SNOW HILL — With no fanfare, final debate, or signs of anxiety, the Worcester County Board of Commissioners passed the $163.5 million fiscal 2011 county budget.
The budget maintains the current property tax rate and funds the schools at Maintenance of Effort levels. It includes no raises for employees and reduction of services in some departments. All departments made significant cuts to achieve the balanced budget.
Representatives of the business community were out in force to hear Harold Higgins, the county finance officer, present the first Liquor Control Enterprise Fund budget. The county will take over liquor operations in July. The $14.8 million budget calls for retail prices to remain the same and for reductions in the wholesale markup.
Commission President Bud Church reiterated the hope that eventually the county will transition out of the liquor monopoly business.
“I don’t believe that anyone up here wants to be into the liquor business,” he said. “It wasn’t our choice; we were brought into it.”
The commissioners petitioned the state legislature to abolish the Worcester County Liquor Control Board as the first step. They also hired Bobby Cowger, who is both a former commissioner and former LCB chair, to consult on the department’s operations.
Shawn Harmon, speaking for The Worcester County Alliance for Fair Markets, the organization that worked for the LCB’s abolition, said organization members felt as if they had been misled.
He disagreed that the county was worried about losing the jobs, citing recent negotiations with the board of education.
“The board of education cut 40 jobs,” he said.
Harmon voiced his suspicion that the county had no intention of ever getting out of the liquor monopoly business.
Church disagreed, saying that the law allowed business owners to opt out of buying from the county in five years. He added that the county would stay in charge if customers opted to stay with them.
As a compromise from the original proposition, which would have doubled the “dump sticker” fee, the proposed solid waste enterprise fund solved the expected shortfall with a smaller fee increase and stepped up enforcement.
“It’s going to be a tough transition,” said Enterprise Fund Manager Jennifer Savage.
In an effort to cut costs, transfer stations would no longer accept yard waste from businesses such as landscaping companies and raise the household dump sticker fees to $60 for the first sticker and $15 for a second sticker. Residence would be verified at each trip to the dump.
The commissioners rejected the budget on the grounds that it didn’t provide enough service and cost too much. They asked Savage to come back with a budget that provided more service at a lower cost, did the most to eliminate dumping and provided equal service to every county resident.
They will hear her new budget proposal at a later meeting.
The water and wastewater enterprise fund budgets were adopted by the commissioners with increases and decreases as were required by the circumstances of the individual areas. Highlights included an increase from 80 cents per 1,000 gallons to $1.60 per 1,000 gallons for the first 10,000 gallons used in the Ocean Pines service area.
Rates at the Riddle Farm subdivision will increase from $128 to $150 per quarter. Assateague Pointe will increase from $65 to $80 per quarter. Rates in Mystic Harbor remained the same but the per edu base rate cost increased from $25 to $48.
In West Ocean City the private quarterly fixture rate will increase from $9.75 to $10.50 and the commercial fixture rate from $13.25 to $14.25. EDU charges will be reduced from $6-$8 per quarter.
New service area
As the county prepares to begin construction on the Route 50 service road that would connect WalMart, Home Depot and the proposed development of Ocean Landings II, the commissioners approved an expansion of the county water and sewer plan to include the Ocean Landings II service area.
Dale Smack, representing the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department, sought the commissioner’s endorsement of a request from the Casino at Ocean Downs asking the sheriff’s office to provide uniformed armed security during live racing days. The contract would end with the horse-racing season.
Under questioning, Smack told the commissioners that the sheriff’s department wouldn’t be spread too thin to provide regular coverage for the county. Although the deputies are officially on duty, he said, only officers who have off the day in question are able to sign up for off-duty security detail.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw of Pocomoke was unconvinced, echoing his primary concern that if the sheriff’s department is stretched, as he’s heard, they shouldn’t be providing security for private industry. He worried that the department would ask to hire more deputies to accommodate the regular days off of the current staff.
The motion passed 5-2 with Lockfaw and Jim Bunting in the opposition.
The commissioners approved a measure that would allow Bay Landing Shellfish Company to establish a 4.4-acre aquaculture farm in the Chincoteague Bay south of George Island Landing and north of Purnell Point.
The project also has the support of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Coastal bays report
Dave Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, spoke to the commissioners about the upcoming MCBP policy committee meeting. Since the committee only meets when needed, it hasn’t convened in some time.
The meeting will be held before the MCBP’s report card on the Coastal Bays and 15th Anniversary Party. Wilson presented the proposed agenda to the commissioners to see if they had any comments and to invite them to attend the report card party. Although many expected to attend, there were no comments on the proposed agenda, which included plans for the Chincoteague Bay and will incorporate both local issues and issues affecting Virginia, and Hudson Branch in Berlin.
Delmarva Discovery Center
The commissioners committed $40,000 per year over the next five years to support the Delmarva Discovery Center in Pocomoke at the request of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore board of regents. UMES has entered into a partnership with the Discovery Center not unlike the Salisbury University partnership with the flagging Ward Museum.