nearly $100,000 less for information systems, and a number of positions have been cut. In addition to these steps, the county has taken important steps to encourage economic development, which in the long run will add to its tax base.

Addressing specific portions of the budget, Merritt paid particular attention to the allocations for education. The county allocates 38 percent of its budget to the school system, compared to 45.6 percent statewide. The FY 2019 budget for education, at $17,194,263, represents an increase of $228,000 over FY 2018 and is $303,000 over the maintenance of effort standard required by law. Over the last 10 years, the county has spent $2.2 million more than maintenance of effort, while the student population has declined by 216 and there are three fewer schools, she said.

Pat Merritt, the county’s chief financial officer, presented an overview of the proposed FY 2019 Budget for Kent County

The school district’s fund balance – in essence, a sort of “rainy day fund” – has been cut back over the last few years, and a further reduction of $695,000 is scheduled for this year, Merritt said. That would leave the schools with $605,000, which is more than $100,000 above a target amount set by the county for the fund balance. The commissioners argued that no other county department maintains a fund balance. They said that with the increase of $228,000 over the FY 2018 budget, the schools will receive more than $900,000 more than last year. In addition, a request for $423,000 for capital projects was fully funded, Merritt said.

In summary, Merritt said, the FY 2019 budget focuses on economic development, increases the operating funding for the schools, fully funds the schools’ capital projects, and provides resources for reducing ambulance transportation costs in the county.

Kent County Commissioners in session Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Following Merritt’s presentation, the commissioners opened the floor to public comment. First to speak was Dr. Karen Couch, superintendent of education for the county. She began by thanking the commissioners for their support of programs including laptops for all students, building repairs, and refurbishing the football field at Kent County High School. The FY 2019 budget presented by the school district was well-thought-out, she said. However, while the district has “made great strides” in addressing salary inequities, it needs more to become competitive and retain staff. Teacher salaries rank 22nd in the state, and administrator salaries are 24 – “dead last.” With shortages of teachers and administrators, the district is at a disadvantage in competing with neighboring counties.

The maintenance of effort standard was created to assure continuity from one year to the next, not as a ceiling, she said, and it does not address inflation, rising costs, or new programs. Combined with declining enrollment, it becomes “a prescription for disaster,” she said. She said the system has reduced positions in order to maintain salary and benefits for its staff. But the county ranks last in the state in per-capita expenditure per student, and keeping the schools on their path to excellence requires continued investment. In closing, Couch said that the schools must be considered an investment, not an expense, to the county’s budget.

Kurt Landgraf, president of Washington College; and Karen Couch, Superintendent of Kent County Schools.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Washington College President Kurt Landgraf said that looking at maintenance of effort in an environment of declining enrollment would put the county in a downward spiral, losing teachers and undercutting the economic base. He said the college was finding it increasingly difficult to attract faculty and staff to come live in the county. He said that Couch’s request for an additional $500,000 was well thought through, and would increase both the schools’ viability and the ability to attract more people to the county.

Rebecca Heriz-Smith, parent and member of SOS (Save Our Schools)      Photo by Jane Jewell

Rebecca Heriz-Smith was one of several members of the Support Our Schools (SOS) coalition to address the meeting. She noted that the education budget includes an increase of $15,000 to Chesapeake College, while the amount actually going to the county’s public schools is $13,000 less than last year, and $636,000 less than was actually requested. She said it is becoming clear that social workers and counselors are needed in schools all across the country. She said the district had already cut needed programs as well as both teaching and staff positions and would now be forced to cut more under the current budget. She said she was going to vote against the incumbent commissioners in the fall election and would urge her friends and neighbors to do the same.

Jim Luff, former chairman of the county’s economic development commission, said the commission had recommended supporting Kent Forward in its goals to make the school system one of the top five in the state, and that the county’s comprehensive plan said that county should strive to have the best school system in the state. He noted the many stories about families not wanting to move to the county because of the schools and made the link between economic development and the quality of the schools. While the commissioners frequently expressed their support for the schools during their meetings, Luff said the budget actually showed “an erosion of that support.” He said the county needs to find a solution to the problem, noting how residents have come together on the hospital and bridge issues. “We cannot afford to lose one more family,” he said in conclusion.

Deryn Tilghman, a Garnett Elementary School Parent, spoke of volunteering with a third-grade class her child is in. She said her family moved here a year ago, despite being told by colleagues at Washington College that the schools had a poor reputation. She said the family was proud to be part of the public school system, and had given many hours of volunteer work worth thousands of dollars. ‘We decided to see for ourselves, and I’m so glad we were lucky enough to meet some incredibly smart, passionate people on our very first visit to our public school.” She said they saw a lot of potential in the schools, but “potential won’t do.” She said she had hoped to see an indication of support, but “I just keep hearing adversity.” She expressed hope that the commissioners would live up to some of the ideas expressed at the meeting, going for collaboration rather than bemoaning expenses. “It’s the only way we can live up to some of this potential,” she said.

Gina Jachimowicz
Director of Teaching and Learning for Kent County Public Schools

Nathan Stroyer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan Shroyer of Quaker Neck told of having two properties he bought to create affordable housing, one on High Street and one in Church Hill. He said that when he put them on the market, the one in Church Hill received more than 20 responses, most of them from Kent County parents looking to establish a Queen Anne’s base so their students could qualify for that county’s schools. There were no responses for the High Street property in Chestertown. He said several of the parents spoke of racial tensions in the Kent County schools they hoped to avoid in Queen Anne’s.

Another speaker, Tim O’Brien, said there are several property owners who are regularly delinquent in paying their property taxes, many of whom own a large number of properties through shell corporations and now owed cumulative taxes of $100,00 or more for several years. He said the county needs to enforce and penalize these owners so it can collect its full share of taxes.  The commissioners did respond to this by pointing out that legally they cannot just take over private property.  There are strict rules to follow.  When most of these properties became eligible to go up for auction due to unpaid taxes, no one bid on the properties.  Any bidder must pay the back taxes before they can take title to the property.  The properties in question tended to be empty lots or properties in areas that were not very commercially valuable.  Thus the county has trouble recouping the unpaid taxes by selling these properties at auction.

Tim O’Brien spoke about unpaid property taxes – the tax that schools depend upon for their revenue.

Francois Sullivan, parent and member of SOS (Save Our Schools)      Photo by Jane Jewell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also speaking for the SOS group were Francoise Sullivan, Jodi Bortz, and Robbi Behr. While they emphasized different points, they all said the proposed budget was inadequate to the schools’ needs. And they repeated Herz-Smith’s warning that residents unhappy with the budget’s allocation for the schools would be watching the commissioners and basing their votes on how they responded to the schools’ financial needs.  Some spoke angrily of feeling misled and betrayed by promises of support from the commissioners that never materialized. Several said that they believed that the commissioners were not doing their jobs as they were elected to do.

All told, nearly twenty residents spoke at the public hearing, all but a few addressing the school portion of the budget. At the end, the commissioners had several comments in response. Commission President William Pickrum said that the budget is “a zero-sum game,” with every increase for one department or program making it necessary to make cuts somewhere else. “Every agency and department wants more,” he said. He said the county has 20,000 residents, only 2,000 of whom are students in the schools, and the budget must address the needs of the whole county. He noted that senior citizens make up a large proportion of the county’s population and that health care and transportation remain crying needs in the county. He said the commissioners had spent a lot of time and energy on the budget, that they didn’t always agree, but they still needed to make the hard decisions. Pickrum also spoke about the need for everyone to keep the discussion civil and to remember that we can disagree without being disagreeable.  He feared that the animosity and harsh language would prevent compromise and solutions from being found.  Several of the audience members who spoke also expressed the desire for those involved to sit down together and try to find mutually acceptable answers to the problems the county and the schools are facing.

Commissioners Ron Fithian and Billy Short also commented. Both referred to posts on social media attacking the commissioners, some of which they said were not only abusive but indecent. Short gave Sullivan a printout of some posts, which she agreed used language that was not acceptable. Short said he stands by the budget as written, and does not intend to make any changes.  Fithian emphasized again that the school system had the large fund balance that they could use for whatever purpose they chose.  He noted that in fall 2017, the schools, in order to save money, had chosen to contract a Baltimore-based company for bus service.  When that didn’t work out, he said, the schools suddenly found the money to buy brand new buses.  They worked with that year’s budget appropriation plus the fund balance to pay for the new buses.  Fithian stressed that the county does not tell the school system how to spend the allocated money or the fund balance.

Following the various speakers, a general discussion developed between the audience and the commissioners with quite a few people speaking passionately about the issue.  The discussion became rather heated points and four or five people made a point of shouting their disapproval and finally walking out in protest.

Kris Hemstetter, principal of Rock Hall Elementary School, gave an impassioned account of almost daily crisis in the schools.

At the very end of the meeting, Kris Hemstetter, principal of Rock Hall Elementary School, gave an impassioned account of the need for social workers in the schools. She told of a student who was “throwing chairs” while the social worker assigned to the school was working at another school, of a room without air conditioning, of having to drive students home to get medication. She urged the commissioners to come spend time in the schools to see “the struggles teachers and students are going through,” to see how hard teachers work and to let students and parents tell them what they need.  She emphasized that there is crisis in the schools on virtually a daily basis.

The commissioners will vote on the budget at their next meeting, June 12. Written comments on the budget will be accepted at the county office, 200 High St., until noon Friday, June 8.

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Chestertown Council Passes Budget With Tax Increase

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The Chestertown Council in session on Monday evening, June 4, 2018. (L-R ) Ward 4 representative Marty Stetson; Ward 3 representative Elsworth Tolliver; mostly concealed behind Tolliver is Town Clerk Jen Mulligan; Chris Cerino, mayor; Bill Ingersoll, town manager; Ward 2 representative Linda Kuiper, Ward 1 representative David Foster          Photo by Peter Heck

The Chestertown Council, meeting Monday, June 4, adopted the town’s budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY2019). The budget ordinance, which includes a property tax increase of $0.05 per $100 assessed value, passed by a 4-1 margin. Councilman Marty Stetson cast the dissenting vote. This increase brings the property tax rate to $0.042 per $100 assessed value from the previous $0.37 per $100 assessed value. The Fiscal Year 2019 runs from July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019.

The vote was preceded by a public hearing on the Constant Yield Tax Rate, required by state law if the town intends to change the rate in any way that would increase the amount of revenue over the current level. Mayor Chris Cerino read the notice of the hearing into the public record. The town’s base of assessed property has decreased by .099 percent, from $562,768,097 to $557,215,401. At the current rate of $0.37 per $100, revenues would decrease by 2.74 percent, or $20,544.98. To offset this, the tax rate would need to be raised to $0.3737 for a constant yield. The town’s proposed increase to $0.42 per $100 would result in additional revenue amounting to $257.990.73, Cerino said.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said the Constant Yield requirement was last triggered in 2006. when the town ended up reducing the rate by $0.01. The economy was better, and rising assessments were producing more revenue, he said. He said the town had operated on the principle that if the town’s revenues were the same as last year, “we’re in good shape and we’ll live with that.” But the drop in the assessed base, combined with generally higher prices, had made the adjustment necessary.

Ingersoll then gave “a thumbnail sketch” of the budget, referring to a handout that was available to the public. Real estate tax provides $2.578,608, and income tax another $650,000. Grants from the federal and state government provide just over $2 million, which are primarily designated for improvements to the town-owned marina. Kent County provides another $186,000, largely in the form of the hotel tax. The town’s total revenue comes to $6,053,131, including grants for the marina.

Projected expenses include $1,804,915 for public safety and $1,286,733 for public works. General government amounts to $535,318. The total, again including marina work, comes to $6,043,737 – leaving a surplus of $9,394 over anticipated revenue. An additional $37,400 is anticipated from this year’s revenue from the sale of the old police station and several town-owned lots on College Avenue.

“It wasn’t always this pretty,” Ingersoll said. It became clear in the three budget workshops held in April and May that the town would have trouble balancing the budget unless it made adjustments. He said the recession beginning in 2008 had effectively “flatlined” the town’s property tax base, and he had urged the council at several points in the intervening years to look at raising taxes to compensate. He also noted that the county discontinued its tax differential about four years ago, meaning that town residents since then have been taxed by the county for police protection and road work that the town was actually providing. He said the council has asked the county for relief, either in the form of a cash grant or a lower rate for town residents, but nothing concrete has emerged. “It’s very disappointing because we’re one of two counties in the state – maybe three – that don’t do this,” he said. “There are five towns in the county that need a bit of help,” he added.

Ingersoll said the town began with no capital projects other than the marina in its budget, and no raises for town staff. “We made budget cuts across the board,” including to nonprofits such as Horizons and the public library. Cuts in services were also considered, he said, and a few fees were increased. However, water and sewer hook-up fees were not increased, so as not to affect new development which could increase the tax base.

“We fiddled with one cent (tax increase), we fiddled with two cents,” Ingersoll said, but the figures didn’t work out. Finally, the council resolved – “not unanimously” – to impose the tax increase. “It’s painful and I’m sorry we had to do it,” he said. He said he hoped the town would be able to reduce the rate if growth permitted.

Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll      Photo by Peter Heck

Cerino said the town’s biggest problem was attempting to retain a consistent level of services while revenues remained flat. Raises in staff salaries are necessary to retain good people, he said. He also noted that no town roads had been paved in his five years as mayor, a record that “really gnaws at me.” It will cost the town more if it just keeps balancing its budget without maintaining infrastructure, he said. But the new budget does include $150,000 to be applied to bringing some of the roads up to spec.

Compared to other towns on the Shore, the tax rate of $0.42 is “still pretty low, actually,” Cerino said. He cited rates from Denton ($0.75), Federalsburg ($0.83), Greensboro ($0.75) and Ridgely ($0.57) as examples. “Yes, we’ve raised taxes. It’s a bummer. But I still don’t feel like we’re way out of the realm of where we should be.” He praised the previous councils for running “a pretty tight ship” in keeping the rates low for so many years. He said the expected expansions of Dixon Valve and LaMottte would produce tax windfalls a few years from now.

Ingersoll noted that most of the towns Cerino mentioned also received tax differentials from the counties they are in.

Councilman David Foster said he supported the tax increase. “As we went through the numbers, I didn’t see any other way out,” he said. Foster said that in previous years, the budget had been balanced by deferring maintenance, which he said was a short-sighted policy. He said the flat tax base made it clear that everyone in town needed to do whatever they could to support local businesses and to encourage new ones to locate here.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he also supported the increase because it was the only way to support the level of services that the town provides. “I was not in favor of a small increase only to have to come back to the table next year and ask for more.” Compared to the rates in the other towns Cerino mentioned, “I think we’re still getting a bargain,” he said.

Former councilman Jim Gatto testifies during the budget public hearing.     Photo by Peter Heck

Responding to a call for comments from the public, former councilman Jim Gatto took to the podium. He said he thought the council did a great job enacting the increase. He said the town had made a good decision by enacting the Enterprise Zone in which the new Dixon Valve buildings are being constructed. While there is a tax deferment that will keep the buildings off the tax rolls for five years or more, the company could easily have built elsewhere and deprived the town and county of any of the revenue.

Councilman Marty Stetson said the employees in the new buildings will buy houses and pay income taxes, so the benefit to the town will come in sooner.

Gatto said he expected the economy to remain flat for another two years. He said it was a good time for the town to refinance loans it had taken for the marina and the new police station. He said he expects interest rates to be as much as 25 percent higher in three years’ time.

Gatto also said it was in the town’s vital interest to bring the marina into full operation as a destination marina, “an operating business the way it was proposed.” He said the marina is a potential magnet to bring boaters and other tourists into town. Part of the process should be to bring in a management company to market and operate the marina as a money-making business and make it profitable.

Ingersoll said work on the marina should be completed by the Fall and the facility ready for full operation by next season.

The council turned briefly to other business before conducting its vote on the budget. Cerino called for a roll call vote.

Stetson said he opposed the budget because 60 years’ experience in government had taught him that when governments get more money, they spend more. He said the council made some cuts he had been advocating for years, such as the July 4 fireworks display. He said that increasing the town’s revenues would mean that more entities would come to the town asking for handouts. He said the budget could have been balanced with a $0.02 cent raise. He said the town could have paved a lot of roads with the annual cost of running the marina. “Five cents is a lazy man’s way to solve the problem,” he said. He said what disappointed him most was that the town was unable to give raises to its employees.

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper said she had gotten phone calls, including one person who said they were going to sell their house and move. She said the town’s providing police services to events like Tea Party, Legacy Day and Downrigging is a necessity. She said she hoped that once the marina is up and running, the town will become a tourist destination. Kuiper said she had to vote for the increase – “there’s no way we can get by without the tax increase.” She told constituents she would work to decrease taxes if it becomes possible. She also asked that the funds for road construction be put in a separate account to be disbursed with the oversight of the council.

Ingersoll said the funds would be accounted separately as a matter of policy.

The budget was passed without amendment by a 4-1 vote. Copies of the budget are available at town hall.

Other topics discussed at the council meeting, including the Utilities Commission report, will be covered in another report later this week.

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June’s First Friday is Chestertown’s Best First Friday

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The Dover English Country Dancers at Chestertown Tea Party

First Friday in Chestertown is always a treat, but for June, the Downtown Chestertown Association is putting on a show you won’t want to miss! A varied array of sights, sounds, and tastes awaits visitors of all ages from 5 to 8 p.m. — and beyond! — June 1, all over the downtown shopping area.

First of all, to welcome Washington College alumni back for their annual alumni weekend, the Dover English Country Dancers will be putting on a show of Colonial-era dancing in honor of Martha Washington’s birthday. Come to the High Street side of Fountain Park to see the dancers – and to get a lesson in 18th-century dancing! While you’re at the park, be sure to check out the Kent Center Summer Bake Sale, proceeds of which will support programming for adults with developmental disabilities here in Kent County.

Early birds can enjoy a Fish Fry at Janes Church beginning at 11 a.m. – if you’re looking for something tasty for lunch, stop by the corner of Cannon and Cross and help support this historic church.  Or check out the wine tasting starting at  4:00 p.m. at Chestertown Natural Foods just around the corner from Janes Church on Canon St. They are celebrating their 25th anniversary year with a free sampling of biodynamic/organic wines from Chateau Maris Vineyards, one of the top five greenest wineries in the world.  If you find one you like, it will be 10% off on First Friday.

Charlie Graves’ Uptown Club on the corner of Calvert Street and College Avenue, where many musical stars of the ’50s and ’60s performed. The club closed in 1988.

Fans of more modern music and dancing should check out Sumner Hall’s “Uptown Cabaret” – a celebration of Charlie Graves’ famous Uptown Club, with live music by Best Kept Soul recreating the Motown era of the ‘50s and ‘60s between 8 and 10 p.m. at 206 S. Queen St. There will be only one show, so be sure to get your tickets in advance. Space is limited, so call 410-778-6300 to make a reservation; tickets are $25, and there will be a cash bar available. 

For art lovers, Massoni Gallery’s annual exhibit of Marcy Dunn Ramsey’s work – this year called “Tangles & Knots” – is a must-see. In addition to Ramsey’s evocations of the river and its environs, this month’s exhibit includes Catherine Kernan’s woodcuts, photographs by Michael Kahn, new work from Vicco von Voss and a great garden bench by Rob Glebe!

Marcy Dunn Ramsey, “Tangles & Knots”

A little farther up High Street, the Artists’ Gallery will open with a body of new oil paintings by Jeanne Saulsbury in “From the Land of Pleasant Living.” Jody Primoff will also be featured and will be showing her paintings created in mixed media, acrylic, ink, and watercolor.

Book lovers will want to drop by Twigs and Teacups. 111 S Cross St., to meet author Gail Priest. Eastern Shore Shorts is Gail’s new release of short stories all set in familiar towns on the Eastern Shore, including Chestertown! Get your copy inscribed by Gail.

There are special guests and activities at plenty of other downtown shops, as well. Welcome Home is hosting River Warrior Yoga and Purple Lilly Studios. The Finishing Touch is hosting Big Brothers Big Sisters, while Gabriel’s of Chestertown is hosting the Soroptimists, She-She is hosting Kent Cares, and The Historical Society of Kent County is hosting the Daughters of the American Revolution. And don’t miss the new juried June exhibit, “Art & Process”, opening Friday at River Arts located in the gallery behind Dunkin Donuts. 

Looking for something to entertain the kids? Drop them off for a fun night of art-making at Kid’s Night at Kaleidoscope, 312 Cannon St.! This kids-only art party will include painting, tie-dying, and art games from 5 to 7 p.m. For ages 4 and up, $20 admission. While you’re there, ask about summer art classes for kids. 

There will also be tasty snacks and little sips available in shops and galleries all over town. Or drop by Bad Alfred’s Distilling or the Pub at the Imperial all evening long.

What could possibly top First Friday? Well, June is the beginning of the National Music Festival – a month-long celebration of the musical arts all over Kent County.

Check out the concert schedule and be ready to be amazed!

An open-air brass group performs at a previous National Music Festival

A Spy Chat with Comptroller of Maryland Peter Franchot

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Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot

Peter Franchot, Comptroller of Maryland, is up for re-election this fall. In a recent visit to Chestertown, Franchot met with the Spy editorial team for a free-wheeling interview. The session took place in the back room of the BookPlate bookstore on Cross Street, and Franchot took the opportunity to purchase several recent political books recommended by bookseller Tom Martin.  The store cat, KeKe, circled around once or twice to supervise the interview.

The Spy began by asking what issues Franchot saw as central to the upcoming election.

The key issue for me as Comptroller is customer service,” Franchot said. “People expect to get their refunds quickly. We returned $3 billion in refunds this year to Maryland families. We averaged 2.1 business days upon receiving their refund claim and putting their money back in their bank account. That’s a big operation. People expect that money. It’s their money, so we do a lot of bells and whistles as far as making sure they get good customer service. We answer 800,000 phone calls a year on the 800-MDTAXES number. We average 40 seconds from the first ring to getting a live, friendly helpful employee of my agency on the line. And that’s pretty unusual these days. I’m just emphasizing from my agency’s perspective that we have a top priority. I carry that across the state as a reason for people to reelect me. It’s not a Democratic issue, it’s not a Republican issue – it’s just a service issue, and I think that people are hungry for that in government.”

Asked if he has goals for another term – if re-elected, it would be his fourth – Franchot said, “Well, we’re going to continue obviously doing the things we’ve been doing. And it depends on who the next governor is. If it’s Larry Hogan, he and I have developed a very strong relationship around fiscal issues, and I’ll continue to look for areas where we can agree and work together. I think that’s the lighted path forward for American politics, for the parties to drop a lot of their partisanship, where we can. We’re different parties and different kinds of people, but where we can combine on things like procurement reform on the Board of Public Works, school maintenance on the Board of Public Works, doing things like starting school after Labor Day, which I think is a great thing for the state, I’m happy to work with Gov. Hogan. If the Democrat is elected, whoever that may be, that creates a different climate for me on the Board of Public Works.”

Speaking of the Board of Public Works, consisting of Franchot, Hogan, and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the General Assembly made two changes in that body’s responsibilities at the end of the 2018 session. Franchot characterized the actions as “what happens when legislative leaders are all-powerful and have no checks and balances,” and expressed hope that Hogan will veto them. One was a statute barring the Comptroller from serving as chairman of the board of trustees of the state retirement system – a $51 billion fund that covers some 400,000 current and former state employees. Franchot has been vice-chair for his entire term (12 years to date) in office. “It jeopardizes the triple-A bond rating of the state,” Franchot said. “It injects a lot of politics into the pension system,” he added, hinting that the change also directly benefits one of the leaders of the Assembly.

The other change, which Franchot said annoyed Hogan more than it did himself, was an amendment removing the Board of Public Works from jurisdiction over school construction. He said, “Gov. Hogan and I together have revolutionized the procurement system for school construction, and we’ve emphasized taking care of school buildings so we don’t have to constantly build new ones. (…) We made a lot of progress, but it irritated some of the local political bosses so this is what they served up – once again, behind closed doors, backroom. I don’t take it personally, I just take it as the dying spasms of a political boss system that is alive and well for, hopefully, just a short time more in Annapolis.”

Franchot has some ideas how the General Assembly could be made more responsive to the wishes of the voters. “I tell people if we could have independent redistricting and open primary voting, we’d have a lot better legislature. They’d be a lot more moderate and a lot less partisan, and a lot less dependent on the extremes of either party. I certainly hope we advance to that point at some time, so everybody’s not invulnerable. I mean, right now we have Democrats and Republicans and so-called “un-enrolled,” who are generally young people who don’t want to sign up to be Democrats or Republicans. There’s 700,000 of them in the state, and my suggestion is that we allow them to go to vote on primary day. They can either vote in the Republican primary or the Democratic primary – whatever they want to do – and that day they can vote in that party’s primary. I don’t know how you’d do it – some states allow an independent, as they’re called, to register, literally on the day, by picking the party. They go and vote. On their way out of the poll, they re-enroll as independents. But the key is, get them involved. I don’t care what party they pick; I just want them involved. They deserve to vote.”

Asked what he saw as important economic drivers for rural counties like Kent to pursue, Franchot turned to a favorite topic. “I’ve told Chestertown and Kent County that they’re doing great as far as getting new craft breweries, craft distilleries – there are a couple of wineries, I think, in the county. That’s terrific, that’s a manufacturing sector currently in Maryland that produces $650 million in economic activity from the beer side alone. We’re talking a billion and a half dollars when you put in the wine industry and the distillery business. So emphasizing Maryland-based craft alcohol products is a great sector for the Shore, because not only do you generate economic activity that stays local, but you also attract a lot of people from New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania who want to come down and visit.” He noted, “We’re not talking about more alcohol; we’re talking about substituting in-state produced, wonderful craft alcohol products for out-of-state stuff that gets imported.”

While his efforts to pass a bill making life easier for craft breweries were stymied in the 2018 Assembly session, Franchot was optimistic about the future of the industry. “We’re going to go right back in with a big bill that’s got even more provisions in it. We’re going to let the brewers – because they’re maturing as far as their presence in Annapolis – we’re going to let them take the leadership role in it. And I think that they’ll be very successful in terms of getting rid of some of the antiquated laws and statutes that stand in the way. As I mentioned, they already have 6,500 jobs in the state; it could be five times that within five years if we just let them brew good beer and sell it to consumers. The funny system we have – it’s called capitalism – it might actually work if we ever let it.”

Franchot said Hogan supports the craft brewers, but that the Governor decided to stay out of the issue because of the politics involved. “I think next year we’re going to send back the bill, it’s going to be stronger, it’s going to get a much better reception. I think the legislature realizes that not only did they miss the opportunity to make us the number one state in the country; because of what they did, it’s the worst state in the country for craft beer. I mean, we have breweries that are ready to pack up and move out to Virginia and Pennsylvania, right now.”

On a broader scale, Franchot suggested a new way for Maryland to invest in the future of its youth – many of who, in rural counties like Kent, leave home after high school and never return. “We need a state-wide youth employment program where veterans are brought in as team leaders. They’re assigned 15 to 20 kids. The kids come in at $10 an hour pay; they work for a year or two years, they learn skills, they get educated about the state, about the country. It’s as if they were in the army, but. They’re doing some kind of infrastructure work, and the state and the federal government should put an extra $10 in a trust fund for them, so at the end of two years, they actually have something to show for it. And the key is that we offer full employment and a real serious environment for these young people. A lot of kids will jump at it. If we can get them to be serious about their future in Maryland, they’ll stay in Maryland. No more “you have to go apply for a job” – you have a job. You’re going to have a former drill sergeant as your team leader, so it’s not going to be a gift. You’ve got to show up, you’ve got to conduct yourself with some direction, but if you do, you’re going to get $20,000 at the end, and you’ll make $10 an hour, say. And God knows, we have enough to do.”

Franchot also had some observations on the impact of the new federal tax laws on Maryland residents. “We did a very innovative analysis. We took two-and-a-half million returns, real returns from the year 2014 and ran them through a simulated version of the federal tax law and gave that information to the legislature and the Governor. They made some small adjustments, but what we found was very interesting. For example, the federal tax cut is going to benefit a lot more people than we thought. It’s going to total a net of 2.7 billion new consumer dollars in the state of Maryland this calendar year. Combined with the $3 billion in refunds that I mentioned, that’s almost $6 billion in disposable income going into consumers’ pockets. I anticipate it’ll have a big impact on small businesses, like this wonderful bookstore that we’re in.”

How does that break down for individual taxpayers per income bracket? Franchot said, “I’m a Democrat – I was told the federal tax cut was terrible, it’ll hurt the middle class. Well, facts are facts: 71 percent of Marylanders, almost the entire middle class, benefit from the tax cut. Some of it is smaller, on a percentage basis, than some of the rich people are getting. But only eight percent of Maryland individuals are going to pay more, net, on their taxes – federal and state taxes combined. Half of them are very, very, very wealthy; and the other half are people that have big business losses. But anyway, the middle class does better than I thought in the overall. We’re going to see a lot of disposable income being put in people’s pockets, and I’m hopeful they’ll spend it in Maryland.”

In closing, Franchot said, “I’d like to thank everybody for paying my salary — literally. I’m honored and privileged to be the Comptroller of the state of Maryland. We spend a lot of time on the three R’s – respect the taxpayer, respond to the taxpayer, get results for the taxpayer. And our 1,200 employees are very sensitive about that and try to do the best they can. I’m not the IRS; I’m your Comptroller. You elect me. Well, I don’t have an opponent really, this year, in the primary. In the general election, I have a very nice person who I think said she wants to beat me. And when she does beat me – she’s a Republican – she actually kind of thinks I did a good job and she’s going to hire me back as a consultant. So I figure I win either way, this election.” He smiled at this closing observation.

Chestertown Taxes to Increase in FY 2019

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Town Manager Bill Ingersoll (second from left) explains Chestertown’s FY 2019 budget as Mayor Chris Cerino (left) and council members Linda Kuiper and David Foster listen.

Chestertown’s taxes are about to go up.

A tax ordinance introduced at the May 21 council meeting would, if passed, raise real estate taxes by $.05 per $100 assessed value. That would amount to an increase of $100 for a property with an assessed value of $200,000. The current town rate of $.037 per $100 value has not seen an increase since 2003, said Town Manager Bill Ingersoll.

The increase in town taxes would be in addition to any increase in county taxes, which are determined independently by the county commissioners. (At this point, the county budget is still being worked out.) Ingersoll said the alternative to the increase would be diminishing the town’s commitments and services, a reduction the town does not want to make.

Ingersoll introduced the tax ordinance and a companion ordinance setting water and sewer rates, which are scheduled to increase by 9.4 percent as well. A public hearing and council vote on the Fiscal Year 2019 budget are scheduled for the June 4 council meeting. If passed, the budget would go into effect July 1, the beginning of the town’s fiscal year.

A draft FY2019 budget obtained by the Spy shows anticipated revenues of $6,053,131 versus expenses of $6,043,737. Property taxes are expected to account for $2,578,603 of the revenue, with federal and state grants contributing just over $2 million more. State income tax revenue contributes another $650,000.

The three largest categories of expenses are capital outlays of $2,153,187; public safety at $1,804,915; and public works at $1,286,733. General government is $535,318.

The capital outlay, much of which is to be funded by grants, is primarily for work to upgrade the town-owned marina. $150,000 is set aside for street repairs. “That’ll get us started on some of the more severe problems,” he said.

Ingersoll said he had asked Kent County to consider a tax differential for town residents, in view of the town’s providing services such as police protection that the county, therefore, does not have to pay for within town limits. The county, in the past, provided as much as $116,147 in tax differential to the town, but the practice ended in 2014. Ingersoll said he was told by county personnel that the differential was “on their radar,” but he did not have any assurance that it would be reinstated.

“It’s been a tough year for trying to match revenues with expenses,” Ingersoll said. He said the tax increase was “absolutely necessary. We started our budget with no (funds for) capital improvement whatsoever.” He said the council had “tightened our belts” during the recession that began in 2007, hoping for increases in the assessed property values that had not materialized. He said he had given the council a chart that shows “almost a flat line” in the value of property within town. “I think anyone can see how conservative we’ve been, living within our means,” he said, adding that it was out of consideration for “the plight that people were in for 10 years.”

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll

Ingersoll said there was evidence that the real estate recovery “is happening,” with higher house prices beginning to come in. The new business park being installed by KRM Development behind the Washington Square shopping mall would eventually add a significant amount to the tax base, but it would be a while before the benefits were realized. “So there needs to be a little bit of patience, but I think the horizon looks good,” he said.

Ingersoll said the water and sewer increases would not include an increase in water and sewer tapping fees, which will remain at $4,000 each. “We don’t want to stop the pace of improvements and infill in Chestertown,” he said. He said the council had postponed any capital improvements in the utilities department.

Ingersoll said there had been a number of requests for funding by non-profits that the council had to cut out this year. Ingersoll said it was disappointing that the town had had to decline requests to fund “regulars” that it had supported for a number of years. “We don’t think that’s going to be forever. This year is just the confluence of some factors that we thought would have totally recovered by now.”

Cerino said “This was probably the toughest budgeting year that I’ve sat through, and we actually cut a lot of our discretionary spending. We just can’t afford to do that right now. We’ve had flat revenue for ten years, and expenses ticking up every year. We’ve had to make some hard decisions.” He said it was “really tricky” when organizations come and ask the town for funding, because it sets a precedent every time the town grants funding to a nonprofit. “It was one of those years where we just had to say no to a lot of worthy organizations.”

Councilman David Foster said that none of the cuts were based on a determination that a given organization was not worthy. “It was the financial need of the town,” he said.

The budget will be discussed in detail at the June 4 public hearing, at which point questions from the public will be entertained. Copies of the proposed budget will be available in town hall before that meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, Councilman Marty Stetson questioned the minutes of the May 15 budget workshop held by the council. He said the minutes indicated that Councilwoman Linda Kuiper had voted with him in opposition to the $0.05 tax increase, which passed 3-2. However, he said, when he asked Kuiper after the meeting how she had voted, she said she didn’t vote. He asked whether the vote had been changed after the meeting was closed, which he said would be improper. He said council members were allowed to abstain, but it should not be for a political reason.

Stetson said he would, in the future, ask for roll call votes on substantive matters.

Kuiper said she thought she raised her hand in opposition to the proposed increase. She said she did not remember telling Stetson she didn’t vote.

Town Clerk Jen Mulligan said she had transcribed the minutes that day and heard Kuiper say the vote was 3-2, with her and Stetson opposed to the increase. “Anybody can hear the tape,” Mulligan said.

In the vote to approve the minutes, Stetson voted not to accept the May 15 budget workshop minutes, which were approved 4-1. There was no discussion about the minutes of the May 7 council meeting or the May 8 budget session, which were both approved unanimously.

The meeting ended a few minutes after 8:00 pm.

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