Officials Spar Over County Spending

SNOW HILL – Disagreements over spending sprang up this week among the County Commissioners during their meeting Tuesday, as the full scope of the county’s fiscal problems began to be outlined in hard numbers.

The first potential expenditure to sustain some heat, a grant match for Rural Legacy conservation funding, drew fire despite the strong local support for the program.

For fiscal year 2009, Worcester County was awarded $500,000 in Rural Legacy funds for the Coastal Bays Rural Legacy Area and has been jointly awarded $1 million, with Somerset County, for the Dividing Creek Rural Legacy Area, which straddles county lines.

The county does not have to commit to a match amount, as matching dollars are not required under Rural Legacy grant rules. Maryland officials do use the availability of matching funds in the previous year as part of the award criteria.

Worcester County has already set aside $100,000 in the current budget as a match, Comprehensive Planning Director Sandy Coyman said.            Some of the match can be covered by in-kind contributions.

The fiscal year 2010 Rural Legacy situation is undetermined. The county has applied for funding without making any promises on matching dollars. Coyman said the application informed the state that no match amount could be proffered until the Worcester County budget is complete.

“Worcester County’s program has been designated as the top program in the state by the state Department of Natural Resources,” said Coyman.

“We’re at the top of everything with no money,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas.

The fiscal 2009 budget already contains $100,000 in Rural Legacy match funds, Coyman reiterated.

“I just have a real problem with this at this particular time,” said Gulyas.

“But we’re not obligated,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “Unless we sign a contract and get it going, we can’t move forward.”

The county can purchase conservation easements without adding matching funds, she said.

Gulyas voted against signing the grant award contracts. The county does not need conservation easements right now, she said.  

“I’m opposed. I’m sorry,” Gulyas said. “I’m having a real problem. I don’t want to encumber any money to go anywhere but where we absolutely need it.”

Scrapping over spending flared up again over authorization to request bids for renovations to the new Berlin Senior Center.

The building, off Old Ocean City Blvd. on the outskirts of Berlin, once housed Tyson poultry plant offices. The renovations deemed necessary to transform the single-story building into the new senior center include a kitchen, handicapped-accessible restrooms and new heating and cooling systems. The improvements are expected to cost $300,000.

Commissioner Bobby Cowger wondered if spending that money would be appropriate right now.

Money has already been set aside for the improvements, Administrator Gerry Mason said.

“We’ve got a tight budget…I’d like to see it on hold ‘til after the budget,” said Cowger.

The bids will not be received until the budget is near completion, said Public Works director John Tustin.

The improvements need to proceed to get the current Senior Center out of the downtown Berlin building, which it has outgrown. Plans call for that move to be made to the new building in November 2009, so work can begin on the transformation of the downtown building into a dental clinic for underprivileged children. The clinic must be complete by March 2010, under the terms of the grant funding the work.

Commissioner Bud Church suggested that the dental clinic could be installed at Worcester Technical High School (WTS), which is adding a dental technician program next year.

The county would have to start the grant process over, Mason warned.

If the bids for the Senior Center improvements are too high, Commissioner Virgil Shockley said the county would have to wait anyway.

The commissioners voted 4-3 to seek bids on the Senior Center improvements. Commissioners Cowger, Bud Church, and Jim Purnell dissented.

It’s worth pointing out history shows ‘nay’ votes by a commissioner, particularly those of the 4-3 variety, are rare.

“I think it’s suicide,” said Purnell after the vote. “You are setting a bad precedent with what you’ve done now.”

“There is no money,” Cowger said.

“There is no money but we haven’t spent it yet,” said Gulyas.

Boggs pointed out no money has been allocated to this project yet.

“I didn’t vote to spend money. I voted to find out what we’re talking about,” said Boggs.