SALISBURY — A rented property that would have housed the Wicomico County Elections Board was rejected by the County Council this week. Though supporters of the lease agreement argued that the property is ideal and the bid process was by the book, a majority of the council said that they were not comfortable moving forward in large part because of the costs and the safety concerns of Elections Board staff.
The property, located at 803 N. Salisbury Boulevard, is owned by E.S. Adkins LLC. The plan was to rent the property on a 10-year lease and use it to house the Elections Board, which has outgrown its current facility and also requires climate control to protect new voting devices and material. While the property contained the necessary space, it drew extended criticism for its location, especially from board employees.
“I am concerned for my safety. I’ve lived here,” said Deborah Hickman, administrative assistant to the board. “I know what goes on in Salisbury. I know what’s out in that area. I do not want to be beat up.”
Resident Dave Humphreys charged council members with taking a close look at the property and the neighborhood around it and suggested that they would find syringes and heroine bags littering the area. Katrina Purnell, another member of the Elections Board, asked that the council also take a hard look at the situation and remember that many board employees are elderly or otherwise vulnerable.
“All I want to see is for us to honestly look at this, do what is necessary, what is right and what it true,” she said. “So I will sing my same song from the last time: is it safe, is it adequate and is it secure?”
It is, according to the county.
“I care about people. I wouldn’t put someone where I would think they’d be unsafe. I’d be willing to work at that property no problem,” said Rick Konrad, Wicomico’s purchasing agent. “I’ve looked at the crime maps. The crime maps are very similar between where they’re at right now and where they’d be in this new facility.”
The building has significant lighting, visibility and is encircled by a large fence, added Councilman John Hall. Some of the property’s neighbors, such as a nearby United Way office, supplied testimony to never having security issues, with the United Way’s letter to the council saying it would “highly endorse” the property at 803 N. Salisbury Boulevard.
The proposed property also fit all of the other requirements having both sufficient space and climate control though there was some debate on whether the HVAC would be satisfactory for the delicate voting equipment. But if not, Elections Board Director Anthony Gutierrez told the council that could be easily rectified.
“With a few modifications, I believe this building should be able to meet our operational needs and the landlord has already indicated that he is willing to work with us to accommodate our needs,” he said.
The cost for the lease drew some ire. Resident Johnny Miller was upset that the county was only looking to rent a property instead of buying, a feeling shared by several speakers during Tuesday’s public hearing. At approximately $800,000 in rent over a decade with the option to renew for another decade at an increased rate, Miller felt that the county was tying up too much by renting.
“We’ve got a lot of money going into that building, tax payer’s money. And that’s my concern on behalf of the tax payer,” he said.
The county did consider buying property but during an open bid process could not find any offers as appealing as the one given by E.S. Adkins LLC to lease.
“We know from the bids that we received that we can’t because we got no bids that provided the citizens of this county with a lower occupancy cost for over the 10-year period,” said Wayne Strausburg, county director of administration.
A potentially better deal might be to simply remain at the board’s current location and expand the property, suggested Councilman Joe Holloway. He wondered why Strausburg didn’t investigate that option. But the current property owner had the same opportunity to enter into the bid process as everyone else, according to Strausburg.
The council ended split on the merits of the property with most against the lease agreement. Whether the location was statistically as safe as the Election Board’s current office, a large number of staff clearly are afraid to move and that could be an issue, said Councilman Bob Culver.
“I guess perception is 99-percent of every project,” he said, adding that he was also unsatisfied about the 10-year lease costs as the county seems to have, “Cadillac tastes on a Chevrolet budget.”
Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman made a similar statement about employee fears, arguing that sometimes “perception is reality.” But so much hesitation over hypotheticals frustrated Council President Matt Holloway.
“I hate when the what ifs get in the way of a good decision and I feel like that’s what has happened here on the council tonight,” he said.
Though not shy about their disappointment, Hall and Matt Holloway voted with their fellow councilmembers to unanimously reject the lease agreement and to look into other options.