Chesapeake Bay’s Dead Zone to Grow this Summer; Breaks with Wave of Good News

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The Chesapeake Bay’s infamous “dead zone” will be larger than average this summer, scientists suggest in a new forecast that breaks with a wave of encouraging signs about the estuary’s health.

If their prediction is correct, 2018 will be the fourth year in a row that the size of the Bay’s oxygen-starved area has increased. The forecasted expansion can be chalked up to nutrients flushed into the Bay during the spring’s heavy rains, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the University of Michigan.

“The size is going to go up and down every year depending on the weather,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist and one of the report’s authors.

A “dead zone” is a popular term for waters that have very little oxygen (hypoxic) or none at all (anoxic). Fish tend to flee, and any marine life that can’t escape — usually shellfish — could suffocate.

New evidence seems to arrive almost daily suggesting that humans are turning the tide against the Chesapeake Bay’s many woes. Bay grasses are flourishing. Waters are less murky. Despite a harsh winter, the blue crab population’s rebound appears undaunted. Officials and scientists at a press conference on June 15 celebrated the Bay’s ability to maintain moderately healthy conditions in 2017 for the third year in a row.

But the dead zone has remained persistently large over the years, though it has been disappearing slightly earlier at the end of the summer.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, higher than average spring rains brought more than 85 million pounds of nitrogen into the Bay from the Susquehanna River, the primary source of nutrient pollution in the main portion of the Chesapeake. The Potomac River delivered another 30 million pounds to the Bay.

As a result, the dead zone is expected to be an average of 1.9 cubic miles this summer, a 5 percent increase over 2017, according to the forecast. That area of “hypoxic,” or low oxygen, water represents about 15 percent of the Bay’s total volume. Those numbers haven’t changed much over the years, said UMCES researcher Jeremy Testa, a co-author of the report.

Dead zone conditions already appeared to be forming in May, according to water quality-tracking by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The DNR Eyes on the Bay website showed that dissolved oxygen levels measured in early June had dipped into the danger zone for fish and shellfish from the Baltimore Harbor south to (and extending into) the Patuxent River. Along the Eastern Shore, the north-south boundaries are rougly the same — from Tolchester Beach in Kent County south to Dorchester County, across from the Patuxent.

Dead zones form are caused by excessive nutrients in the water, which cause algae to bloom. Ultimately, the algae die and sink to the bottom, where they are consumed by bacteria in a process that uses up the oxygen in the water. Low-oxygen waters are found throughout the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea.

The Chesapeake’s dead zone has ballooned since recordkeeping began in the 1950s as growing cities and farm fields shunted more nitrogen into the Bay, researchers say. One of the main goals of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay restoration program is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads — and shrink the dead zone.

The typical summer dead zone has measured about 1.7 cubic miles of water since 1985, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The largest recorded was 2.7 cubic miles in 2011.

While hypoxic water remains stubbornly abundant, anoxic conditions — the very worst areas where there is virtually no oxygen — are gradually improving, Testa said. This year’s anoxic portion of the Bay is expected to be 0.43 cubic miles.

Testa attributes the improved anoxic conditions to gradual reductions in the Susquehanna’s nitrogen concentration that began in the 1980s. Scavia said this year’s forecasted expansion isn’t too concerning because rain appears to be the main culprit.

“It’s the long-term trend that really matters,” he said.

by Jeremy Cox

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox teaches communications at Maryland’s Salisbury University. He has written for daily newspapers since 2002, most recently as an environment reporter for the Daily Times in Salisbury, where he is based.

Council to Pursue Tax Differential Answers

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(L-R) Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, and council members Linda Kuiper and David Foster

The Chestertown Council is exploring ways to recover the tax differential the town was at one time granted by Kent County. Councilman David Foster raised the issue at the end of the council’s Monday, June 18 meeting.

A tax differential, a payment or a discounted rate designed to compensate the county’s five towns — Chestertown, Rock Hall, Millington, Galena, and Betterton — for services such as police protection and street repair. With the towns providing those services, the counties are saved much of the cost of providing them. In the case of Chestertown, those services amount to some $3 million in the FY 2019 town budget.

Kent County stopped providing a tax differential in 2014 as a result of the 2008 recession, which led to a decline in tax revenues. At one point, the differential took the form of a “grant in aid” payment that amounted to some $116,000 at its peak – an amount that, as Mayor Chris Cerino noted, would allow the town to repave a couple of streets, at the very least. Cerino and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said they had approached the County Commissioners about a resumption of the tax differential during the county budget deliberations the last couple of years. Ingersoll said the county’s answer was, “You’re on the radar,” but no action was taken to restore the lost payment.

Foster said he had very little idea what tax differential was before being elected to the council last year. “I was embarrassed; I had property in town for over 20 years, and I had never, ever heard of it.” At the annual Maryland Municipal League (ML) meeting in Ocean City earlier this month, Foster asked representatives of other towns in the state whether they were receiving a tax differential. All the ones he asked said they were receiving either a direct payment or a discounted rate on the county property tax; in most cases, they said the amount had grown by 60 percent over the last few years. In contrast, Foster noted that Chestertown’s tax differential has “decreased by 100 percent.” According to Foster’s research, there are only three counties in the state that don’t provide some form of tax relief to their towns. Foster said he asked the county commissioners why they didn’t provide a differential, “and they kind of mumbled, ‘Oh, we don’t have the money.’ How is it all these other counties can do this?” Foster asked.

The commissioners, during a June 5 public hearing on the county budget, said that flat revenues and rising prices have forced them to make difficult choices, including some reductions of staff and trimming budget requests from many county departments. They did not mention the tax differential.

One commissioner was given the opportunity to address the question at a candidates’ forum for Republican candidates for commissioner, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Chestertown Councilwoman Linda Kuiper asked the candidates if they supported restoring the differential. Commissioner Billy Short, who is running for reelection, said the commissioners hope to restore the differential within five years. He said he would support it in the form of a reduced tax rate for the town, “giving the money directly back to the taxpayers.” Short said he didn’t understand why Chestertown needs to budget $1.8 million for police work. He went on to say there is considerable duplication of services between the town and county. “Our officers actually operate within Chestertown as well,” with Sheriff’s deputies frequently patrolling the streets, he said. The county also performs some road work within town, he said.

Recapitulating the exchange at the council meeting, Kuiper said that Short had cited the cost of the county’s high-speed internet project as a benefit the town was receiving. “I’m not seeing the advantages of it yet,” she said. She also noted that the Chestertown police department responds to calls for service beyond town limits, benefitting the county. “It didn’t take me very long to decide which commissioner candidate I was going to vote for,” she said.

The county’s property tax rate remains unchanged at $1.022 per $100 assessed value, and the income tax rate is also unchanged. Chestertown raised its property tax rates, which are in addition to the county taxes, by five cents to $0.42 per $100 assessed value.

Foster said he had spoken to Ryan Spiegel, the president-elect of MML about the problem, and was encouraged to write a request for the organization to consider it as an issue it would lobby for in Annapolis. He said the request might gain more attention with the General Assembly because Ocean City is suing Worcester County over the issue. If there were no objections, Foster said he would like to submit a letter requesting that the MML support a requirement that all counties provide a tax differential. He noted that the state code differentiates between counties that “may” provide such a differential and those that “shall,” with Kent falling into the former category. Nine of the state’s counties–primarily the larger, more urban counties–are required to grant some form of tax differential to the incorporated towns as those residents who are in practically all cases already paying taxes for services which the county therefore does not need to provide. Foster said that one of the questions he wanted to ask MML was how the town might go about changing the county’s status from “may” to “shall.”

Cerino asked if such a change would require the local delegates to the General Assembly to support the measure. “It would certainly help,” said Foster. “I think it’s an uphill battle.”

“I totally agree with you; it’s crazy we don’t get anything,” Cerino said. He noted that Chestertown has one-quarter of the county’s population. “For those of you who live in Chestertown, you’re paying full property tax rates to the county, and you’re basically getting no services in return,” he said. “Technically, you’re getting police protection, but 99 out of 100 calls for service are answered by our police.” He listed other services not being supplied by the county to town residents, including snow removal, trash collection, and recycling–services which are provided to residents who live outside the town limits. “What we’re getting is, we’re underwriting services for everyone else in the county. And that’s why (the county commissioners) don’t want to give us a rebate. They have a great deal, they know it, and they have no impetus to change it.”

Foster noted that the majority of the county’s small businesses are located in the towns, and therefore are subject to the higher property tax rates, whether directly or through higher rent payments. That makes the issue one of economic development as well as of fairness, he said. “It’s worth a shot” to try to push for legislative action, he said. He also noted that the makeup of the county commission may change after the November election.

Foster said he would be happy to draft the letter to MML. “It’s not just for Kent County,” he noted. “There’s already 13 counties that fall under this ‘may provide.’ So we’re not alone in this.”

Councilman Marty Stetson suggested that Foster write the letter and the rest of the council add their signatures. Cerino said he would be glad to sign it, but he said it would be important to get more town residents to support the issue. He noted that most are unaware that there is any problem.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked if it would be worthwhile to mount a public relations campaign to inform residents of the issue. Foster said he hoped the media were listening and that they would report on the council discussion. The other thing the town can try to do is get groups like the League of Women Voters to add it to the list of questions they ask candidates for office, he said.

Councilman Marty Stetson said that council members who get complaints about their votes to increase town taxes can reply that the increase wouldn’t have been necessary if the county were still providing the tax differential.

Ingersoll said he had made that point during budget discussions. “A simple way to understand it is ‘double taxation,’” he said. He said the commissioner’s saying a restoration of the tax differential was “on their radar” was hard to understand in an election year. “On whose radar? Are you going to be in or out?” he asked to wrap up the discussion as the council moved on to other issues.

Look for continuing coverage of this issue as it evolves.  As available, the Spy will post copies of the letters on the tax differential from the town of Chestertown to Kent County and to the Maryland Municipal League or other relevant documents.

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Sultana Offers to Buy Excess Property from Town

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Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino (L)  listens as Town Manager Bill Ingersoll describes an offer to purchase excess town property

The town of Chestertown has received an offer to purchase a vacant plot of land near the old railroad station, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said at the June 18 meeting of the Mayor and Council.

The 1.16-acre property, which the town acquired from the Penn Central railroad when it ceased its local train service around 1980, is basically an upland wetland, Ingersoll said. The town offered it to a neighboring property owner for $5,000 at the time, but there was no interest. The town listed the lot as excess property in 2006, and now it has found a prospective buyer in Sultana Educational Foundation.

Sultana’s plan is to combine it with an adjoining 5-acre parcel owned by Washington College, for use as an educational wetland preserve for Sultana’s environmental programs for K-12 students. Architect Miles Barnard has submitted a detailed plan for the project, which will be presented to the town’s planning commission. Sultana has offered $15,000 for the lot.

Ingersoll said the property is not on the tax rolls, and that its location won’t affect the potential development of the college-owned Stepney property. “It looks pretty exciting to me,” he said. He asked the council to authorize him to go ahead with negotiations for the sale. The council voted its approval, conditional on the planning commission’s approval of the proposed use. Mayor Chris Cerino, who is employed by Sultana, recused himself.

Chestertown Recreation Commission Chair Amy Meeks

The council also heard a report from Amy Meeks, chair of the town’s Recreation Commission. Meeks gave a summary of the commission’s recent activities, including a summer film program, participation in festivals, and plans for upgrading Washington Park, for which the commission has received a Community Parks and Playgrounds grant from the state of Maryland. Also, Meeks requested permission to install a swing set in Margo Bailey Park, near the dog park enclosure. The council approved the site and the expenditure of $2,700 for the equipment. Accompanying Meeks to the meeting were new commission member James Bogden and Harold Somerville, whom Meeks asked the council to appoint to the commission.

Also at the meeting, the council approved a resolution to raise the town’s fees for building permits. Ingersoll said the current fees have been in effect since 2008, and he described the increase as “modest.” The fee rate is essentially $0.50 per square foot for new residential projects and $ 0.40 for substantial rehabilitation of an existing property. For properties larger than 3,000 square feet, the per-square-foot rate is reduced to half the usual rate for the additional area. Thus, a 3,000-square-foot new property would cost $1,500 for the permit while refurbishing a similar property would be $1,200. Smaller projects such as fences, roofs siding, or sheds come in at $75.

The complete rate list is available from town hall.

In his Mayor’s report, Cerino gave an update on work at the marina, including the installation of the first floating pier. Next step is to add the finger piers, Cerino said. Work to extend the Cannon Street pier will commence next week, with schooner Sultana out of town on its summer cruise.

Chestertown Police Chief Adrian Baker

Also at the meeting, Police Chief Adrian Baker delivered the departmental report for May, and Main Street Manager Kay MacIntosh gave a brief report on the facade improvement grants to several downtown businesses.

At the end of the meeting, Councilman David Foster reported on his research into a tax differential arrangement between the town and the county, which has been in abeyance for several years following the 2008 recession. Tax differentials, which most Maryland counties provide to their associated municipalities, are meant to compensate the towns for providing services such as police protection and street repair which the county consequently doesn’t need to pay for. The Spy will publish a full account of the discussion in an upcoming story.

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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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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.

Spy Time with Congressman Andy Harris

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It is safe to say that Sunday afternoon did not turn out to be what Congressman Andy Harris had expected when he dutifully showed up the League of Women Voters forum.

Anticipating to share the stage with two GOP opponents in the Republican primary race on June 26, Dr. Harris instead learned that both Martin Elborn and Lamont Taylor were “no shows” which prompted the LWV to cancel the event to be in compliance with the League’s standing rule that a forum can not take place with only one candidate in attendance.

To Rep. Harris’ credit, he nonetheless stayed in the lobby for close to an hour to answer questions from constituents, many of whom were Democrats, which centered around the Congressman’s long-standing opposition to the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).

He also took a few minutes with the Spy to answer our questions about the current Congress, his support and a few disappointments of President Donald Trump’s leadership and analyzing his chances to keep the 1st Congressional seat in the 2018 general election in November.

This video is approximately seven minutes in length.

The Public Schools Funding Challenge: What did Talbot County Do?

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As many of our readers know, the Spy goes out of its way to cover public affairs through the lens of a hyperlocal perspective. While our articles of the arts and regional culture frequently are shared in both the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy, when it comes to local government coverage, we have kept Kent County and Talbot County issues separated in our online publications to best serve the needs of these uniquely different communities.

But periodically, both counties must face the same challenges in how they collect revenue and support local priorities. And this is undoubtedly the case when it comes to not only covering the annual budget expense of their respective public schools through Maryland’s “maintenance of effort”(MOE) requirement, the bare minimum a county must provide for their school districts, but more frequently these days, must find funding well beyond that number to keep their schools competitive.

Last week, the Kent County Commissioners and residents found themselves in a heated discussion as Kent County faces this kind of challenge in the next fiscal year budget. And this conversation comes at a time when the Talbot County Council has had to face a similar issue and recently approved a substantial increase over the required MOE, despite the fact that all five members were fiscally conservative Republicans.

Without commentary, the Spy shares below an outtake of a recent GOP forum where four out of the five council members discuss their decision to raise taxes to fund the Talbot County Public Schools in the new budget year. Starting with Jennifer Williams, president of the Talbot County Council, and following by Council members Cory Pack, Chuck Callahan and Laura Price, discuss their rationale in voting for the substantial increase.

This video is approximately ten minutes in length.

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 $0.42 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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