Public Service Commission Can Overrule Local Government, Court Says


The Maryland Court of Appeals reaffirmed on Tuesday that the Maryland Public Service Commission is the final arbiter on the location and approval of solar projects larger than two megawatts—and can preempt local jurisdictions after giving “due consideration” to local zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans.

The ruling cites the historical “intent” of the Maryland General Assembly in passing public utilities law as well as recent amendments enacted in 2017 that reinforced the PSC’s  “decision-making” authority.

The court affirmed that it has always upheld the broad powers of the PSC given to it in statute by the legislature “to execute its principal duty of assuring adequate electrical service statewide.”

And while the court recognized local government as a partner in the decision process, “the ultimate decision-maker is the PSC, not the local government or local zoning board.”

The court did, however, note the PSC’s obligation to consider local land use laws when approving applications for solar projects that require a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.

Local zoning laws are “nevertheless a statutory factor requiring due consideration by the PSC in rendering its ultimate decision,” the ruling said.

The recent court ruling comes from a case in Washington County where local residents fought Perennial Solar, LLC ‘s application in late 2015 for a variance to build an 86-acre solar farm near the village of Cearfoss.

The Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals approved the application, ruling that the project conformed to the comprehensive plan.  Residents soon petitioned the Washington County Circuit Court to kill the project because it would blight the rural landscape.

But Perennial filed a motion challenging the jurisdiction of the circuit court on the grounds that state law gave the PSC final authority under the state’s Public Utilities Article, passed by the Maryland General Assembly, to approve the placement of solar energy generating systems. The circuit court agreed.

The Washington County Commissioners and a group of citizens appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which sided with the circuit court in affirming the state’s preemptive authority.

The Washington Commissioners brought the case to Maryland Court of Appeals in late 2018 on the grounds that the General Assembly had “prescribed a role for local government” through local planning and zoning that was not preempted by the PSC.

But the appeals court sided with Perennial, citing case law, the 2017 amendments to public utilities article, and bills that failed in the General Assembly to allow for greater local control.

“Our holding that the General Assembly’s intent to preempt local comprehensive planning and zoning on matters related to the ultimate siting and construction of generating stations is bolstered by the recent amendments to the statute, as well as our consideration of the proposed bills, which were rejected,” the court said.

“If the General Assembly intended to change the existing law, it certainly had the opportunity to do so,” the court said.

The recent ruling received a cool response from Queen Anne’s Conservation Association Executive Director Jay Falstad, who highlighted the PCS’s obligation to local jurisdictions in the ruling.

“Given everything we’ve heard about the great importance of allowing land-use decisions to be made by the Counties rather than by the State, we’re somewhat surprised that the Court of Appeals has ruled unanimously that it’s the State, not the Counties, that will decide where in a County any big solar project is to be located,” Falstad wrote in an email to the Spy. ”But the Court is very careful to emphasize many times over that the PSC is legally required to listen to the County’s views and to give “due consideration” to how the County treats solar projects in its comprehensive plan and zoning regulations.  So, as an environmental organization that strongly supports solar projects when they are built in the right places, we at QACA will go on working at both levels, state and local, for good decision-making about solar in Queen Anne’s County and its neighbors.”

Though disappointed with the ruling, the Kent Conservation Alliance, through its attorney Chris Drummond, said the PSC over the past few years has actually been more proactive in working with local communities on renewable energy projects.

“The Kent and Queen Anne’s County Commissioners are surely disappointed with the Court of Appeals decision,” Drummond wrote in an email to the Spy. “However, the attitude among state agencies regarding local land use and zoning concerns seems to have changed in the past few years. Now, the state agencies that provide information and recommendations to the Public Service Commission actively seek local input and include those concerns in reports to the PSC. Recently, solar applications have been approved by the PSC with conditions that require compliance with local site plan and landscaping requirements. We will work to make sure that the state agencies continue to take local concerns and land use regulations seriously.”

Drummond filed an amicus brief in support of the Washington County Commissioners.

Maryland Association of Counties said the decision was a disappointment but said the organization would “continue to advocate for a county voice in the decision-making process” and that the 2017 legislation did not sideline local governments in the approval process.

“The court’s decision reiterated important parts of state law that require the Commission to give due consideration to the position of a local government on an energy generation projects,” said Les Knapp, chief policy counsel for MACo in an email to the Spy.

But the attorney representing the Washington County citizens group, William Wantz, was not as optimistic and said Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore would soon feel the encroachment of solar farms.

“The availability of farmland at reasonable cost will periodically result in a disproportionate concentration of solar farms displacing agriculture in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, where rural land prices are cheap.”


Council Discusses Ways to Restore July 4 Fireworks Display Next Year


Chestertown council members, at the July 15 meeting, responded to numerous complaints from the public about the lack of a July 4 fireworks display this year.

Fireworks were dropped from the FY2019 budget during deliberations last Spring, in response to tightened fiscal circumstances that also led to an increase in the town’s property tax rate. However, since a 2018 fireworks show had been already included in the previous budget and was already under contract, the town went ahead with the display last summer on July 4, 2018. The town website did not mention that there would be no display in 2019, and many residents evidently assumed it would take place “as usual.” Some online search engines, including Google, made the same assumption and erroneously listed Chestertown as one of the Shore towns with a July 4 fireworks show.

Chestertown Councilwoman Linda Kuiper and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll described the reaction as “a lot of flak,” adding that one complaint that “went overboard” was turned over to the police. “If everyone out there who’s angry wants to donate, this is a good time,” Ingersoll said. He said the town could put up “an unbelievable show in the space that we have” for $7,500. He said the town could start accepting donations for next year right away.

“A lot of people should have known,” said Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, who presided over the meeting while Mayor Chris Cerino was on vacation. She noted that the decision to eliminate the fireworks display was made more than a year ago. “Maybe they just weren’t paying attention,” she said. She asked how far in advance of a proposed fireworks show would the town need to start obtaining the necessary permits.

Ingersoll said permits from the U.S. Coast Guard and “the bomb squad” need to be obtained three months before a proposed display, “so we usually start in February.” He said the town has staged the display on the same small site near Wilmer Park for several years now. “It’s very visible from the river,” he said.

Councilman Marty Stetson said the town should try to find some community organization that would take on the fireworks display. He said he felt it was unfair to taxpayers to fund the display out of public money when not all of them are interested in fireworks. He said after the meeting that he knows of very few residents of Ward 4, which he represents, who go to the show. He said that Rock Hall, which finances its fireworks from donations, actually has money left over after the show, which he said costs about $20,000.

“I know the boating community was upset,” said Stetson. He said he asked people who complained to him how much money they would be willing to contribute for a show. “I think it would be great if some other organization heads it up,” he said. “The government doesn’t do well raising funds.”

Kay MacIntosh of Main Street Chestertown said there had been discussions last year about her organization possibly taking over the fireworks, but she would have to talk to her board before she could make any commitment. She said the organizers of a Fall Car Show scheduled for September told her that if the show made any money they could donate it to the cause. MacIntosh said she had gone on vacation to a little town in Pennsylvania where the local businesses sponsored the display, and there were signs all along the road acknowledging the sponsors.

Councilman David Foster said he had talked to members of the town’s fire department who had a booth at the Farmers Market last Saturday. He said they appeared willing to consider the idea, although they made no commitment. He said he had written them a letter proposing the idea for them to discuss at the next department meeting, which he couldn’t attend because it took place at the same time as the council meeting. He pointed out that the fire department is in need of more volunteers, and that they have “fundraising challenges of their own.” As a result, it would probably require another organization to work with them to do some of the fundraising and advertising. Also, he said, the firefighters would probably want to touch base with the Rock Hall Fire Department to see what was involved. “I was pleased that they would be willing to discuss this on short notice,” he said. He said he would report what he heard back from them.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said there are several community organizations “that want to contribute and make it happen,” and that working with the fire department could be a good way to bring all the resources together.

Also at the meeting, the council heard the monthly police report; a report on proposed “no parking” bags to place on downtown meters when a festival or other event requiring street closings is scheduled; and a short preview of the September car show. Look for a full account of these and other town council matters in an upcoming issue of the Chestertown Spy.


Staff Shortage at Kent Center Blamed on Low Wages and Stress


Kent Center President Randy Cooper takes a moment with a Kent Center client, June 28, 2019

As Maryland’s minimum wage rises to $15 by 2025 so do concerns that direct support staff serving Maryland’s developmentally disabled will make a career change to McDonald’s, where working the drive-thru pays almost the same.

“Support staff wear many hats” and the work is stressful,  said Kent Center’s Executive Director Karine Ireland at a legislative breakfast on June 28 to commemorate nearly 50 years of serving clients in Kent County. “The staff needs increased training and increased pay.”

Low wages continue to plague recruitment and retention, which caregiver organizations in Maryland have called a “crisis.” They say starting wages must exceed the minimum wage by a wider margin than currently exists to recruit and retain a workforce.

There are over 200 organizations in Maryland like Kent Center that serve 25,000 developmentally disabled; they rely almost exclusively on Medicaid and state dollars that flow through the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration to pay support staff.

A third of new DDA support staff in the state quit after six months and nearly half resign after one year. The attrition is the result of high stress and low wages, according to the Maryland Association of Community Services, a group that advocates for caregiver organizations. Courtney Williams, administration director for Kent Center, said their retention rate was close to the state average.

Ireland said all support staff require emergency medical training and certification to administer medications. They also undergo extensive training in conflict resolution and mentoring — in order to provide the job coaching and life skills clients need to integrate into the community.

The breakfast included a tour of the facility on Scheeler Road where job readiness and mentoring programs are run. There are currently 12 clients employed in the community with the help of the center’s Supported Employment Services.

Delegates. Jay Jacobs, R-Kent, and Steve Arentz, R-Queen Anne’s, attended the breakfast and blamed the rising minimum wage on the chronic staff shortages in DDA funded facilities.

“A $15 minimum wage actually hurt this place, it didn’t help it at all,” Jacobs said. “That $15 may sound good in the outside world but it actually harmed the workers in the pay scales.”

Arentz and Jacobs voted against the $15 wage hike that passed in Annapolis this year.

But caregiver organizations lobbied in Annapolis for “the fight for $15” and asked for a 7% bump in DDA’s budget. The legislature cut the request back to 3.5% for 2020 and 4% for years 2021-2026.

As the minimum wage rises, entry-level workers in 2025 will make about 60 cents more than new hires at McDonald’s, the difference could be even less if the burger chain is paying more than the minimum wage by then. See figure 1.

The average starting wage in DDA facilities is $10.50 to 11.00. The Kent Center’s starting wage is $10.66 —  just 56 cents above the current minimum wage, a gap of just 5%.

The staff turnover over at the Kent Center is 22%, which is slightly lower than the state average of 25%. The center needs 50 more recruits by February to run programs at the facility and staff 14 full-time residences in the community. The center currently has 150 support staff for roughly 80 clients.

In 2006 the reimbursement rate was 69% above the state minimum wage; this year the gap has narrowed to 19%. But new employees are actually paid much closer to the minimum wage because providers, mostly community nonprofits, must reward employees with tenure at a higher wage to maintain retention.

The state tried to address the gap in the Minimum Wage Act of 2014 and tied the reimbursement rate to the minimum wage. The Act came with a mandate that set the reimbursement rate to a level above the state’s minimum wage in order to attract and maintain the workforce.

“The current rate is not enough when you can [start] at Giant earning $12.35,” said Laura Howell, executive director of Maryland Association of Community Services in brief phone interview. She said the vacancy rate was compromising the safety of staff and clients in facilities like the Kent Center.

Figure 1. Maryland Association of Community Services

Ireland spoke of one success story at the center where a client landed a better paying job than the support staff who trained him. Williams said there were other instances where staffers quit after learning they could earn more where their former clients had found work.

The workforce shortage has also raised concerns among aging parents whose children rely on the Kent Center.

“If I’m not there or my husband is not there, someone has to be,” said Linda Cades, whose 40-year-old son has relied on the Kent Center for 20 years. “We need to get good people to do this. We need to know that our kids are safe because they are extremely vulnerable.”

She said the center provided the socialization her son needed to know people with and without disabilities. Her son was also able to perform work, participating in the contract mailing and shredding services the center offers.

In their 70s, Cades said she and her husband worry about their son’s care after they pass on.

“I need to know that when I’m not here to run interference he’s going to be OK, in a place where people care about him,” she said. “Wages have been so low over the years that it extremely difficult to recruit, train and retain people.” She said the staff vacancies were putting greater burdens on the existing staff doing “very difficult work” for as low as $21,000 a year.

The Kent Center receives 99% of its revenue from DDA. Only 1% comes from private donations, said Kent Center Chairman Randy Cooper. He is also the founder of Radcliffe Corporate Services in Chestertown.

Cooper said a $500 donation earns a $250 tax credit on the Maryland tax return.

Environmental Committee Asks Chestertown to Endorse Federal Carbon Dividend Act


Hope Clark speaks to the Chestertown Council for the town’s Environmental Committee

The Chestertown Council, at its meeting July 1, heard a presentation by the town’s Environmental Committee about H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act currently before the U.S. Congress. Hope Clark of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Chestertown chapter, made the presentation, outlining the possible benefits of the act and asking if the council wanted to endorse the proposed legislation.

Clark began by showing the council maps created by the Army Corps of Engineers to delineate areas of the town projected to be subject to tidal flooding over the next five to 10 years. After viewing the maps, Mayor Chris Cerino asked what the surge would be in the event of a major hurricane or tropical storm. He said the town experienced a surge 8 feet above high tide during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003. Clark explained the color scheme, which showed a surge of more than 3 feet in purple. She asked what plans the town has for dealing with flooding.

Cerino said the town raised the parking lot of the marina between 1.5 and 3 feet in response to chronic flooding. The marina store and office were moved to the higher end of the parking lot to minimize their exposure to possible flooding. The dock at the foot of High Street is county property, and not in the town’s purview, Cerino said. Also, Wilmer Park is subject to “a lot of overwash,” and in need of attention. He said the town was working on a proposal in conjunction with Washington College to install a waterfront walkway along property extending from Wilmer Park to the Armory. He said one option might be to eliminate bulkheads and install living shorelines, as in the section of Wilmer Park near the pavilion. The challenge, he said, is that the project would be “crazy expensive,” but on the other hand, there is no critical infrastructure exposed along the riverfront in those areas.

Cerino and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll also noted that the town has made a major commitment to renewable energy by installing a 3-megawatt solar array at the town’s wastewater plant, providing essentially 100 percent of the town government’s usage. Ingersoll said the town has also contracted to buy power in 3-year blocks, with a plan to shift entirely to solar in its next contract. He said the contracts had saved the town more than $100,000 in power bills.

Clark said the Environmental Committee was asking the town to look at the bigger picture, and possibly endorse H.R. 763. She said the bill proposes a fee on the production of carbon dioxide, beginning at $15 a ton and increasing by $10 each year, as a way to encourage businesses and manufacturers to switch to renewable energy sources. The money raised would be returned directly to taxpayers, instead of going to governmental agencies. In addition, the law is expected to create in excess of 2.1 million local jobs in renewable energy and other areas. And the removal of fossil fuels from the energy mix will create a healthy environment, saving numerous lives.

The Chestertown Mayor and Council in session, July 1 — (L-R) Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver, town clerk Jen Mulligan, Mayor Chris Cerino, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, and Councilman David Foster

Councilman David Foster, who sits with the Environmental Committee, said that the latter provision makes the proposed law “close to being bipartisan” in its appeal. He said it would cost the town nothing to endorse it, and that our children and grandchildren would applaud the effort to slow climate change.

Cerino asked who, if anyone, opposes the proposed law.

Foster said that climate change deniers would be the primary opponents. He said there are “not too many” of those in Chestertown.

Clark said the proposed law has more than 50 co-sponsors in the House, and that more than 100,000 citizens have endorsed it. Also, a number of large cities have expressed their support for the measure.

Cerino said he is definitely convinced of the reality of global warming. However, he said he would need to study the proposed law more carefully. “It’s not necessarily the town’s job to endorse federal legislation,” he said. He said he was also concerned about a possible precedent, encouraging groups with all kinds of agendas – he mentioned abortion and gun rights – to lobby the town to support their positions.

Ingersoll said he worried about the funds actually reaching ordinary citizens – “Money to Washington touches too many hands to expect the same amount that goes in to come out,” he said.

Cora Dickson of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby said the town’s endorsement would be an important symbolic gesture, and that she hoped the council would do so.

Ingersoll said there was no inherent problem with the council as a whole or individual members making such an endorsement. He suggested that the committee draft a statement for the council to consider at a future meeting. Clark said she would be happy to do so.

Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes

Town Utilities Director Bob Sipes, in his monthly report, outlined several items of equipment upkeep and maintenance the department has recently had to make. He said that many pieces of equipment at the 13-year-old wastewater plant are near or past their expected lifetime. He began replacing or upgrading equipment seven years ago, he said.

Foster said he had made a note to himself to ask Sipes “what keeps you up at nights” as far as possible problems with the water and sewer systems.

Sipes said the water mains are the oldest part of the system, with some of them more than a century old. The oldest are made of rolled steel, which can’t be repaired beyond patching small holes. He said the pipes along Maple Avenue from the bridge and along Washington Avenue past the college are especially worrisome – he cited a break in one pipe 11 years ago, which crews had to dig through a foot of concrete to reach.

Also, Sipes said, the town water plant is between 80 and 90 years old, and some buildings are beginning to lean. He said they will need to be replaced within the next 20 years. He said he also needs to upgrade the restroom at the plant, which has no shower. “I’ll try to budget for that,” he said.

During ward reports, Foster said he had met with County Commissioner Ron Fithian about the possible resumption of the tax differential the county formerly paid the town for services such as police protection and street repair that the town performs out of its own budget. He said that Fithian has agreed to some kind of audit by a neutral party to determine how much the town is saving the county for such services, and that Commissioners Tom Mason and Bob Jacob have reportedly agreed as well.

Cerino said the cost savings the town supplies to the county are considerable. “It won’t be a small number,” he said.

Ingersoll said he has annual budget figures available and can supply them to whoever performs an audit.

The council also voted to appoint Rob Busler to fill a vacancy on the town’s Planning Commission, and the Rev. Charles L. Barton to a vacancy on the Historic District Commission. Both votes were unanimous.

ShoreRivers Receives Restoration Grant to Help the Upper Chester


ShoreRivers recently received $370,000 from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to mitigate nutrient runoff into the upper Chester River at the Jones Family Farm, the largest dairy farm in Maryland.

The wetland restoration project is scheduled for completion by the fall of 2020, said Isabel Hardesty, deputy director of ShoreRivers, a nonprofit that advocates a science-based approach to a healthier Bay watershed.

The project calls for the construction of a 5-acre wetland and a stream to prevent runoff from 400 acres of crop land.

“These practices will filter nutrients and sediment before they reach the headwaters of the upper Chester River and increase natural habitat,” Hardesty said.

“We value working with our agricultural partners to implement innovative projects on farms to reduce pollution,” She said. “This project is one of a series on the Jones Family Farm as part of a comprehensive, “full-farm” approach. We are installing practices that will increase habitat for birds and pollinators, leading to healthier water quality.”

DNR awarded 96 grants worth $31 million to help local stewards in the state improve water quality, according to a June 25 press release.

“We are pleased to support these innovative projects that will help us achieve our environmental goals,” Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said. “In addition to improving the resilience of our communities, these projects will protect our local streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay in measurable ways.”

The grants were made possible with funding from EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coastal Resiliency Program.


Feature image: Sunset at the Jones Family Farm


Council Will Not Replace Resigning Police Recruit


Chestertown Police Chief Adrian Baker

At the Chestertown Council meeting Monday, June 17, Police Chief Adrian Baker reported that one of two recruits recently hired by the town has resigned to take a position with another nearby town.

Baker, who said he was “disappointed” by the resignation, said the town invested a good deal of time and money in training the recruit, and it was unclear how much the town could recoup, although the recruit had signed a contract. He said it appeared unlikely the town could recoup the recruit’s salary to date, although the expense of his academy training, including uniforms, equipment, and ammunition used in training was probably recoverable. He said the contract required the recruit to pay the town “a certain amount of money” within 30 days if he left the department early.

Baker said that other chiefs in the area told him there was strong competition for qualified recruits. He said there used to be a “gentleman’s agreement” that towns wouldn’t “steal the guy next door,” but that no longer held true. One agency on the Shore is paying a $10,000 bonus to officers who will sign on, Baker said. He said he would try to find ways to prevent such an occurrence in the future, but it was by no means unique to his department.

He said had been very pleased with the council’s decision several months ago to fund hiring two new officers to bring the force up to a total of 14. He asked whether the council wanted to authorize him to hire another certified officer to return the force to 14, or to stay at the current total of 13.

My inclination is to stay with 13,” said Mayor Chris Cerino. “I feel like we’ve been operating at 12, actually, for several months now.” He added, “We’ve basically paid for this guy to take a job with another department.” Cerino noted that the police department is a very large fraction of the town’s budget and that the town is facing a very tight budget year.

Councilman Marty Stetson, a former town police chief, said that when times get better, the additional officer could be restored to the force’s budget. He said that the town would probably have to make the same decision not to replace someone who left the street department, “under the restraints we have now.”

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper said that the town should not reduce the police department’s budget in case they found they need another officer.

Cerino said that in view of the fact that the budget was so tight, “I would rather look at this as a cost savings,” giving the town a $50,000 cushion. He said that if one of the town’s revenue projections falls short, or if an unexpected expense arises, the money could be critical in balancing the books. He noted that none of the town staff is receiving a raise this budget year.

Kuiper then asked that the money budgeted for the new officer be put in a restricted fund, to be expended only by an explicit council vote.

Councilman David Foster said that if he had known the state of the town’s finances when he voted to send two recruits to the academy, he might well have voted to send only one. He said the town should postpone any decision on whether to replace the recruit until it had a better idea whether it was above or below its projected expenses.

Stetson said that if the town had a surplus at the end of the year, he would like to see the employees get “a decent raise,” especially the ones who have stayed with the town over a period of years. He said he would recommend that the town freeze hiring except if it needed to replace an essential employee such as the police chief.

Baker said that he understood the financial constraints. However, he asked that if another officer leaves, that the town consider maintaining the force at 13.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said he considered 13 “an ideal compromise.” He said it has been hard for the town to retain 12 officers consistently. Ingersoll said it was important for the town to have “a little cushion” for contingencies. The amount saved by not replacing the officer is “a payday and a half” in terms of the overall budget, he said. He said the town should be angry at a neighboring town “poaching” its recruits. He compared it to “heading up to the maternity ward and taking somebody’s baby right after they’ve delivered.” He said the town had paid the recruit’s salary and benefits for four months “when they’re really absolutely not doing anything for the police department other than going to school.” He said the recruit had only been available for the Tea Party festival.

Baker said the town could have lost still more money if the recruit had stayed to complete field training, which he said is very labor intensive. He said he appreciated the council’s consideration of his query whether to remain at 13 officers or seek another recruit.

Kuiper made a motion to put the officer’s $42,000 plus the $5,000 academy costs that would be refunded into a restricted fund so it isn’t expended without an explicit council vote. She said it would be equivalent to the $200,000 paid for the armory by Washington College, which was placed in a restricted fund to be used only for waterfront infrastructure projects.

Cerino said he didn’t think the funds needed to be restricted. He said they should be available in case of an unanticipated shortfall of revenue or expense, such as needing to purchase a truck. “It’s there in case we have unexpected costs,” he said.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he worried that the money might be spent piecemeal over a period of time without being specifically accounted for. “It’s gone, and we don’t know where it went,” he said. He seconded Kuiper’s motion.

Stetson said that if anyone exceeded their budget they already need to come to the council for additional funds.

After some discussion about what the restriction would apply to, the council voted 3-2 against the motion to restrict the funds, with Kuiper and Tolliver voting in favor.

Also at the meeting, the council approved three resolutions supporting local businesses applying for Enterprise Zone income tax credits for creating new full-time jobs. Dixon Valve plans to add 10 jobs at its four locations; Dixon Valve Group plans to add one new job at each of two different locations; and Kent Athletic and Wellness Club plans to add one new job at each of two locations. The resolutions were approved unanimously.

Cerino, in his mayor’s report, nominated Rob Busler to fill a vacancy on the Planning Commission and the Rev. Charles Barton to fill a vacancy on the Historic District Commission. The council will vote on the nominations at its next meeting, July 1.

Foster, Fithian Ready to Work Together on Tax Differential


Chestertown Ward 1 Councilman David Foster appeared before the Kent Commissioners on Tuesday, June 11, striking a more conciliatory tone than at the June 4 meeting over a tax differential he said the county owes Chestertown.

In his remarks, Foster acknowledged the efforts of the commissioners to fund public services.

Chestertown Councilman David Foster 

“I recognize that our county commissioners are working hard for all of us,” he said. “I admire your efforts; I appreciate them; that doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree, but I do admire and respect your work on behalf of all of us.”

Foster insisted that the issue should not be a choice between funding the school system or paying a differential to the town, which was apparent at the June 4 meeting when Commissioner President Tom Mason said a “place holder” of $100,000 originally slated for Chestertown was diverted to the school system for fiscal 2020.

Foster said the commissioners should fund both because it’s “the right thing to do” and represents an “investment in the economic development of our county.” Foster then proposed the commissioners and the town begin work next month on a formula for a tax differential.

The differential is a rebate on property taxes town residents pay the county for services like police, street cleaning and planning & zoning, which the town provides and pays for out of its own budget. The differential exists in the vast majority of counties in the form of a lower county tax rate to town residents or a direct cash payout to the municipality, but not in all cases.

The lack of the differential to Chestertown has been named as a culprit in the town’s decision to raise the town property tax by 5 cents last year and another penny for fiscal 2020.

Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian Photo by Jane Jewell

Chestertown officials have said the lack of a differential to the town amounts to double taxation as town residents are forced to pay the county for services the town already provides.

At the June 4 meeting Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino named towns like Crisfield and Princess Anne in Somerset County that receive differentials to make a case for Chestertown, but Commissioner Ron Fithian questioned whether the examples given in Somerset mirrored the same “structure” of responsibilities as in Kent and asked for “apples to apples” comparisons to see if Chestertown was being shortchanged. He said Kent pays about $1 million to operate eight firehouses – in addition to another $1.7 million for EMTs and paramedics.

In fiscal 2018, Somerset County gave a rebate of $196,000 to Princess Anne, but the town doesn’t actually see the money. Instead, the rebates go directly to the fire department to cover the cost of paramedics, according to an analysis from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services (page 23). However, Kent County pays for these services directly out of the general fund, and in 2018 paid $190,000 to fund emergency services in Chestertown, according to the Kent Office of Finance.

But Queen Anne’s County paid $9.1 million (page 7) to fund its emergency services in 2019 and still paid a $577,000 differential to compensate the Town of Centreville for duplicate services related to roads, police and planning and zoning. (page 22)

Fithian said at the close of the meeting that he would work with Foster in the next budget year if unfairness could be identified.

“I assure you, if you can show me where we’re being unfair after we’ve compiled everything, I’ll work with you to make a difference in the upcoming budget next year,” he said.

But in the DLS analysis, there is no clear-cut way to find an exact apple-to-apple comparison, as Fithian requested. There is no doppelganger county to compare, which could make it hard for towns in Kent County to win any argument on tax relief.

There were many counties in the analysis that provided tax relief for the duplication of police services and planning and zoning. Calvert County provided a differential to Chesapeake Beach that included money for economic development. And four counties provided a differential for parks and recreation.

Future discussions between the town and the county will need to determine where services are truly duplicated in Kent in order to create a formula for a fair tax differential or rebate.


Eastern Shore Advocate and MD House Speaker Clayton Mitchell Dies at 83


The Baltimore Sun reports this morning that one of the Eastern Shore’s most powerful advocates has passed away at his home in Kennedyville, Maryland.

Read the full story here

Foster, Cerino Scold Commissioners Over Budget


Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino (right) testifies at the Kent County public hearing on the FY2020 budget

Chestertown Councilman David Foster and Mayor Chris Cerino gave the Kent County Commissioners a scolding Tuesday evening, June 4, at the county’s public hearing on the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

The two elected officials took the commissioners to task for the county’s failure, for the fifth year running, to provide a tax differential or rebate to the town. The idea is to compensate town residents and the municipal government for services provided by the town for which they are billed in the county tax rate. In the case of Chestertown, those services include police protection, road repairs and maintenance, and planning and zoning. While the county taxes town residents the full amount that all county residents pay, it does not, on the whole, provide those services within town limits.

Describing the budget negotiations as “a very difficult assignment,” Commission President Tom Mason said the county had set aside “a placeholder” for a tax rebate to towns but decided after examining the budget as a whole to give it to the schools instead. “We can only do so much with what we have,” he said. He said the commission decided not to increase the property tax rate because it would present a hardship to many property owners, who are already facing one of the higher rates on the Shore.

Mason said the county had budgeted for an increase in the county’s “piggy-back” addition to the state income tax rate to the state-allowed maximum of 3.2%. He said the increase would provide about $1.6 million over three years, which would give the towns, “especially Chestertown,” a “substantial” increase in their income, making it unnecessary to set aside a tax rebate for them.

Kent County Commissioners (from left) Bob Jacob, Tom Mason, and Ron Fithian

Foster, who has made the tax differential a signature issue, was the first of several public officials to address the commissioners. He said, “Like most folks, I hate to see my taxes go up, but I recognize that sometimes it’s necessary to provide critical services. […] But somehow, those people who provide services somehow forget that many of us live in Chestertown. The sheriff rarely comes to town. The county street crew, paid to shovel our streets, somehow rarely get here.” He asked the commissioners to imagine how a resident of one of the town’s wards would feel if the town decided not to provide equal services to that ward. “Now, if Delmarva [Power] would have charged me the same rate as everyone else but provided me with half the services, I’d call that fraud. Wouldn’t you? What should we call it when local government charges us full range but provides half of the services, solely because of our location?”

And if the towns are, on their own, providing the services the county doesn’t, Foster asked,Why should you not provide a tax differential to the citizens who do not get county services, like virtually every other county in our state? I’m still trying to find out what is so unique about Kent County that you can’t strive to meet your obligations.” Foster went on to say, “I know that you’re working hard for economic development. So I just cannot understand why you penalize precisely the areas that are most suited and most likely to attract small businesses. […] I know that you’re working hard. And I hope that you will recognize that we’re not asking for charity. I’m simply asking for the services we’re paying for.”

Cerino said, “It is extremely disappointing that for the fifth straight year I’ve come and asked and put this issue every way I possibly can to make it crystal clear why the town of Chestertown in particular, but also the town of Rock Hall, deserve a tax differential or a tax rebate.” After pointing out that the two towns, which have a population of about 6,500 between them – nearly a third of the county – pay the full county tax rate, Cerino noted that the two towns have their own police departments, their own road crews, and their own planning and zoning. “Which not only takes millions of dollars off of your plate every single year, we’re also essentially paying you for services you know you don’t provide within the town. […] We are paying for phantom services. Every other county in the state that has incorporated towns has figured this out by either lowering the county tax rate within the town or by cutting a check to the towns, a tax rebate or a grant in aid – call it whatever you want.”

Cerino told the commissioners that up until 2014, the incorporated towns received a grant in aid, as much as $110,000 for Chestertown. “I can tell you that has hurt our budget for Chestertown,” he said. “That’s not just a problem for Chestertown; that is a county-wide problem. Because this is where a fourth of the people live. This is where most of the businesses are. This where all the hotel rooms are. We have twenty-five miles of roads that we need to maintain. When the county gets in a little bit of trouble in a recession, and one of the first cuts is cut to the towns, that is a cut to your own constituency.”

Cerino went on to list a number of towns all over the Shore with the amount of tax differential they receive, ranging from 13 cents per $100 assessed value in Easton to 6 or 7 cents in some smaller towns. He also listed rebates received by towns in other Shore counties, ranging from $3.3 million in Ocean City to $13,000 in Cecilton. He then said, “I requested a 5-cent differential. That would have been the lowest figure on this list. And you guys came up with a goose egg again.” He observed that the towns he listed “all have their own police force; they all have their own street crew; and probably they all have their own planning and zoning. Somehow, their counties figure out a way to compensate them fiscally for the inequities in the system. And we can’t do it.”

He went on to address the county budget directly. “When you’re showing a $50 million budget, of which Chestertown probably funds more than a quarter, and you’re telling me you can’t pony up $40 grand a year […] to compensate for services we’re already paying you for, I’m telling you that is a scam. But what adds hurt to the scam is, we don’t really know what’s going on. We need to be more vigilant. That is not right. And I feel for the school system, I feel your pain, and I have my kids in the public schools. I know you guys have a tough job. But if you cannot find $150, $250 grand for Chestertown, which funds at least a quarter of your budget every single year, to me that is bogus. There’s just no other way to put it.” Both Cerino and Foster were greeted by applause from the large audience.

The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the FY2020 budget at their meeting Tuesday, June 11. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. and will take place in the county commissioners’ hearing room at 400 High St. in Chestertown.

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