BERLIN – A second candidate’s forum, sponsored by the Assateague Coastal Trust, attracted nine Worcester County Commissioner candidates, who answered questions in front of a small crowd at Berlin Intermediate School Tuesday.
Candidates in attendance included Democrat Eddie Lee, District 3 challenger; District 4 Democratic incumbent Commissioner Virgil Shockley and Democratic challenger Tommy Tucker; District 5 incumbent Commissioner Judy Boggs, a Republican; District 5 Democratic challenger John Bodnar; District 6 incumbent Commissioner Linda Busick, a Republican, and challenger Republican Jim Bunting; and District 7 incumbent Commissioner Louise Gulyas, a Republican, and challenger Democrat Ellie Diegelmann.
District 2 incumbent Commissioner Jim Purnell and District 5 Republican challenger Bob Thompson were not in attendance. Both face primary opponents on Sept. 14.
A selection of questions and the candidate answers follow:
(BOLD)Did the consolidation of the Comprehensive Planning Department into the Development Review and Permitting Department negatively affect the county and keep it from meeting state deadlines on TMDL (total maximum daily load) and other issues?
Tucker (4): As a principal, his background was not in physics or calculus, so he would rely on those who taught those subjects to help make decisions related to those departments. He would seek advice from experts, since he does not feel the commissioners are expected to be experts in everything.
Bodnar (5): He believes in consolidating departments to make government run more efficiently. He said he does not have enough information to comment further.
Boggs (5): Worcester County has a very knowledgeable and excellent staff. The state is in the process of establishing goals for each watershed to reach the TMDL level. The state is also working on a statewide Comprehensive Plan, which might supercede the county plan. The layoffs were not about the budget, which had already been balanced, she said. “I too am not in favor of laying off people,” said Boggs. “Government is a service business.”
Bunting (6): The state has some good goals, including TMDLs. As a member of the Worcester County Planning Commission, after the consolidation of the three departments, Bunting said he noticed that the quality of the packets from the county greatly improved. “I truly believe the staff can handle what comes on down the road,” said Bunting.
Closed sessions are permitted, he said. “I think our transparency is fine,” said Bunting.
Busick (6): “I was not in favor of the consolidation,” said Busick.
All staffers are doing more with less, and in tough economic times, maybe it was a decision that had to be made, she said. She trusts that the staff knows what the appropriate workload is. When funding becomes available in the future, Busick feels that the county once again needs long-term planning personnel.
“I believe the Comprehensive Planning Department pays for itself and I think it’s of value to Worcester County,” Busick said.
The lay-offs and consolidation, she said, were not a budget decision, which had been balanced. She is not opposed to evaluating and reducing staff if needed.
“I am opposed to the manner in which it happened,” said Busick.
Diegelmann (7): The consolidation of three departments and the layoff of 11 workers, which was done behind closed doors, involved an awful lot of politics and was irresponsible. The county has to move on and try to maintain objectivity and a sense of fairness.
Gulyas (7): The county will follow the state’s decision on TMDLs, because that is the law, she said.
The county departments had to be consolidated, Gulyas said, because building slowed down and the number of permits dropped. The need for some employees was not there.
In the future, a Comprehensive Planning department will be looked at by whoever sits in the commissioners’ chairs, she said.
It was a personnel decision and handled in closed session, which is done to protect employee privacy. The commissioners had been trying to follow the rules, she said.
Shockley (4): The county does not have much input on TMDLs. The state will set the levels of nutrients allowed into local waters and the county will have to figure out how to reach that level. He did not vote for the consolidation, he said.
“It was rough. We got over it as commissioners…we truly had a difference of opinion,” Shockley said.
Lee (2): “As an observer, I was appalled with the dismissals and how it took place,” Lee said.
He added, “The issue here around this particular discussion is the issue that the county commissioners and my opponent have failed to address and that’s transparency in government.”
To stop the meeting and take the discussion behind closed doors as the commissioners did is, Lee said, “abominable.” Lee said he would not maintain a “plantation mentality” where the commissioners sit above people and look down at the voters, who are not allowed to speak.
Audience question: Do you favor raising taxes vs. cutting expenditures or costs? Yes or No answer.
Boggs (5): “As a last resort, I would raise taxes. I can’t say honestly to you, I would never raise taxes,” Boggs said. “If at all possible, no. [But] I won’t see the county go bankrupt financially.”
Bunting (6): “I will not ever vote for a raise in taxes,” he said.
Busick (6): “My answer is no,” she said.
Diegelmann (7): “No, I don’t support raising taxes,” she said.
Gulyas (7): No, she would not raise taxes.
“I still believe cuts can be made in the county,” she said. “We still have a fatted calf and we have to cut back on what we do.”
Shockley (4): Most of District 4 is farmland and most residents are land poor, if anything, he said. After this year’s weather, most farms will not recover for two to three years.
“No, I will not vote to raise property taxes,” said Shockley.
Lee (2): “It’s not on the table. It’s not off the table,” he said. The question is what is in the best interests of District 2 and the entire county.
Tucker (4): “I don’t have a crystal ball. I think that kind of puts me at a disadvantage,” he said.
He said he could not say he would not raise taxes. He said he does not himself like paying taxes but he also does not want to lose the quality of life in the county.
“If it involves raising taxes to maintain that quality of life, I would certainly not throw it out the window,” Tucker said.
Bodnar (5): “That’s a big no on raising taxes in the next four years,” he said. The county needs to become more efficient, he added.
Audience question: What would you do to stimulate economic development in the county?
Bunting (6): The north end of the county could use industrial or business parks. The building permit process needs to be streamlined. Tax incentives should also be used to attract business.
His opponent’s attitude about the industrial park not being feasible is probably one of the reasons the county is in this situation, Bunting said.
Busick (6): Economic development efforts are needed, she said, especially to help existing businesses. The majority of new businesses are small business, and small businesses need to be helped.
An industrial park is not really feasible, Busick said. The available properties in the north end have been available for years with no takers. The vacant chicken plants will cost a lot to retrofit. Tax incentives must come from the state. The county needs to focus on its biggest industries, tourism and farming, for economic development.
Diegelmann (7): While she did not have time to prepare an answer on this subject, off the cuff, she felt the first thing would be to learn everything she can about it, and perhaps appeal to the state and federal governments for help.
Gulyas (7): First, the county needs a business park in the north end, including perhaps a building for incubating new businesses. Tax incentives would really help new businesses form, she feels.
The manufacturing tax in Worcester County hurts a lot of businesses and needs to be looked at, she feels.
Tourism is the number one business throughout the county, she said, and for every $1 put into tourism, the county gets $7 back. Funding for tourism must not be cut.
Shockley (4): The county needs infrastructure to attract businesses, and since 2003, Shockley said, he has been working on bringing broadband to the county, a personal goal of his. Shockley is the chair of the Maryland Broadband Cooperative.
“We’re close. We’re not there yet,” said Shockley. “The reason you have the expansion of Wallops is broadband … for seven years, I’ve been creating jobs.”
Lee (2): The Worcester Technical High School needs to be used, in conjunction with Wallops Island, to develop workers for the spaceport by teaching technical and management skills. The technical school needs to explore more internships with county businesses. The south end needs to explore heritage trails to expand tourism and encourage small businesses, he said.
Tucker (4): The county has been losing jobs, from the closure of the Campbell’s Soup Plant to the closure of chicken plants and companies like Aluglass.
“I think people are getting tired of the rhetoric of what we’re going to do,” he said.
The county needs to become more inviting to business and jump on opportunities that other counties miss, like the Wal-Mart facility that once planned to move to Somerset County.
Bodnar (5): He believes that light industrial manufacturing, such as solar panels, is the key to economic growth in the county. Pharmaceutical manufacturing is also a good industry to pursue.
Boggs (5): The county is moving forward already, with a recent contract signed for Salisbury University to provide business counseling to new and existing businesses. A pharmaceutical park study is ongoing, and there is a new pharmacy program at University of Maryland Easter Shore, she noted.
The county is hoping for grant funding for improvements to the local railroad, which will boost business. NASA is growing its own engineers through the intern program.
The county has also gained a new vineyard and a new brewery recently.
“I could go on and on,” Boggs said.