Salisbury Council Debates Property Donation Merits

SALISBURY – The Mayor and City Council went out with a bang this week, confirming one last time before the new council takes over their differences during a discussion of three pieces of property being donated to Salisbury.

The resolution was to accept the donation of three parcels of land in Harbor Pointe currently owned by Empire Mortgage. It is not the intent of the city to own the parcels of land but to donate two of the parcels to Harbor Pointe Community Association and the other to Wicomico County. The parcel to be donated to Wicomico contains a storm water management pond.

Councilwoman Deborah Campbell asserted the reasoning behind Empire Mortgage transferring the property to the city rather than the home owners association is to gain a tax break in a charitable contribution. She was concerned over the liability of repairs and maintenance once the properties have been transferred. She suggested Empire Mortgage set up an escrow fund to be transferred along with the parcels of land in order to protect the city and its taxpayers.

“Under the contract I have, the maintenance work is to be complete…only at that point do the deeds go to the court house,” City Attorney Paul Wilber said.

Campbell said that her opinion has always been the transaction should be between Empire Mortgage and Harbor Pointe.

“It is upsetting to me to think a mortgage company had an obligation and they want the taxpayers of the city to absorb some of these expenses that should fairly be theirs,” she said. “Because they are using the city to use this transaction they are going to get the benefit of a charitable contribution that also costs the taxpayers and I think it is a shameful way of doing business.”

Mayor James Ireton interrupted Campbell to explain that city staff has worked on the situation for a few years now and feels comfortable in moving forward without putting the city at risk. He added that Empire Mortgage has not fulfilled their responsibility in maintaining the parcels and in order to improve the properties from being an eyesore this is the best thing.

“I believe we are helping the neighborhood association by getting control of what it needs to get control of,” Ireton said. “There are times that things need to get done and go places.”

Vice President Gary Comegys said that he has served on the council the entire time the resolution has been in progress.

“Ms. Campbell keeps saying the same thing over and over again,” he said. “The vote continues to be in favor of transferring these properties so that we can better serve the residents of Harbor Pointe.”

Comegys added that it’s a win for Harbor Pointe because the community will be in better hands and will be better maintained and the county wins because the a pond will be added to Pemberton Park.

Councilwoman Terry Cohen said to have another company come to the city looking for a tax break to avoid its lawful responsibility is not a good habit for the city.

“A tax incentive for our local small businesses is something that we don’t have because we are making deals with entities like Empire Mortgage,” Cohen said. “Despite the reservations I have over this whole arrangement, I will support moving it forward provided that the steps are taken for the protection of this city so we do not wind up in a situation where good intentions become a liability.”

Ireton took offense to Campbell’s and Cohen’s reservations on the resolution. He said he is concerned over being accused of being a “wheeler and dealer”.

“I won’t be sitting at this table in the next legislative session but I hope this administration and future administrations work with neighborhood associations, property owners, and whoever else it takes to rid the city of problem properties…that is what this is being done for,” Comegys said.

Campbell pressed the matter of amending the language of the resolution to become stricter on whose responsibility it would be to cover the costs of ongoing repairs while maintaining the property before the transfer to the city, and onto the homeowners association and the county.

“Every time someone takes a breath there is another set of circumstances that no one can meet…if that were the case then there would be no reason for anyone to come into this building and work each day,” Ireton said as he became even more frustrated with Campbell’s concerns. “There is a possibility a Martian can land in the middle of these things.”

Comegys added, “Maybe a meteor will strike instead of Martian. This dead horse is going to start stinking after while in this room because we have been discussing this for years. We need to close it and move on.”

Ireton placed a call to Public Works Director Teresa Gardner, who suggested the language “differencing site conditions” and that is if the person doing the work finds differencing conditions on the site that were not expected they would be held harmless to the city but she also added that she did not predict any unexpected conditions on the properties.

Campbell offered the motion to amend the resolution to add the suggested language and it was second by Comegys. The council voted unanimously to approve the amendment as well as the resolution.