State of the County Report: 2016

By: Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver

As 2016 comes to a close, it’s time to report on our progress in Wicomico County and reflect on the positive changes that we’ve made during the past fiscal year. From a fiscal standpoint, the county is in great shape. We continue to look for ways to curb spending and rethink how county government operates and our conservative fiscal management is paying off.

Much has been accomplished without raising taxes in the two years since I’ve been elected County Executive. Overall, the county is at its highest employment rate ever. More people are working in Wicomico County than ever before, according to Dave Ryan, director of Salisbury Wicomico Economic Development. There were 53,547 people employed in Wicomico County in July, up about 3.4 percent from a year ago. As a result, income taxes in the county were up about $7 million more than was budgeted this year.

Payroll Employment (Jobs) Trend

Property taxes were up more than $750,000 from what was budgeted even though the County is in the fourth year of its inventory tax phase out. Recordation taxes were up more than $489,000 than projected.

For the first time, Wicomico County’s Finance Department is collecting recordation taxes instead of the Clerk of the Court, resulting in big savings for the county.

Recordation taxes are collected when a document is recorded in the Wicomico County Land Records.

Previously, the county recordation tax was funneled through the state, which kept a 5 percent fee and then sent the remaining 95 percent back to the county. This one simple change to how we collect recordation taxes has meant a significant new revenue source.

Overall for FY 2016, revenue was up by $8.6 million while expenses were about $4.3 million less than budgeted, even with a 2.5 percent across the board budget cut for operation expenses. As a result, we were able to return more than $7 million to the county’s reserve fund. The unanticipated funds will enable the County to ramp up our efforts to rehabilitate our infrastructure and aging assets.

Credit Agencies Favorable to Wicomico County

With those successful financial results, we were able to receive favorable reports from the credit rating agencies in New York leading up to our November bond sale. The county sold $20.3 million in general obligation bonds at the extremely low true interest rate of 2.089 percent. Three projects are for the Wicomico County Board of Education, including $7.5 million for West Salisbury Elementary School construction project; $539,000 for projects at Parkside High School; and $161,000 for a new roof at Wicomico Middle School.

Other projects include $11 million for a new EMS radio system for all first responders including police agencies and fire companies to be able to communicate; and $1.1 million for the renovation of the new Board of Elections building.

Repeal of Impact Fee

In an effort to help stimulate the economy and make the cost of homeownership less expensive, we proposed eliminating the Impact Fee for county residents. Since I was first elected County Executive, I have pushed for this and for most of my term we have had a moratorium in place. In November, the County Council voted to permanently repeal the Impact Fee. In particular, the elimination of this fee will help offset the state mandated installation of sprinklers in new homes.

No Tax Sale This Year

For the first time in a long time, we chose not to have a Tax Sale this year where the county sells properties that have delinquent property taxes. Our County Finance Director instead worked hard to collect those taxes throughout the year, and had great success. By law, the county is required to have a tax sale every two years, so we will return to the practice next year.

But that decision to forgo the tax sale saved county taxpayers at least $75,000 in advertising and auctioneer costs, a great deal of staff time and money, and allowed everyone to take a different and more customer-friendly approach to collecting taxes locally. One commercial property owner has finally paid all delinquent taxes for the first time in over a decade.  To date, we have collected $3.8 million more in real estate taxes than this time last year.

Law Department Savings

In October 2015, we hired local, well-respected and experienced attorney Paul Wilber on a contractual basis to take over the responsibilities of our law department. The growing cost of salaries and benefits in that department was getting expensive. In 2015, the county spent $430,542 on the Legal Department ($302,977 in salaries and $127,565 in benefits). I am pleased to report that we have achieved significant savings as a result of contracting out these services.

Our attorney’s bills are averaging $23,000 per month, resulting in a net savings of about $154,000 for the county this year. In addition, we moved the office of the Local Management Board into the old Legal Department office space and saved outside rent of $30,000 a year. Any time you can enjoy a service with the same results and expertise as before but save over $184,000, I think they call that a win-win situation.

Wicomico Economic Impact Scholarship

One of our greatest successes this year happened in early summer with the creation of the Wicomico Economic Impact Scholarship. Helping students find a pathway to success ensures that we have a fully trained workforce to grow and expand business on Delmarva. The creation of this scholarship will allow eligible graduating seniors the opportunity to attend Wor-Wic Community College for free.

It’s already having a positive impact in the lives of our youth and it will continue to grow and leave a lasting legacy in our county for years to come. Private business is also stepping up to contribute to this scholarship fund because they understand that an educated workforce is an invaluable commodity. Thanks to everyone who helped make this program a reality. The scholarship funds are being managed by the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, who will coordinate the distribution of funds in cooperation with Wor-Wic Community College.

 Update on the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism

We’ve had an incredibly busy year at the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do together. We grew the economic impact of tourism in our county by 12 percent, from $47.8 million to $53.3 million in Fiscal Year 2016.

We hosted 49 tourism events in Wicomico County, five of which were brand new, that helped draw more than 125,000 people and requiring more than 33,000 hotel rooms. DMVelite, the current partner for the nationally recognized Governor’s Challenge, brought 35 teams to their new June event. Laxapalooza, a new partner, launched a summer lacrosse tournament with 18 teams.

Our team launched a new website (www.WicomicoTourism.org) and complimented it with a redesign of the annual Visitor’s & Relocation Guide. Distribution of the Visitor’s Guide increased from 12,000 to 25,000.

There have been lots of changes happening at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center designed to attract big name performers and larger events, but perhaps none more significant than the ability to be able to sell alcohol at the venue. The Eastern Shore delegation introduced legislation to allow for the sale of alcohol at the Civic Center, and the bill was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan in April. Then the Civic Center began preparing by hiring staff, training, and developing new policy and procedures to implement the sale of alcohol. The first alcohol was sold at a concert in late November. As a result, discussions are under way with a minor league hockey franchise interested in locating in Salisbury.

Renovations to the Normandy Arena have included new painting and color schemes, installation of new motorized lower telescopic risers and new seats, LED lighting for aisle ways, new upper seating, safety handrails, and invested $2 million in new ADA seating in the upper seating bowl.  We also installed a new $300,000 replacement chiller for the Normandy Arena to replace a failed 35-year-old chiller.

Our Recreation Division opened the Cedar Hill Aqua Culture Center at Cedar Hill Park & Marina. The Center includes Crab Peeler displays and an Oyster Nursery, which grew 220,000 oyster spat. The Center hosted over 500 students and campers during field trips as part of the Adventure Education program.

We expanded the adult softball program with the inclusion of “Men’s Modified” softball which added 50+ new players to our softball program and plan to add a Women’s Fast Pitch League next spring.

Our Parks Division stayed busy as well in FY 2016. We installed engineered wood fibers under play structures, constructed a new softball field (#3) at Winterplace Park to include irrigation and dugout roofs; and rebuilt field #4 infield and installed irrigation at East Wicomico Little League.

We installed upgrades to numerous parks including: painting trim on pavilions and play equipment, repairing roof shingles/guttering on structures, painting park signage, replacing bleacher board, bench repairs and painting, epoxy floors, playground module repairs, and many other safety and aesthetic improvements.

Update on Planning and Zoning

In February, the County applied for funds under the State of Maryland Rural Legacy Program. This successful program has assisted local property owners in the Quantico Creek Area to voluntarily protect their lands, while receiving over $7 million dollars in return. This year, the County received its largest award to date, $1.3 million dollars.

In June, the County applied for funds under the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG). In this competitive funding round, the County in conjunction with Salisbury Neighborhood House Service was awarded $300,000 to assist homebuyers with their first purchase.

In August of 2015, the County adopted updated maps and procedures under the National Flood Insurance Program. This allows Wicomico County residents and businesses to qualify for Flood Insurance, better protecting their homes and properties from natural disaster.

In March, the County Executive sponsored a community forum seeking input on issues affecting the poultry industry. The goal of the forum was to bring together scientific experts and state regulators to address environmental questions and concerns. The information provided a scientific baseline to assist the County in evaluating its regulatory approach to an essential part of our local economy. This evaluation was a focus throughout the remainder of the year, leading to legislation in the new fiscal year.

Work on the County Comprehensive Plan proceeded this year, with regular works sessions to help prepare finalization with the Executive and Council. Adoption is on track for 2017.

The Long and Winding Road

Our road construction crews have been busy once again trying to ensure that our infrastructure is the best it can be. This year, the Wicomico County Roads Division resurfaced 143.4 miles of roads in Wicomico County and used more than 550 tons of hot mix asphalt to patch roadways.

Some roads saw major upgrades including Morris Leonard Road, where several storm water pipes were replaced and the road was widened and paved.  On Rockawalkin Road, we installed storm water inlets and associated pipes to improve drainage.

It was a winter with several snow storms and a summer with historic levels of rainfall and our crews were kept busy. In early 2016, we even traveled to Anne Arundel County to offer mutual aid during a snowstorm. That kind of cooperation and assistance is so important during times of crisis, and we are trying to build goodwill should we ever need the same.

In September, heavy rains led to over 100 calls for washouts and flooded roads. During the rain events, the Wicomico County Roads Division placed over 3000 tons of aggregate to protect and stabilize dozens of areas throughout the County. Many county roads experienced failure of storm water pipes and have been replaced or repaired.

Several major projects have been completed this year including two large storm water pipes and rehabilitation to an existing concrete spillway on Quantico Creek Road and large storm water pipes on San Domingo Road. Our in-house masonry crew has rebuilt and rehabilitated approximately 15 Storm water inlets.

We continue to work with the state on solutions for Barren Creek, a roadway near Mardela Springs that was washed out when the private dam failed during a rainstorm in late July.

Recycling Revenue on the rise

Recycling revenue for the county has increased by 6.5 percent from 2015 to 2016. This year, seven new recycling bins purchased (four cardboard, two plastic, and one glass/bi-metal/aluminum). Four of the new bins were placed at the University of Maryland Extension Office on Old Quantico Road. Two bins are in the process of being refurbished, one plastic and one newspaper.

The Recycling Center at Walmart was moved next to Sam’s Club on the Hampshire Road side.  Customers have appreciated the move due to less traffic congestion getting to the site.

Another customer driven change was made to the annual Household Refuse Permit which expired on the last day of the fiscal year each year. The new permits expire one year from date of issue, giving customers much more value if you purchased the permit during the year.

County Owned Infrastructure Improvements

In July 2015, the county hired local architect Tom Hayes to help us assess all of our county owned and maintained assets from top to bottom. He has been working to gather drawings of buildings where they existed, and to recreate new documents where they didn’t. He is putting together a comprehensive report that will help guide us with long term maintenance of our facilities. We’ve also purchased a computer software management program that will keep track of maintenance and help us plan for capital projects.

One important capital project has been the restoration of our historic Courthouse. It stands as a symbol of our past and a beacon for our future. It was built in 1878, just 11 years after our county was established. We are investing $750,000 to help bring it back to its former glory. It should be completed for the county’s big celebration next year where we celebrate Wicomico County’s 150th birthday.

The county also moved forward with the relocation and purchase of a building for the Board of Elections. The former Shinn’s paint store location on Snow Hill Road will be the permanent future home, opening in 2017.

The county is also working on plans for the county-owned Pirates Wharf property on the Wicomico River near Whitehaven. This 340-acre parcel has had very limited public access and we’re allowing the County’s Natural Resources Conservation Advisory Committee to guide its ultimate use. But eventually, we’d like to see nature trails and opportunities for recreation and learning for all county residents to enjoy.

The former Teen Adult Center structure near Sharptown was demolished and recycled, and the site will revert back to open space. The demolition site has been filled, graded and reseeded and trees will be planted in the spring.

Minor League Baseball is here to stay

A complete renovation of Shorebirds stadium has continued this year, and this spring we were honored to have Governor Hogan join us as we dedicated the new baseball field. That project included tearing up the old grass, removing about 18 inches of soil, adding a drainage system to the field, and then adding new soil and sod. As a result, the team faced no rain outs this year.

This year we also installed new stadium lights, and padding on walls and fences to protect the players. Once the season ended, work began to replace all the seating, including all bleachers with individual seats. A new video and scoreboard will be installed before the 2017 baseball season begins next spring.  And much work has been done to reinforce the structure of the stadium.

I’m proud to report that Wicomico County has renewed the lease with the Shorebirds guaranteeing minor league baseball in a completely renovated stadium for at least the next 20 years.

Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport

The Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport continues to move forward with the completion of a $9 million upgrade to Runway 523 this year. That runway was redone to reinforce the concrete to be able to carry heavier loads. Work is also underway on an FAA required mini Master Plan to examine the impact of the Salisbury-based Piedmont airlines introduction of Embraer regional jets to the airport. Planning has begun to accommodate the new jets which will require a 600 foot runway extension on Runway 1432.

We also signed an agreement with Salisbury Mayor Jake Day to extend city water and sewer to the airport to boost future economic development, and incorporate the property into an Enterprise Zone. We are also exploring options for a pilot school with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to help funnel good pilots to Piedmont airlines and other regional carriers that are experiencing a pilot shortage.

The airport unveiled a new website and logo in the last six months, and new marketing initiatives with American Airlines have helped strengthen that partnership.  Inside the terminal, a new HVAC system was installed and a new baggage belt system is almost complete.

Morris Mill neighborhood upgrades

The residents of Morris Mill are finally getting clean drinking water. The Morris Mill Water System is operating successfully.  The distribution system was installed and completed in March 2016 and the new Water Tank came online in the spring of 2016.  Over the past several months we have begun connecting houses to the distribution system.  There have been 85 homes connected to date and we are hoping the rest will be connected over the next several months. The partnership and communication between the County and USDA, MDE and City of Fruitland has been very successful and contributed highly to this project’s success, expedited schedule, and completing the work within budget.

Fire Service Agreement with the City of Salisbury

Our work continues on the need to reach an agreement with the city of Salisbury on how to handle fire calls that are served by city resources outside the city limits. A study was done this year that helps shed some light on the issue, but also raises more questions about what is fair and equitable when it comes to sharing services. My team continues to meet with a working group to discuss the issue and I’m confident that we will reach some important conclusions before the county’s next budget is approved by the County Council in June 2017.

Our fight against heroin and opioid abuse

We’ve made tremendous progress in the battle against heroin and opioid addiction in 2016. Wicomico County has led the way in the state of Maryland for innovative and collaborative approaches to opioid abuse. 2016 marked the beginning of seamless information sharing between all law enforcement agencies, paramedics, and the Wicomico County Health Department. Fatal overdoses have decreased with the widespread training and use of Naloxone (Narcan).

One of the county’s greatest achievements has been the Community Outreach Addictions Team (COAT). The COAT Team began in June and consists of four recovered opioid addicts working together to assist the suffering addict to obtain the necessary treatment services. This group of recovered opioid addicts, now working for the Health Department, have reached out to over 80 opioid addicts in just five months through cooperation with PRMC and all of our community law enforcement agencies. The COAT Team has been able to enroll just over half of them into addiction treatment services. This percentage rate is phenomenal and demonstrates that partnering with recovered addicts can be an important tool in our arsenal to help prevent overdoses. As a result, the rate of overdoses has dropped significantly.

In addition, the Wicomico County Detention Center established a grant funded Medication Assisted Treatment program (MAT) that enrolls eligible individuals into Intense Outpatient Treatment (IOP) upon release. The program administers Vivitrol, a time-released drug (lasts about 30 days) that suppresses the cravings for opiates and blocks the brain receptors so the user does not feel the euphoric high associated with use.

Each month about 20 inmates with a history of opiate use are provided with an orientation to the program.  Former inmates who are currently in the program and living “drug free” also talk to them during the orientation meeting. Those interested in learning more about the program are seen one on one and screened medically for the program.  Those who commit to the program receive further testing prior to acceptance.

If accepted, they receive the medication several days prior to release and then are released to begin their Inmate Outpatient Program with the behavioral health provider in the community. The program starting in June, and orientations are held once a month. Detention Center officials remain optimistic that this program will continue to show positive results.

To Protect and to Serve

The Wicomico County Sheriff’s Department, under the leadership of Sheriff Mike Lewis, continues to do an outstanding job protecting our community with a professional force of men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day. We have just completed a 5-year collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police that will provide disability benefits for deputies as well as competitive salaries that will help ensure that our best trained law enforcement officers will stay in our county to protect and to serve.

In Conclusion

From tax cuts to scholarships, and road improvements to runway extensions, Wicomico County continues to grow, prosper and thrive. Thank you for the opportunity to provide an update on Wicomico County for FY 2016. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to serve as County Executive and work with the many professional county employees who work hard to make Wicomico County the best place to live, work and play on Delmarva.

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