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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Collective Joy by Nancy Mugele

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Photo credit — Geoffrey DeMeritt Photography

Although my word this past academic year at Kent School was BELIEVE, I have been thinking a lot lately about COLLECTIVE JOY. The term was coined a decade ago by author and columnist Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. In this scholarly history of dance, the author explores the human impulse to dance, and its seemingly constant suppression throughout history. (I always wanted to dance on Broadway, but that is another story.)

Ehrenreich writes about “the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.” Communal celebrations and mass festivities date to Medieval times and are central to Western tradition. In recent centuries, however, Ehrenreich asserts that the festive tradition has been repressed, but, she states, “the celebratory impulse is too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be completely extinguished.”

I credit Ehrenreich with naming a condition that contains so much spirit and ability to inspire. In her definition, collective joy involves “music, synchronized movement, costumes, and a feeling of loss of self.” Brené Brown also wrote about collective joy, and collective pain, in her recent book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Brown encourages us to share collective joy. “People with a sense of true belonging also spend time sharing emotional experiences with large and diverse groups—whether those groups are found at sporting events, live music, church services, or vigils,” writes Brown.

“The more we’re willing to seek out moments of collective joy and show up for experiences of collective pain— for real, in person, not online — the more difficult it becomes to deny our human connection, even with people we may disagree with.”

Collective pain struck last week as both Kate Spade, creator of iconic handbags and founder of her namesake company, as well as celebrity chef and CNN personality Anthony Bourdain took their own lives. The world was surprised and saddened. If you cannot find the joy in your life please find someone to share your struggle with. We all need each other to create collective joy. Share in it. Your happiness depends on it.

A research study in 2017 supports this. “Collective assemblies (like games, concerts, or plays) contribute to greater meaning, positive emotions, and social connection in our lives.”  Thankfully, collective joy abounds in our culture, and I had the pleasure to see it play out in all of its glory in three distinct ways within a 24 hour period last week.

Take the Washington Capitals. After over 40 years, and for the very first time, the franchise finally won the coveted Stanley Cup, ice hockey’s highest honor. Fans inside, and outside of, Verizon Center, dressed in head-to-toe red, demonstrated collective joy in a visible and tangible way. Strangers drawn together by a singular drive to witness their team reach the pinnacle of the sport. I watched the crowds in DC from the comfort of my couch, but I could not help grinning ear to ear as I watched the Caps revelers – one daughter included! Joy is contagious, and it certainly was that in DC well into the wee hours of the morning as we watched and cheered each player who hoisted The Cup.

The very morning after the Caps were triumphant, Kent School graduated the Class of 2018. Collective joy abounded in the M.V. “Mike” Williams Gymnasium as families and friends celebrated an incredible group of 8th Graders. The love in the gym was palpable, and the joy I saw mirrored in the faces of the graduates and their proud parents will not soon fade away from my memory. Collectively, and singularly, each and every guest at the event held hope for the bright future of our graduates — whether they belonged in their family or not. Collective joy, collective hope and collective love together in one room — a very powerful threesome.

Later that same evening I got updates, complete with photos and video, from CMA Fest in Nashville where my daughters were on the floor in the third row, dancing and singing with thousands of country music fans. (Yes, the Baltimore daughter, who was in DC for the Caps, got on a plane very early the next morning to get to Nashville for sisters’ weekend — planned well before the Caps made history.) A year ago, Jim and I attended CMA Fest with them, and I can tell you firsthand that the collective joy at a four-day country music festival is good for the soul!

So much collective joy in such a short period of time. And, Justify won the Triple Crown the day after all of the above. I am overjoyed!

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.
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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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“The Ghost”: Bio of a Spymaster at the Bookplate Friday at 6:00 pm

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Is there a traitor or Russian spy in the White House?

If that question had been asked in the mid-20th Century, the job of answering it would have fallen to James Jesus Angleton, head of counterintelligence for the CIA and one of the most powerful men in America.

On Friday, June 15 at 6 p.m., Jefferson Morley will discuss his new book, THE GHOST: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, at the Bookplate, 112 S. Cross St., Chestertown.

The copy on the book’s dust jacket tells it well.  “CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton was one of the most powerful unelected officials in the United States government in the mid-twentieth century. …From World War II to the Cold War, Angleton operated beyond the view of the public, Congress, and even the president.  He unwittingly shared intelligence secrets with Soviet spy Kim Philby,  member of the notorious Cambridge spy ring. He launched mass surveillance by opening the mail of hundreds of thousands of Americans.  He abetted a scheme to aid Israel’s own nuclear efforts, disregarding U.S. security. He committed perjury and obstructed the FK assassination investigation. He oversaw a massive spying operation on the antiwar and black nationalist movements, and he initiated an obsessive search for Communist moles that nearly destroyed the Agency.

…from his friendship with the poet Ezra Pound through the gay milieu of mid-century Washington to the … Watergate scandal … the agency’s MKULTRA mind-control experiments.  [Angleton acquired] a mythic stature within the CIA that continues to this day.”

The author, Jefferson Morley, has been a reporter for more than 30 years, including 15 with the Washington Post. He is a specialist in intelligence, military and political matters. He also writes for Salon and The Intercept.

Refreshments will be served. Call 410-778-4167 for more information.

National Music Festival: One Week Left!

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Richard Rosenberg, NMF Artistic Director, conducts a concert during the 2017 National Music Festival.     Photo by Philip Rosenberg.

The National Music Festival, now in its seventh year in Chestertown, is one of the best classical music experiences around. And it’s a bargain! NMF concerts tickets run $10 to $20. You would pay $50, $100, or more for the equivalent quality in D.C., Philadelphia or New York. And some are even free! Most of the rehearsals are free and open to the public. They are very informal. You can come in at any point during the scheduled rehearsal time. Stay for fifteen minutes just to get the flavor or spend an hour and hear professional musicians hone their craft.

Monday, June 11, features The NewBassoon Institute. You can catch the small break-out rehearsals in any of three locations from 3:00-5:00 pm–at Tom Martin’s Bookplate or Chestertown Town Hall, both on Cross Street or at the River Club above the Evergrain Bread Company at the corner of High and Queen (entrance on Queen Street).  Then the three groups will come together for a full rehearsal with all musicians at the Sultana Education on Cross Street from 5:30-6:30. The concert itself starts at 7:30 at the Sultana. All the bassoon rehearsals and the concert are free and open to the public.

Check the open rehearsal schedule online here or the concert schedule here.

The National Music Festival will be Chestertown at various locations through Saturday, June 16, culminating with an all Tchaikovsky concert Saturday evening at 7:30 pm with the  Festival Symphony Orchestra at the  Chestertown Baptist Church.  Tickets are $20.  Richard Rosenberg will conduct.  Also featured will be cello soloist Gwen Krosnick and guest conductor Robert Stiles.

The Fiddlesticks ensemble with local children who took violin lessons provided free-of-charge by the National Music Festival staff during the school year got a chance to show their new skills during the opening concert of the festival held at the First United Methodist Church.      Photo by Philip Rosenberg.

Musicians rehearse for the first concert of the 2018 National Music Festival in Chestertown.     Photo by Philip Rosenberg.

 

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Letter to the Editor: Kent County Schools Budget Needs Increase

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Dear Mr Pickrum, Mr Fithian, and Mr. Short,

We have lived in Kent County for about a dozen years quietly paying our taxes and watching the School District struggle to improve itself against great odds. Those odds should not include our County Commissioners. We were ashamed of our Board of Commissioners when we read your comments from a few weeks ago disparaging our schools.

You talk about economic development and attracting more jobs to the county. That can’t happen without an excellent school system and an excellent school system can’t happen if school funding is always on the chopping block. The benefits of excellent schools reach far beyond the individual students and their families.

38% of the County budget puts us well below average for the state. Our teacher and administrator pay is way below average. Our spending per student is at the bottom of the heap. In spite of all the efforts of the administrators and school board, this is a downward spiral. You are pulling the rug out from under the efforts that have been showing measurable results. You can’t expect the schools to improve without giving them the resources to do so.

We are now retired and on a fixed income but we would rather see our taxes go up than see you slam the door in the face of the School District to the detriment of Kent County once again.

We hope you will reconsider.

Mary Lou Troy and Fred Kaiser
Rock Hall

Letter to the Editor: Fund Schools to Advance Economic Development

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I have a layman’s grasp of Kent County’s annual budget process. I attend most commissioner meetings and one recent cycle, I even attended every one of their afternoon budgeting sessions.

I’ve observed in detail how Mr. Pickrum, Mr. Fithian, and Mr. Short weigh and assess each department’s request and understand why they have such a difficult—maybe impossible—task: Compromising on a county budget that does not, and cannot, satisfy every need.

However, the commissioners’ proposed Fiscal 2019 budget is self-described as stressing “Economic Development” first and “Education” second. Why?

Kent County cannot assemble a successful economic development strategy/program without first guaranteeing that our public school system is fully funded:

  • Even if this means the commissioners must allocate more than 38 percent of the total county budget to the public schools.
  • Even if this means the commissioners must reduce spending elsewhere.
  • Even if this means the commissioners must increase the county property tax.

If the commissioners fully fund basic public services—public education, public safety, and public health—we can be assured that steady and healthy economic development can be a consequent result.

Yours truly,

Grenville B. Whitman

Rock Hall

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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