By Greg Wehner, Staff Writer
Challenge to land purchase obtains signatures it needs
The fate of the not-yet-planned sports complex off Route 50 in Berlin, just north of Stephen Decatur High School, is teetering on a pin as efforts to put county government’s purchase of the
proposed 95.6-acre property for $7.15 million to a public vote were a success this week.
Slobodan Trendic, a spokesman for a group billing itself as the People for Fiscal Responsibility Committee announced on Wednesday that the petition to put the purchase of the property to a countywide vote garnered 5,093 valid signatures, or 599 more than required.
“As a result of the petitioners’ efforts, all registered voters in Worcester County will be given the opportunity to vote on Bill 22-8 related to the funding of the sports complex project,” Trendic said in a press release. “We would like to thank the more than 70 volunteers throughout the entire county who worked hard to help us gather the required signatures. We also wish to thank the Worcester County voters who supported our efforts by signing the petition.”
On April 19, the Worcester County Commissioners voted to purchase the tract and planned to have the money come out of the $11.2 million in bonds earmarked for financing a portion of the costs associated with designing, engineering, construction, equipping, and furnishing of a potential sports complex.
But during a commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young told the commissioners the bond could not be used to purchase the property, even if the purchase is approved.
He said he originally thought the money could be used for that purpose, but after reviewing the capital improvement plan, property of that nature must be purchased with grant money.
Since bond money can’t be used, Young said the county must find a new source of funds. That revelation led Commissioner Chip Bertino, who has opposed this project from the outset, to move to cancel the contract. Commissioner Jim Bunting, who was similiarly opposed, seconded the motion.
Sports complex advocate Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, however, suggested the board continue to work on finding funding until September. If all roads lead to dead ends, he said the contract could be abandoned at any time.
He also criticized how the People for Fiscal Responsibility Committee obtained the required signatures, saying they would approach people in store parking lots and ask if they wanted to sign a petition against the sports complex. The person may not have been against the sports complex, but the petitioner was not transparent about what the petition was about, according to Mitrecic.
He also said the measure will probably fail on the ballot.
“You’re against this, you’ve been against it from day one,” Mitrecic told Bertino and Bunting. “Say you’re against it…tell them flat out, ‘I don’t want the sports complex.’”
Bertino, Bunting, and Commissioner Ted Elder voted against the purchase of the property back in April.
Bertino said the question is specific to the bond issue, then asked Mitrecic if most people do not want to spend the money to issue the bond to pay for the sportsplex if he would extrapolate from that.
Mitrecic said if that happens, he will extrapolate that their taxes are not going to go up.
Though he said he is not against the sports complex totally, Bunting said he would rather let a private entity come in. Unfortunately, he added, you cannot find a soul who wants to do that.
Commissioner Diana Purnell, whose district encompasses a large portion of the county’s Black community, had been relatively quiet for the meeting, told Bertino and Bunting that the way signatures were collected during the Memorial Day parade on Flower Street was “disgusting.”
She described people wearing cardboard placards on their back, walking through the parade grounds, talking to the residents about the sportsplex, and saying the taxes will go up.
“A lot of them didn’t even know what they were talking about,” Purnell said. “The whole thing was that taxes would go up…the taxes aren’t going to go up.”
Purnell said during her eight years as a commissioner, she has supported situations in other districts but when she needs support for her own community, she cannot get it.
“I am really ticked,” she said of people going into the community that never asks for money to pay for something that benefits it. “That to me is disgraceful. I would never do that to one of you.”
Elder said he spoke to people on Flower Street who were concerned about the ingress and egress from the development, saying there was too much traffic there already.
He also said for Purnell to cast aspersions is wrong and that he votes on what he believes is for the good of the county.
“The people I talked to around that area … the ones I talked to did not want the sports complex,” Elder said.
Still, Purnell said she has supported projects like sewers on Lewis Road, and while she did not want to bring race into the discussion, she asked what the problem was with putting things in a black community.
Bertino wanted to clear the record and say his motion was to cancel the contract for the selected location, not stop or suspend the pursuit of a sports complex.
After hearing enough, Mitrecic told the other commissioners the discussion went too far before finishing with his two cents on Vince Gisriel, a member of the committee who served on the Ocean City Council with the Mitrecic.
Gisriel, Mitrecic said, is one of the two most prepared councilmen who ever served as a city councilman in Ocean City. He read everything, made lots of notes, and had some of the same traits as members of the county commissioners.
But, Mitrecic added, Gisriel never brought one economic development idea to the table. Instead, his plan was to “cut, cut, cut.”
“Until they allow the county to start printing money, people in Worcester will see it as an added tax,” Mitrecic said.
While the commissioner said he thinks the sportsplex is a winner, he said he understands others don’t.
Mitrecic then told the other commissioners if they want to be against the sportsplex, at least bring an idea to the table to increase economic development.
“It’s not going to get easier,” he said. “Bring it forward, any idea, bring it forward.”
When Bertino’s motion to cancel the contract was put to a vote, it failed 3-4, with Bunting and Elder voting in favor of the measure.