SALISBURY – County Executive Rick Pollitt gave his State of Address this week, looking back at 2011 and looking ahead to 2012.
“We know of the growing concern of the diminished capacity providing for quality public education, public safety, and infrastructure, the kinds of things that we as residents and taxpayers expect and demand of our county government,” he said. “We have seen a steady decline over the past 10 years in many of the benchmarks that define a community as vibrant, progressive location where people want to live, start a business, or start a family.”
In looking forward to 2012, Pollitt reviewed a number of new initiatives. He referred to the taxpayer rebellion that led to the county’s executive form of government and the institution of the property tax revenue cap that has been in place now for about 10 years. He said that discussions of the Wicomico County’s fiscal health cannot be discussed without considering the effect of the cap on government’s ability to fund essential services.
Pollitt will be sending a letter to Dr. Memo Diriker, founding director of the Business, Economic, and Community Outreach Network (BEACON) at Salisbury University, asking if he would consider conducting a non-partisan review of the revenue cap since its inception.
Pollitt said he thinks it is important to find out if it has been doing what it was designed to do, and if there has been any unintended consequences as a result of its enactment. He will also ask if there might be ways to amend the cap structure to make it a more useful tool in managing property tax policy and decision making.
“I believe this exercise will provide vital information to the County Executive, County Council, and our community at large as we debate what services we expect from county government and what we’re willing to pay for them,” he said.
Along with the cap review, Pollitt said a “serious and comprehensive review” of all overall tax and policies will take place in order to search for ways to ease the tax burden and provide a much needed stimulus for job growth and business development.
Pollitt will research the feasibility of separating the personal property tax rate from the real estate property tax rate because the personal property rate is set by law to be two and half times the real estate tax rate.
“As we started doing last year’s budget process, a large part of our concern of raising the property tax rate to the level committed by the revenue cap was the associated impact from raising the personal property tax rate as well,” he said.
Another initiative Pollitt plans on continuing is to give stronger support to Wicomico County’s agricultural industry. He will seek the input from agricultural business community and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.
“As new and potentially disruptive regulations from the state involving land use and planning and zoning matters increase, it is essential that the voice of agriculture be heard,” Pollitt said. “Consequently our newest bridge to the building community will be solved and connected to agricultural business as our show of support for keeping Wicomico County the number one agriculture county in the State of Maryland.”
Pollitt also intends to meet with the environmental community to keep initiatives in balance.
“Our way of life depends on clean air, clean water, and unspoiled ground,” he said. “Farming can’t succeed, business can’t prosper, and families can’t live in a place where the environment is not respected and protected.”
In doing so he plans on keeping Wicomico County in participation with the state’s Rural Legacy Program, where more than $5.7 million in grant funds have been awarded to Wicomico County to purchase development easements, and over 2,600 acres of prime agriculture and forestry lands.
Pollitt said that some of the challenges before Wicomico County are no fault of its own. He and the County Council met with “one of the most powerful men in Annapolis where state funding is concerned, and that the state will have little patience or sympathy for communities who could not do all they can to help themselves before asking the state for relief.”
Pollitt furthered that Wicomico County has some decisions to make for its future. He said that the county comes in last in the State of Maryland when it comes to investment and infrastructure.
“I will continue to urge the County Council to commit to stabilizing our property tax rate, taking advantage of those times when the revenue cap provides for just that,” he said. “We cannot fulfill our obligations to our citizens by turning away sources for funding those obligations require. We can build and repair roads, we can keep our public building structurally sound, and we can build Bennett Middle School.”
Pollitt also looked back at 2011 and the progress made starting with the changes made in the Planning and Zoning and Public Works departments. He explained that all aspects of development review have been moved and placed under the authority of the Planning and Zoning Department.
“This is a major step towards a one-stop shopping process that should not only dramatically reduce delays in approval process but clarify the requirements necessary for approval, eliminating much of the bureaucratic frustration that has been experienced in the past,” he said.
The Department of Finance has a new online program called Citizens Self Service, which is accessible through the county website and permits citizens to review real estate and personal property taxes and county utility bills online. Pollitt said that the new service is being used on average 70 times per day and expect that to increase as more people become aware of its availability.
The Information Technology Department has been working with the Salisbury Fire Department to implement mobile data terminals in 22 units of fire apparatus to interact with 911 dispatches.
“This will be a valuable tool in transmitting location data for those units, and better managing those resources in the event of an emergency,” Pollitt said.
County roads and solid waste completed a new round of critical dredging of the Wicomico River while establishing a strategic dredging plan for future operations, even with a reduced staff.
Through the Salisbury-Ocean City-Wicomico Airport’s new runway rehab and extension projects they have directly led to a new airline coming to the airport offering nonstop service between Salisbury and Orlando, Fla.
“Together with US Airways and Piedmont Airlines, the Delmarva Peninsula now has scheduled connections to over 200 destinations worldwide,” Pollitt said
Pollitt took the opportunity this week to announce some changes in the County Executive’s office as it’s currently conducting a search for a new Director of Administration.
Also, Public Information Officer Jim Fineran will be stepping down at the end of the month.
“Mr. Fineran was the architect of our glass house approach to government, offering unprecedented opportunities for the public to see what we do and how we do it,” Pollitt said. “Thanks to his efforts, our new form of government is off to a great start, earning the credibility we need to begin public confidence in how we serve.”
The new Public Information Officer with be Tamara Lee-Brooks, who worked with Congressman Frank Kratovil in his Salisbury District office.
According to Pollitt, Lee-Brooks will take Wicomico County’s community outreach to a new level, including keeping the county up to date through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. She will also begin a series of articles from various departments explaining “what we do and how we do it.”
“These spotlight articles will take some of the mystery out of county government and help show our citizens just what their getting for their taxes dollars and what more we can do with the right kind of support,” he said.
All-in-all Pollitt announced Wicomico County is strong and that is mostly due to the community’s support.
“We do have some serious decisions to make for our future, particularly how we fund the services that will teach our children, secure our homes and neighborhoods, and provide the roads, parks, libraries, public health programs, and business opportunities that we expect and demand,” he said. “While our challenges remain formidable, our future looks positive and progressive. Not necessarily because of my efforts or of others in government but because our community is beginning to rally around the flag of civic responsibility … Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their community, not if we succeed, but when we succeed it will be by the combined efforts of us all.”