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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Chesapeake Region Unlikely to Meet 2025 Bay Cleanup Goals, Unless it Picks up Pace

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The Chesapeake Bay is getting healthier, but its recovery is “fragile” unless state and federal governments pick up the pace of their actions, environmental groups warned Wednesday.

As the halfway point toward the 2025 cleanup deadline approaches, the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported that the region is generally on track toward meeting pollution reduction goals for phosphorus and sediment but is far off pace for nitrogen.

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus create algal blooms that cloud the water and lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the Bay. Nutrients, the Bay’s primary pollutant, enter the Bay and its rivers largely through sewage, fertilizers and animal waste.

Regional Bay cleanup efforts have been under way since the 1980s. They intensified in 2010 when the federal government put the Bay under a Total Maximum Daily Load [TDML], often called a “pollution diet,” that requires state actions to meet federal clean water standards.

Those efforts have spurred improvements in the Bay’s health, but CBF President Will Baker cautioned against too much optimism, noting that Lake Erie was declared recovered decades ago but is now “worse than ever.”

“Unless the states and their federal partners expand their efforts and push harder, the Bay and its rivers and streams may never be saved,” Baker said. He expressed concern that the states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might back off on their commitments to take all needed cleanup actions by the end of 2025. “CBF, and I imagine others, will use every means available, including possible litigation, to oppose any attempt to delay the deadline,” he said.

The possibility of allowing a delay has been floated behind the scenes, but officials familiar with the conversations say they expect that the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program will ultimately keep the original deadline.

The Bay Program failed to meet two previous cleanup deadlines, which led the EPA to impose the TMDL as a more enforceable cleanup program that set established pollution limits for each state and river draining into the Bay.

This summer is roughly the halfway point between the 2010 establishment of the TMDL and the 2025 cleanup deadline.

States were supposed to achieve 60 percent of their assigned pollution reduction actions by the end of 2017. But the Bay Foundation, using preliminary computer model estimates from the Bay Program, said the region as a whole has achieved only about 40 percent of its nitrogen goals, though it has met the mark for phosphorus and sediment.

The CBF and Choose Clean Water — a coalition of 240 regional groups working on water issues that jointly released the analysis — credited pollution reductions for recent improvements in the Bay’s health. Underwater grass beds, a key Bay habitat, reached record levels last year, the Bay’s “dead zone” has been shrinking, and the population of important species like oysters and blue crabs have shown encouraging signs.

“We are at a critical point in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. We are seeing some incredible progress,” said Chante Coleman, director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

But the environmentalists warned that the Bay’s health was still in jeopardy and that pollution reduction efforts among the four jurisdictions it examined — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia — were uneven.

Pennsylvania, which contributes the largest amount of nutrients to the Bay, is far behind in its nitrogen reduction goals, largely because of the nitrogen generated by its large agricultural sector. Pennsylvania accounts for the lion’s share of the regionwide shortfall for nitrogen reduction.

All four jurisdictions met or exceeded their goals for reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plans. Because wastewater accounts for a large portion of the nutrients from Maryland and Virginia, those efforts helped offset shortfalls in controlling runoff from farmland and stormwater in those states.

Because most treatment plants in the region have been upgraded, the majority of pollution reductions in coming years must come from farms and developed lands, where reductions have been harder to achieve.

“As the clock ticks down to 2025, we know the second half is going to be more difficult,” Baker said. Further, he noted, new problems — such the filling of the reservoir at Conowingo Dam, which was once an important trap for nutrients and sediment — are making the cleanup job harder. The region’s changing climate is an added challenge, too, increasing the amount and intensity of rainfall that washes greater amounts of pollutants into the water.

Baker said that efforts were also threatened by the Trump administration, which “regularly releases new plans to undercut clean air and clean water nationwide. Those plans, if implemented, would have adverse impacts on the Bay.” In particular, he expressed concern about multiple efforts to roll back air pollution controls. Air pollution is a significant contributor of nitrogen to the Bay.

The EPA is expected to release its own midpoint analysis of the cleanup in July. It will evaluate the progress of individual states, which could result in actions against those that have fallen behind in their cleanup schedules, either statewide or in particular sectors, such as stormwater or agriculture.

Environmental groups are split over what action the EPA should take, though, particularly in Pennsylvania.

Baker called for the EPA to exercise its “backstop” authority under the TMDL, which allows it to impose sanctions against states that fall behind. Such sanctions could include withholding grant money or exercising more oversight for new discharge permits.

“At the very least, the EPA needs to exert its authority in Pennsylvania while also putting Virginia and Maryland on notice that pollution from urban and rural runoff must be addressed more effectively,” Baker said.

But Coleman said many of the coalition’s members would oppose taking backstop actions against Pennsylvania, especially if they involve withholding funds. “Pennsylvania is so far behind in the cleanup that taking away money at this point would be quite detrimental to the cleanup as a whole,” she said.

She said there were other actions that could help meet goals, including efforts by senators from the region to bring more support for farmers as Congress considers a new Farm Bill.

“There is a golden opportunity as the Farm Bill moves through Congress to increase funding in the Chesapeake region for conservation practices on farmlands,” she said.

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Bay Journal Media. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991.

A Spy Chat with Comptroller of Maryland Peter Franchot

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Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chestertown Taxes to Increase in FY 2019

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

Chestertown’s taxes are about to go up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Stuff: Marina Gets $1.3 Million Boost

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Chris Havemeyer, Wendy Culp, Marty Stetson, Larry Culp and Chris Cerino.

The Town of Chestertown has received $1.3 million in new funding that will allow it to complete work on the core infrastructure of the Chestertown Marina by October. New funding includes a $500,000 bond bill from the State of Maryland, legislation that was sponsored by Senator Adelaide (Addie) Eckardt and supported by Senate President Mike Miller. Additionally, the town has recently received pledges totaling $870,000 from a group of private donors led by Larry and Wendy Culp, and supported by Christian Havemeyer, Michael Lawrence, Joanne and Matthew Tobriner, and members of the Board of Directors of the Sultana Education Foundation. Thanks to these new contributions, the principal marine contractor for the project, Dissen & Juhn, began work on replacing docks and bulkheads at the marina last week, and will remain on site through the end of summer to complete the work.

“This new state support combined with some incredibly generous private donations will allow the Town to significantly overhaul the water and land-side infrastructure at the Marina this Summer, turning this facility into an economic engine for Kent County and the upper Eastern Shore for years to come,” said Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino.

“The futures of both Chestertown and Washington College are intertwined,” said Washington College board chair Larry Culp and his wife, Wendy. “We are fortunate to be members of this community and pleased to support Mayor Cerino and the town as we move forward to realize the exciting vision for Chestertown’s waterfront.” Washington College’s recent groundbreaking last year of the Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall and the opening of the Hodsom Boathouse this fall are examples of the College’s commitment to the waterfront development of Chestertown.

Combined with previous funding provided by the Maryland General Assembly and Governor Larry Hogan, as well as grants from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development, and the Maryland Heritage Authority, these private gifts bring the town within 10 percent of reaching its $5.1 million goal for the project.

When complete, the Chestertown Marina will become one of the premier boating destinations on the Chesapeake Bay, featuring more than 70 state-of-the-art deep-water slips with floating piers, an expansive waterfront promenade, a fully stocked Marina Store, and laundry facilities, bathrooms, and showers for visiting boaters. The facility will also contain signage and literature encouraging visitors to patronize the many shops, restaurants, and galleries in Chestertown’s National Landmark Historic District, as well as points of interest throughout Kent County.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Unveils New Master Plan

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The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., has announced the completion of a new Master Plan, which will create increased space for CBMM’s core museum offerings—including exhibitions, education, and Shipyard. CBMM’s Master Plan process began in mid-2017, under the leadership of President Kristen Greenaway.

“CBMM’s Master Plan is a vision for CBMM’s campus for the next 20 years, and is designed to greatly enhance the guest experience,” said Greenaway. “The Master Plan will support CBMM’s mission and world-class maritime museum status by enabling CBMM to offer new and expanded programming.”

Through a competitive RFP, museum and education building specialist Ann Beha Architects of Boston, Mass., was chosen to develop CBMM’s Master Plan in July 2017. The process began with a series of visioning sessions, with input gathered from members of the community, CBMM’s Board of Governors and Friends Board, staff, and volunteers.

The scope of the plan is broad, addressing all facets of the physical campus, including new and re-oriented buildings, wayfinding, guest accessibility and comforts, and prioritizing CBMM’s natural, waterfront environment.

Phase I of the Master Plan consists of the construction of a new building for changing exhibitions, a long-term waterfowling exhibition, CBMM’s library and archives, and landscaping upgrades to Navy Point. The new facility will replace CBMM’s current Bay History and Waterfowling exhibition buildings, with the buildings’ artifacts to be relocated; demolition of the buildings is anticipated to begin in spring 2019. The new library and exhibition building is anticipated to open in 2020.

“This new facility offers a higher standard of climate control than we have anywhere, other than in our collections facility,” continued Greenaway. “It will also move our exhibitions and archival collections above the flood plain. Currently, both our Waterfowling and Bay History buildings are extremely vulnerable to flooding from storm surge events.”

CBMM’s Master Plan includes raising the grade of new buildings and walkways above regulated limits in anticipation of long-term needs. Other proposed changes include enhancements to the Navy Point lawn, and relocation of the Tolchester Beach Bandstand and Point Lookout Bell Tower to other locations within CBMM’s campus.

“After the investigation of numerous options and alternatives, a very thoughtful and exciting campus vision has emerged—one that ticks all of the Master Plan objectives boxes,” commented CBMM Board of Governors Chair Diane Staley. “Still, there’s much work to be done before shovels touch earth.”

Three phases make up the Master Plan, with the scope and timeline expected to be six to eight years, contingent upon funding. Funding sources are planned to come from individual donations and naming opportunities, grants, and operations. Phases II and Phase III will focus on further expanding CBMM’s education and Shipyard capabilities.

The public is invited to a Community Forum on Tuesday, June 19, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. in CBMM’s Van Lennep Auditorium, where CBMM will host a community conversation and share more information about the Master Plan.

Established in 1965, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is a world-class maritime museum dedicated to preserving and exploring the history, environment, and culture of the entire Chesapeake Bay, with the values of relevancy, authenticity, and stewardship guiding its mission. To learn more about the Master Plan, visit cbmm.org/masterplan.